I know. It’s long hours and stress. Every single blog says that.
Everybody hates late nights and stressful workplaces, but some people do stay and thrive in Big 4 under this environment. Long hours and stress cannot be the reason, at least the only reason.
Having thought about this for a while I conclude that there are personality traits that clash with what’s required for a long-term career in Big 4.
According to Wikipedia:
Type A personality is generally more competitive, outgoing, ambitious, impatient and/or aggressive are labeled Type A, while more relaxed personalities are labeled Type B.
This is quite obvious. An outgoing personality helps in a client-facing business, as well as a workplace that thrives in teamwork. At the same time, Big 4 is by itself competitive to get into, so naturally, the peers are more status-conscious and proactive in nature. Big 4 people tend to be more aggressive as well, because otherwise, they cannot justify the long hours and stress they have to ensure climbing up the corporate ladder. The fact that they love to multi-task, push themselves with deadlines and hate delays fit the requirements of the Big 4 perfectly.
If you have Type B personality, you are the opposite of what’s described above.
Type B people may be smarter than their colleagues, but since they are not competitive, they don’t seem to take initiatives. This would affect their performance review. Type B people tend to disregard stress when they can’t achieve — imagine that when facing a hard deadline from clients!
Big 4 (and public accounting in general) don’t have much room for creativity. It’s more for people who love black and white. Those who like to take the time to explore ideas won’t have time to do so, and even find the work extremely boring. Once the interest is lost, long hours and stress become the last straw.
Accounting majors with creative minds would be much happier working in academia. As professors, you will enjoy exploring the fundamentals of accounting concepts and be creative in developing the accounting profession.
Similar to creative people, these individuals may find the corporate culture suffocating. There are layers upon layers of supervisors above you. If assigned to a big team, you may work on tasks so specialized that you may never be able to see the big picture until reaching senior.
If this is you, you might be better off working in a smaller firm, where you can take part in the entire audit. The clients are smaller and work is less complex, but this also means that you can take on a higher responsibility earlier in your career.
Another career path you can take is to stay in Big 4 until reaching senior manager and then set up your own CPA firm. It takes time, but see that as a worthy investment for the ultimate dream job.
Surprised? First, let’s explore what exactly we mean by an extrovert vs introvert: it doesn’t simply mean outgoing vs shy.
Extroverts love to be in the limelight. They achieve that by being the first to raise their hands, the one to express an opinion, and the man to lead. They also have the urge to chat with everyone on anything.
This sounds somewhat like Type A personality. I do believe that there are quite a lot of them at the associate level, but they tend to drop out as they reach seniors and managers. Why is that?
Public accounting is a client-facing business. An outgoing personality helps, but we also need to be good listeners. A respected auditor observes and analyzes before making an opinion; a seasoned consultant listens and reflects on a client’s issues before offering a solution. These are classic traits of an introvert.
It doesn’t mean that extroverts are doomed and introverts zoom straight to the corner office. My point is that all-out extroverts survive Big 4 longer if they practice a bit of introversion in their daily lives.
It isn’t strictly a personality trait, but I notice that Ivy Leaguers don’t stay long in Big 4. Take a look at the partners’ list and you’ll find out.
Those who graduated from Harvard and the like have more doors opening for them. If they don’t mind the intensity, investment banks offer the same thing, with more money and glamour. Also, with a great brand name on the resume and more importantly a good network developed during the college days, they tend to have more opportunities that lure them away from tedious task a junior accountant is responsible for. Be it cool start-ups or a high-profile position in a family’s business, they don’t stay long.
The main takeaway is that we shouldn’t focus on long hours and stress as the primary reason of not taking the Big 4 route. If you want to reach for the star within big four, harsh environment will only make you stronger.
The reason people quit early is that they are disillusioned, or lose interest in the job. Creative people could get incredibly bored, all-out extroverts may get into trouble, entrepreneurs can’t stand the hierarchy, and ivy leaguers may have other interesting opportunities waiting for them.
Having said that, it’s totally fine that you plan only to stay in Big 4 for a few years. The firms expect a lot of exits anyway as there aren’t enough positions at the top. As long as you get the most out of it as much as you can, it can still be an invaluable experience and the network you’ve built will benefit you for the rest of your career.
For Your Further Reading
I am the author of How to Pass The CPA Exam (published by Wiley), and I also passed all 4 sections of the CPA Exam on my first try. Additionally, I have led webinars, such as for the Institute of Management Accountants, authored featured articles on websites like Going Concern and AccountingWeb, and I'm also the CFO for the charity New Sight. Finally, I have created other accounting certification websites to help mentor non-CPA candidates. I have already mentored thousands of CPA, CMA, CIA, EA, and CFA candidates, and I can help you too!