Let’s be honest now: if you work in Big 4, you’re not in it for the money. Salaries are low compared to corporate, consulting or investment banking jobs, and bonuses can be a joke. Regardless, you still work long hours on weekdays, and often end up ruining your weekends and holidays, too.
The Big 4s employ over 1.1 million people (2020 figures). From the inside, working for a Big 4 firm can, frankly, be a nightmare. From the point of view of the outsider, however, the job is seen as being prestigious, and consultants are (generally) well-regarded and respected: if you look at the 2021 ranking of the most powerful commercial services brands, Deloitte takes the number 1 spot, followed by PwC in 5th place, EY in 6th place and KPMG in 9th place. The only other professional services company among the top 10 is Accenture.
The Big 4 stamp on a CV carries a certain weight, like a certification, or some sort of sign that reads: “this person has voluntarily chosen to spend his/her 20s (and maybe their 30s, too) in a neon-lit, overcrowded and noisy staff room, working double shifts for half the money, alongside several undiagnosed BPDs”. At one point, the sane ones move on (most often than not, out of despair) to lead a happier, healthier and more balanced lifestyle, typically by passing on to the "other side" (i.e. joining the client).
So why is it that so many people choose to work in Big 4 firms?
More Humane Working Hours Compared to Investment Banks and Consulting Firms
The Big 4s allow you to have a better work-life balance than investment banks and the big 3 consultancies. A former Deloitte/EY consultant used to tell us about the "golden handcuffs" he got the day he joined Morgan Stanley in London. Renting an apartment was a complete waste of money, given the little time he spent there. After all, there are showers at the office, too...
It all comes down to the following linear equation: the greater the prestige, the greater the misery. You just have to decide where exactly you want to fall on the line. If you want to work in an international environment where you can learn a lot and grow fast, without entirely sacrificing your life and health for a few extra bucks (especially right out of university), the Big 4s are a good place to start.
Fast Career Progression
If you're any good, you will be spread wafer-thin across multiple projects. You jump from one project to the next, from client to client. You often juggle several projects at a time. You need to learn fast and execute faster. Projects are rarely the same, and even the recurring ones are different every time. You need to manage the client, manage above, manage below, construct financial models, write reports, go through multiple and endless internal reviews, and maintain your focus to avoid big and small distraction errors and f*ck ups.
If you don't want to work late every night, you will need to learn which is the most efficient way to execute your tasks. This means learning shortcuts, creating templates, leveraging contacts inside and outside the organization to obtain useful third-party information and helpful add-ins. Resourcefulness reflects itself in higher quality deliverables and is a sure way to impress the partners (who tend to struggle even to save a word document in pdf format).
It is common to spend a period of 2 years in each grade, but if you are a superstar consultant (or are related to a very important client) you may even get promoted every year.
The Staff Room (pre-Covid)
They say misery loves company. But misery also brings and binds people together and, if you're lucky enough, you will make some of the best friendships of your life in the staff room. Working over 12 hours a day means the office will become your home, and your teammates your family (and who doesn't have a few nut jobs in theirs?). Many also find love in that hopeless place!
The Benefits of an International Network
You may get to participate in projects involving member firms from different countries. More importantly, depending on whether your partner is a cheap bastard or not, you may get the chance to attend trainings abroad. These are among the main reasons to work for a Big 4: you spend 3 days in a foreign city, far away from your team and clients, and meet people from other member firms with whom to party at night and be terribly hungover in the morning. It's like going back in time when you attended a Model United Nations conference with other students from tens of different countries. All expenses paid, naturally.
If you aspire to a steady career progression, there is no amount of ass-kissing that comes close to positive client feedback. Most importantly, if the client likes you and the feeling is mutual, you have got yourself an exit strategy.
Since the start of their careers, the best consultants are able to form strong bonds with their clients, sometimes even friendships. And this is what advisory is truly about. Establishing and building rapport is more important than producing a flawless report: if your client doesn't like or trust you, you won't work for them again, no matter how good your deliverables were. A happy client will come back to you whenever the chance arises, and will ask for your advice on anything, even if it falls outside your specific area of competence.
The true joy to be derived from a consultant's job isn’t the final number printed in an executive summary, but rather the personal relationships established and built along the way. Unless you are a sociopath who gets off solving aseptic, theoretical problems (not to worry, the Big 4s have a place for you, too).
Take it from us: you might not remember the numbers you put on your slides, but you will never forget the words of gratitude received from your clients, even after many years.
When it's Time to Leave
A Big 4 is a launching pad: unless it's your life's dream to become partner, aim to stay for a period of 5 years or until you've reached Manager level, so you can market yourself better. You want to avoid getting "stuck" at a later stage: Big 4 offices are infested with depressed directors who will never make partner, but still decide to stay on, year after year. You must do everything in your power to avoid becoming one of them: gain experience, attend trainings, work hard, learn fast, get promoted, take everything you can get from the experience, and then get out. Here are the top reasons for leaving:
When you receive an offer from your favorite client
This is clearly the preferred exit strategy for consultants. Having already worked for a company, you know the good and the bad. The pay will undoubtedly be better, plus you will have the upper hand in the salary negotiations: the client will approach you (not the other way around), after paying big bucks for your hourly advisory services: by having you on board, they can expect to save a lot of fees in the future.
When you want to (or need to) relocate
The Big 4s have an extensive international network, with offices in over 150 countries. It can be relatively simple and quick to move between international member firms: you may check for opportunities on the dedicated mobility portal, or you can create opportunities while attending trainings or participating in inter-firm projects. In any case, just know that you will need to complete the usual rounds of interviews (annoyingly, as if you were an outsider).
At times, it may be easier and financially more advantageous to relocate by joining another Big 4 firm (in the end, you're just changing colors...). Once you find yourself where you wanted or needed to be, you can concentrate your efforts on the search for a better paid job.
When enough is enough
It would be best to avoid reaching this point, but sometimes it may be simply unavoidable:
when your director advises you to put off having children, because you can aspire to become partner;
when your senior manager's girlfriend is assigned to the best clients and gets promoted instead of you;
when your partner does not justify promoting someone else over you, even if your rating and feedbacks were better than theirs;
when you see pregnant employees being discriminated, or even fired.
All of the above accounts, unfortunately, are not limited to the Big 4s. However, one can fully appreciate the irony after completing hours of mandatory online trainings on ethics, equality and diversity.
Even if it doesn't come to such extreme cases, you may still reach the point of burnout after years of being stretched to the limit. The truth is that you are simply not allowed to say no. Even if you are already juggling several projects and there are other team members who are not as busy as you, the moment you turn down your boss(es), it's over for you.
You can't choose your family, but you can (and should) choose your bosses. Always remember that your mental health and wellbeing are non-negotiable (regardless of how many yoga classes are pushed on you by your firm).
Thanks for reading, and good luck!