What Does It Take to Be a Partner?

Dedication and teamwork were common themes when speaking with four partners at the Big 4 accounting firms in Philadelphia regarding what it takes to become a partner. While they are all leaders at Big 4 firms, the attributes they discussed hold value for would-be partners at firms of all sizes.

by Alyse F. Driscoll, CPA Dec 2, 2020, 11:16 AM

Pennsylvania CPA Journal

Four Partners Share Their Vision for Success

  • Chris Bruner, managing partner of the Philadelphia office for EY, has enjoyed a great career with the firm. He has served as a partner in several offices, and in 2008 earned his current title. 
  • Deanna Byrne joined PwC in 1992. She began at Coopers & Lybrand, and built her career in the assurance/audit group. A partner with the firm since 2003, Byrne recently became managing partner of the Philadelphia office.
  • David Greed, partner in charge of the audit group for the Pennsylvania Business Unit at KPMG LLP, became a partner in 2003. He has worked in various roles as a partner, but is primarily focused on technology companies.
  • Rob McNeill is managing partner of the Greater Philadelphia practice at Deloitte. He has served clients in Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware.

These partners work with clients in their current roles, but also spend a large amount of their time developing internal practices to further their organization’s most valuable assets: their people.

Dedication and teamwork were common themes when speaking with four partners at the Big 4 accounting firms in Philadelphia regarding what it takes to become a partner. While they are all leaders at Big 4 firms, the attributes they discussed hold value for would-be partners at firms of all sizes. A person’s dedication to not only their teams and the work they do, but also to the firm where they have worked for most of their career, plays a vital role in becoming a partner.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Chris Bruner, Deanna Byrne, David Greed, and Rob McNeill. These four partners share what it takes to become a partner in today’s accounting environment.
When asked about how their prior work history helped prepare them to be partner, they discussed a structured career path with increasing responsibilities as well as challenging and complex client experiences. PwC’s Byrne says, “I came up through the assurance practice, and the roles in that practice are structured: you start as an intern, then associate, manager, senior manager, and partner. In each of those roles you acquire skills and new responsibilities to demonstrate you are capable for admission into the partnership. I look at it almost as building blocks. With each role comes some additional complexity as well as increasing visibility to clients and client leadership. And each of those experiences is building your skill set. For me, personally, I was fortunate. I worked with a partner I could emulate, someone that I looked up to that was teaching me how to be prepared.” 

Greed of KPMG says, “KPMG focuses on four pillars: technical skills/audit quality, people skills, go-to-market (bringing in business), and business acumen. As you come up the ranks, you build these skills. By the time you get to 10 years, you have determined if you want to be a partner, and by then you know if you have the technical skills and the people skills to work both internally and with clients.” 

According to EY’s Bruner, “When you make partner at EY, you really are ready. I find that it is harder to go from a staff to a senior level than from a senior manager to a partner, because you really know what you are getting into at that point.” 

Deloitte’s McNeill adds, “My first year on a particular client, a situation came up and they asked for volunteers. I raised my hand. I think from that point forward I developed experience and a reputation for handling potentially challenging matters and being able to successfully execute these projects. I think that is a large part of what prepared me to be a partner. There was also the opportunity to focus in different industries; we call them majors and minors. If you spend a lot of time in a particular industry you would call that a major, similar to higher education. A minor might be dabbling in certain industries. Also, I have always been attracted to team environments, and being comfortable in a team whether playing a supporting role or matriculating into a leadership position over time.” 

When looking at the next generation of personnel, there are certain character traits that demonstrate a person’s potential to be a leader. While technical ability is still the most important, today there is a strong focus on soft skills. A person’s integrity, ability to work on a team, and good communication skills are as important as having technical acuity and industry focus. Each of the partners interviewed discussed certain character traits that help them identify the next generation of leaders.

Bruner explains, “Engagement is the biggest thing – when people are engaged and in the moment, they are present. We are in client service; that is what we do. We may be in the audit, tax, advisory, or transaction business, but we are really in the relationship business. Our people understand the value of relationships and networks. This starts with our first-year people who must build their network, maybe not externally but internally. Who is their support group? Who do they go to with questions? They have to have that network.”

Byrne adds, “We evaluate five skill sets as being critical to demonstrating the ability to become a partner, which we call PwC Professional: whole leadership, relationships, business acumen, technical capabilities, and global acumen. When I think about our future leaders, I also would emphasize living by our core values: act with integrity, care, make a difference, teamwork, and reimagine the possible. The combination of business capabilities with our values is critical. If someone has both, he or she will be tremendously successful both at PwC and in the community.” 

Greed says, “In this profession, integrity is important. Good communication skills are also a key trait. Our people work on multiple clients and with different groups of people, and you can learn from those different groups. Finally, you need to be technical, but you also need to work on softer skills.”

McNeill also embraces the importance of teamwork: “It starts with understanding the technical side of the business, which continues to get more and more complex. I think it goes beyond understanding what the rules say, and into thinking critically. You must be able to think about different points of view on any position you have. I think the strongest teams are the ones that have individuals who can handle multiple aspects.”

These partners are looking at similar deliverables among the candidates who may become partners at their firms. Quality is the end product of what these firms provide their clients, so they strive to look for that in prospective partners. According to Byrne, “Candidates must be able to consistently demonstrate the PwC experience, which means always delivering a high-quality product and unwavering commitment to client service. Relationships become important at that point in your career, too; being able to develop, build, and sustain relationships both internally with clients and with prospects. You have to demonstrate an ability to grow the business.” 

Greed says, “You need to have technical skills at the highest level along with the go-to-market skills so you can bring in business, because that is what we need to do. On the people side, you also need to know how to take care of our people and how to run a business.”

McNeill says, “It starts and ends with quality; you must have a high degree of accuracy, and your work has to be at the highest level in terms of quality. Also, you must be able to demonstrate that you can serve clients as a trusted adviser. Our clients are looking for industry-specific advice, so having that experience and being able to talk that language is critical, along with being able to clearly communicate a position and the ramifications of decisions that are made. Those things round out what a successful CPA needs to become a candidate for partner.” Bruner adds, “We operate as a three-legged stool: people, quality, and growth. You might not contribute to each one every day, but over a course of a week, you need to do something in each of those pillars. When you really understand those pillars, everything you do should be contributing to one of those.” 

People are a firm’s greatest assets. So, developing people skills is always an important part of a public accounting firm’s culture. Firms are dedicated to training, and provide both formal and informal training opportunities for staff. People skills can be strengthened from activities within a firm or by getting involved with other organizations. The partners at these accounting firms describe unique development opportunities aimed at growing people skills. Greed says, “KPMG spends a lot of time on people development. In some cases, we have hired coaches to develop teams. Ultimately, it will yield a better product.”

Byrne adds, “PwC has great learning and development tools, so each individual can have tailored training. Aside from the more formal training, I would say be open to feedback. PwC is focused on two-way coaching and real-time feedback. If you want to further develop your people skills, be open to feedback from your people. We also encourage people to get involved in outside activities that can further their development and coaching.”

Within each of these firms there are opportunities to prepare for partnership. For one, the partners point to mentoring programs that guide professionals through their careers. PwC has two mentors for a new associate: one who is a few years more senior, and one who is a partner. According to Bruner, at EY “sponsorship and mentorship are the two areas we concentrate on for people development. Our culture has shifted because it is so expensive to hire people with experience; you are not just hiring somebody, you also need to get them up to speed. The costs are enormous. We have focused on mentoring, and I think we have done a good job at it.”

KPMG and Deloitte have targeted training as an employee comes up through the ranks. McNeill says, “The mentor relationship is significant. I think a mentor is someone who people reach out to because they want to, not because they have to. Another significant avenue for younger professionals is community service. Young people can learn a lot when involved in their community. Lastly, don’t be afraid to take a challenge. A challenge might force you to think in a different way or exercise some skills you need to develop. Those opportunities can pay off and develop your people skills over time.”

In the challenging accounting profession, there are rewards for the hard work and long hours that go beyond compensation. The immediate feedback and assistance you provide to both clients and those you work with day in and day out can be a source of pride and gratification. When asked what the three top rewards are for progressing to the level of partner, the answers involve both internal and external fulfillment. McNeill says, “I find it highly rewarding being the partner on a team, and continue to learn because of that involvement. I also get to promote the next generation of partners. It is gratifying to be involved in a professional’s development over time, and to see him or her achieve goals, including being admitted to the partnership. It is highly rewarding to have an impact on someone’s career like that; it is the type of payback that stays with you the rest of your life.” Bruner says, “Compensation is in the top three. Another reward is flexibility; every year you work at the firm you can increase your flexibility with your schedule. Finally, the team aspect of our job is great because we get to work with some smart people.” Greed notes, “Helping your clients succeed while developing relationships with people and becoming a valued resource to the client is first. Compensation is a pretty good reason to be at the partner level, too. Finally, I have met so many interesting people in my role. You develop great relationships at the firm and through your firm connections.” At the top of Byrne’s list is “having the opportunity to interact and work with talented business professionals and community leaders on a regular basis. Seeing someone walk in the door as a college graduate and watching them grow and develop into an outstanding business professional is extremely rewarding when you have had an opportunity to coach and mentor them, especially if you watch them get admitted into the partnership. Another opportunity for personal development and enrichment would include travel and financial rewards.” 

These four partners are representative of the Big 4 firms, and they have dedicated their professional careers not only to the service of their clients but also to the development and growth of their firm’s personnel. All work with a high level of integrity and promote core values and dedication throughout a professional’s career. Throughout my discussion with these partners, it was clear that although the road to partnership is long, it is not without its rewards, and there are tools to help guide potential partners through their career progression.

Alyse F. Driscoll, CPA, is director of operations for Attolon Partners LLC in Philadelphia. She can be reached at adriscoll@attolon.com.