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When Is The Right Time to Leave Public Accounting?


As a veteran of a Big Four firm, I can tell you with certainty one of the most hotly debated topics among staff, seniors, and managers in audit and tax is the topic of when to leave to maximize ones career potential.  

A career in public accounting is a great foundation for a career in business; the time I spent at Ernst & Young was not only instrumental in helping lay the groundwork for a career in financial search, but also for empowering me to understand our industry and grow our practice as part of our leadership team.

That being said, most accountants beginning their career in public accounting eventually realize their heart isn’t in making partner. The question is:

How to go about doing this and when (if ever) is the right time to leave?  

Our firm has worked with many individuals considering a departure from public accounting through the years and we've been asked this question many times.

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The right answer will be unique to each professional, based upon a variety of factors. There is no tried-and-true recipe ensuring a lucrative path to CFO of a public company or template to replicate resulting in a mid-level financial leadership role with great work-life balance. Understanding the variables and inputs combined with some introspection and self-assessment goes a long way:

Do you want to make partner?

This one is pretty simple – if there’s a chance becoming a partner at a firm is something compelling or appealing, staying put is likely the best option. 

Do you want to be a financial executive?  

Recognizing the desire to become a financial leader at a company outside of public accounting is an important first step. What can be more complex is understanding what entry point will optimize the chances of achieving this goal. I’ve seen many instances where a departure as a Senior Auditor to a desirable industry and company has led to promotions within that company to leadership roles. We’ve also seen a few instances where companies seek to fill a financial executive role by pulling a Senior Manager or Partner directly out of an industry specialty practice at a public accounting firm. On a national basis, and likely in larger top 20 cities, the latter happens commonly; however, in Western New York, the recurring client demands at an executive financial level seem to universally require a blend of public accounting underpinning in addition to specific industry financial leadership experience.  

What are your priorities? 

Part of determining whether or not public accounting partnership or financial executive opportunities are appealing will require an understanding of the lifestyle, responsibility, and requirements of those roles.  Most public accounting firms don’t have a '9-5' environment, and none of the financial executives we know work that type of schedule. Yet there are many well-paying opportunities with companies in internal audit, corporate accounting, financial reporting, corporate tax, financial planning and analysis, and operations finance that offer a high degree of schedule predictability with good work-life balance and flexibility, while still providing for career growth to management and director level opportunities.  

What industries are in your market? 

As a CPA progresses within a public accounting firm, they become increasingly specialized, and so it’s important to be cognizant of whether or not and to what extent their specialty exists in the geography / marketplace.  In Western New York, our market is driven by Advanced Manufacturing, Healthcare, Banking, and Government.  As a result, developing a specialty expertise in Retail or Mining Industries for example could likely yield a strong skill set misaligned with the opportunities in our market. Similarly, developing a six year career to manager focused on Banking & Financial Institution clients, while at the same time having a passion for manufacturing would likely yield a professional highly qualified for good jobs they’re not interested in pursuing.  

What will your market support? Are you willing to relocate? 

Six figures tends to be the magic demarcation point in Buffalo and Western New York.  We see very few financial management, director, and executive jobs filled in our market paying north of six figures willing to accept a candidate with experience only in public accounting. Does it happen? Yes, but it’s the exception not the norm. Most people I’ve worked with are apprehensive about leaving their employer for a lateral salary move; often times the prospect of a reduction in pay (even if for a long term step forward in career) is a deal breaker. Openness to relocation is the big wild card, but for the most part, financial professionals in public accounting should be mindful of what their marketplace will support in terms of quantity and breadth of opportunities by level, what those opportunities pay on average, and the skills employers are looking for.

Given the above (and assuming one’s long-term career aspiration doesn’t involve firm partnership), what is the right time to leave public?

The answer will be different for each individual and will vary by marketplace. In Western New York, we see the most variety (industry, company, department, function) of roles between $55k and $90k in base pay. Especially for public accounting professionals unsure exactly of what path they want to pursue except to know it likely isn’t in public anymore, leaving as an experienced staff or senior will yield the most options.  For those seeking more specialization, perhaps becoming a manager is warranted.  Regardless, a honest self assessment and education on the above criteria will go a long way toward helping create a career vision, building a strategy, and making it happen.

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