When Should You Leave a Big 4 Accounting Firm? – An Auditor’s Dilemma Blog PART 2

Leaving a Big 4 Accounting Firm
You’ve just survived another busy season and are staring listlessly out the window. Empty fast food containers litter your desk and you swear that you forgot to feed your cat when you left the house this morning – again. Maybe it’s time to change directions you think.  Maybe it’s time to leave your big 4 accounting firm?

Jim Barbour, current Managing Director of Crowe Horwath Global Risk Consulting, offers some timely advice for those auditors considering leaving for other opportunities.

Big vs Small
One of the questions we might ask ourselves if we’re thinking of transitioning out is: What are the differences between working for a small/midsized firm and one of the Big 4? Do we have any misconceptions?  As someone who has worked in both small and large risk consulting/audit firms, Jim’s views are grounded in a lifetime of experience.

You’ve had experience in Big 4 as well as your current role at Crowe. Contrast them for me.
The Big 4 experience was very structured (though those that are most successful do develop their own unique “brand” and client value in order to continue to advance in the business) and there is a lot “shelter” in terms of solution and practice support.  The Risk Practice at Crowe, while it’s also structured as part of a global top 10 accounting and consulting firm, values a bit more of an entrepreneurial approach to the marketplace.

What preconceived notions did you have about moving from a Big 4 to a mid- sized company?  How were your assumptions validated? How were they disproved?
Mid-sized firms are often thought to specialize in “smaller” businesses and organizations. This is not necessarily true, however, in two specific ways: Firstly, there are many large, privately held businesses that have complex needs.  Secondly, publically accountable organizations are starting to be open to more than just the Big 4 as preferred solution providers.

What are the key differences in audit methodology now that you are in a smaller firm?
Audit methodologies may vary, but in a PCAOB annually inspected firm, such as Crowe (and CPAB in Canada), audit quality is foremost in that practice area. For consulting outside of audit, commitment to high quality methodologies that achieve their goals and are accepted by such regulators as found in the banking and FRFI world are important.

How has the work been different for you at a midsized firm or a growth firm like Crowe?
We’re doing less repetitive work. Our team has more experience, so people use us for tough stuff. A midsized firms offers more exposure to the overall project both vertically and horizontally.

As well, we hire a more senior group of people who are open to managing an ambiguous role – today I may need to act like a manager, tomorrow I may have to act like a senior consultant.

How have you changed your hiring profile now that you work in a smaller consulting firm?
Not at all really.  We are looking for the most eager, smart and committed people (committed to client, committed to team, committed to self-improvement) to join our team in Canada.

Reasons to Stay
Jim is also very clear that there can be good reasons to stay with a Big 4 firm, although he acknowledges that neither his reasons to stay, or to go, are specific to Big 4 organizations.  He lists such things as truly enjoying the work and your team.  He likes the idea of staying when your value is recognized and when a path to advancement is clear. Longer tenure, according to Jim, can provide more experience and the opportunity to move into different practices and/or different locations (if desired).

Reasons to Go

The Outside World
To Jim, the outside world sees people who have worked for a Big 4 firm as having some very positive skills including being “tested in terms of technical skills and the ability to work hard.” If someone is older, he/she can be viewed as a subject expert.  He also says, however, that there can be a flip side to this, with younger workers being seen as having “tunnel vision” and “text book smarts.”  Overall though there are some very good reasons to gain Big 4 experience, “Big firm experience provides the building blocks to disciplined work. Some practices provide very specific technical experience, rather than interpersonal/leadership, (i.e tax, audit) while others (advisory, consulting) provide opportunities to learn about organizations and develop relationships.”

According to Jim Barbour it’s really about the firm that you work for, rather than whether it is a ‘Big 4’ or not.  If the firm supports your professional development goals and you feel valued, then consider staying. He talks about the importance of attitude over inherent intelligence and we found his views on when it’s time to transition out particularly thoughtful and an obvious product of experience.

Profile
Jim Barbour is the Managing Director at Crowe Horwath Global Risk Consulting and has worked in both small and large risk consulting/audit firms.

He’s the president of the Toronto chapter of the Institute of Internal Auditors and was the Senior Manager at Deloitte, where he built a successful network within global Enterprise Risk Services to serve Canadian and international clients.

He lives the core values of Crowe Horwath Global Risk Consulting (care, share, invest and grow) through his charitable work with Haiti Mission.

Your Next Step
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