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Career

Why Ex-Big 4 CPAs With Industry Experience are Thriving as Consultants

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We've said it before and we'll say it again – there's no better learning ground for CPAs than the Big 4. Bar none. But then again, nothing prepares you for the rigors of corporate leadership and strategy like a plumb role in industry. So what happens when you combine these two into a single career path? You end up with consulting magic. Advisory wizardry. The good stuff.

In fact, we think so much of the Big 4/Industry career chimera, we're taking a deep dive into such rarified air today, exploring exactly what makes the combination absolute rocket fuel for those moseying over to the advisory side of the fence.

The bottom line – whether financial accounting, management, data and analytics, or a laundry list of other advisory services, nothing prepares you to be a consultant extraordinaire like a background in public accounting and industry. And for those with both already sitting on the resume, advisory greatness awaits.

Big 4, Industry, and Consulting: Covering All the Bases

Before jumping head-first into the pool, let's level set a bit to ensure we're on the same page.

The Big 4 Background

Something you're already well aware of – when we say "Big 4," we're talking about the four largest international professional services networks and public accounting firms in the world: Deloitte, Ernst & Young (EY), KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). They're the biggest names in the accounting world. The big dogs. The top of the food chain.

Working at a Big 4 firm is a bit like training to become a professional athlete. The standards are sky-high and the competition fierce, not to mention the Big 4's unrelenting, heavily caffeinated workload. But the payoff is prestige, a world-class education in accounting and business, and a springboard for a stellar career.

The Industry Experience Ingredient

That leads us to "industry." In this context, we're focusing on a variety of non-consulting roles within specific industries. This could be a CPA who's worked in-house at a tech startup, a multinational corporation, a non-profit, or countless other possible roles – they all fall under the "industry" moniker.

Industry experience provides an understanding of everyday operations and challenges from the inside out, and knowing the nuts and bolts. The nitty-gritty. It's one thing to advise from an outsider's perspective, but blending in an insider's view? That's where the magic happens. From a career perspective, industry experience is like adding secret spices to a recipe – it brings unique flavors and perspectives that can't come from anywhere else.

Consulting: The Next Step in the Career Progression Pathway

From the high-pressure, high-standards world of the Big 4 to the boots-on-the-ground practicality of industry roles, let's now take a look at the dynamic landscape of consulting, a unique and fulfilling destination for this career journey if there ever was one.

There's an overarching reason why this particular career progression – Big 4 to industry to advisory – is becoming increasingly common and, more importantly, proving to be such a winning combination in the advisory ranks. Consulting services are no longer a nice-to-have. They're now must-haves in this rapidly changing business environment, providing the external expertise companies need to navigate complex challenges and capitalize on opportunities.

ESG. Business transformation. New, complex technical accounting standards. The list of potential opportunities and hurdles facing businesses these days grows by the day. As such, it's virtually impossible for a single organization to accrue the level of experience and expertise needed to truly flourish in every item on that ever-growing list. And even if it were possible to gather that amount of varied talent within a company, the costs would put a mighty dent in the P&L. And that's an understatement.

And here's where ex-Big 4 CPAs with industry experience step into the spotlight. They bring a unique value proposition – a blend of rigorous Big 4 training, practical industry insights, and a rich network of connections. It's a trifecta that's in high demand, helping these professionals thrive in their consulting roles.

Acquiring Skills at the Big 4

Now that we've looked at this powerful career progression from a high level, let's hit the brakes a bit and examine each individually, starting at the Big 4.

The Big 4 accounting firms are not just workplaces. They're pressure cookers that mold raw talent into polished professionals. They're universities of the business world, where the syllabus is as vast as it's practical, grooming employees into coveted, multi-faceted professionals.

Collection of Diverse Skills

Imagine the Big 4 as a kind of professional boot camp, one that equips CPAs with a diverse array of skills. From technical skills like auditing and advanced taxation to business skills such as project management and planning, the Big 4 experience is like a multi-course banquet of skill acquisition.

Working in a Big 4 firm is more than mastering the ins and outs of accounting, although that's certainly a massive part of it. Rather, it's about learning to operate in a high-pressure, high-stakes environment where you must manage multiple projects, juggle deadlines, and make sense of complex financial data under tight timeframes. In essence, it's a crash course in becoming a versatile business professional.

Obviously, such an array of skills comes in handy in advisory services. Because, at its heart, consulting is about solving complex problems, and the diverse skill set acquired at a Big 4 firm is perfect for this. The analytical ability to quickly understand and dissect complex financial information is critical when advising companies on their business strategies. As are project management skills when leading consulting engagements.

Exposure to Different Industries, Clients, and People

Furthermore, at a Big 4 firm, you're not just stuck in a cubicle crunching numbers. You're out in the field, working with clients across a range of industries. One week, you might be delving into the financials of a tech company, and the next, navigating the regulatory maze of a healthcare giant.

This exposure is a bit like traveling the world – you get a taste of different cultures, customs, and challenges. It broadens your view, making you more adaptable and versatile. In the consulting world, this ability to understand and adapt to different industry contexts is invaluable. And when a particular engagement isn’t exactly the cat’s meow for someone, there’s always another one right around the corner.

Similarly, you're not just dealing with spreadsheets in the Big 4 but with people – clients, colleagues, regulators. This environment helps develop robust interpersonal and communication skills that, in consulting, are just as important as technical expertise. Whether it's presenting to a client, facilitating a workshop, or negotiating a deal, strong communication and people skills are essential.

Emphasis on Continuous Learning and Development

Finally, the learning curve is steep in the Big 4. And it never really flattens out. Thus, continuous learning and development are part of the DNA of these firms. As such, they provide plenty of opportunities for professional development, be it through formal training programs, on-the-job learning, or mentorship opportunities.

This emphasis on continuous learning is a boon in the consulting world, where staying ahead of industry trends and developing new approaches to problem-solving is key to success. Ultimately, the Big 4 experience is a potent brew of diverse skills, continuous learning, and broad exposure that aligns remarkably well with the demands of the consulting world. Granted, the Big 4 isn't for everyone. Still, there's no denying what it can lend to a public accounting CPA's career path.

The Benefits of Industry Experience

Moving from the Big 4 to an industry role is akin to stepping out of the theory class and into the lab. It's where the rubber meets the road – where you get to apply the knowledge and skills you've acquired in a practical, real-world context. So, on that note, let's explore the myriad benefits of industry experience and how it further enhances the value proposition of ex-Big 4 CPAs in the consulting world.

Expansion of Practical Knowledge

While the Big 4 equips you with a slew of valuable skills, an industry role offers the opportunity to put these skills into action. It's one thing to advise on tax strategy but quite another to be responsible for implementing and monitoring it. Likewise, auditing a company's accounts can feel like the minor leagues compared to actually preparing those accounts and making decisions based on them.

In short, an industry role is more than just observing or advising. It's doing. And since you naturally learn by doing, your knowledge becomes more grounded and skills more refined in industry. 

Enhancement of "Soft" Skills and Perspective

Industry roles often come with a higher degree of responsibility and autonomy. You might find yourself leading a team, negotiating with suppliers, or presenting to the board. These experiences sharpen your leadership, negotiation, and management skills.

You also get the chance to work closely with various stakeholders – from marketing and HR to IT and operations. This cross-functional interaction enhances your ability to communicate with, understand, and influence different parts of the organization. Along the way, an industry role can give you a broader perspective, providing insights into the countless factors affecting the business – from market dynamics and competitive pressures to regulatory changes and internal politics.

Of course, such a holistic view is invaluable in a consulting role. It allows you to appreciate the complexity of your clients' challenges and provide advice that's practical, nuanced, and aligned with their business realities. There's just no substitute for an insider's view of how businesses operate, where you see first-hand the impact of strategic decisions, the challenges of execution, and the interplay between different functions.

This "insider" knowledge is a powerful asset in consulting. It helps you empathize with your clients, understand their constraints, and deliver solutions that are not just theoretically sound but also operationally feasible.

Work-Life Balance

Last but definitely not least, industry roles often offer a more balanced work-life integration compared to the Big 4. While the workload can still be intense, the peaks and valleys tend to be less extreme. This balance can contribute to a healthier lifestyle, lower stress levels, and, ultimately, a more sustainable career. Put another way, simply hearing the term "busy season" shouldn't make you want to run and hide in the 3rd-floor bathroom like it might on the public accounting side.

In the end, industry experience complements and enhances the Big 4 skill set. It deepens practical knowledge, hones soft skills, widens perspectives, and offers an insider's view of business operations, all while providing a more balanced work-life integration. It's the secret ingredient that makes ex-Big 4 CPAs with industry experience a compelling proposition in the consulting world.

Transitioning to Consulting

That, of course, leaves us with consulting, the payoff for acquiring a wealth of knowledge and skills from Big 4 and industry roles, at least in the career trajectory we're discussing today. This transition to advisory services offers exciting opportunities and challenges, allowing professionals to leverage their unique skill sets in a dynamic, rewarding context and in a number of ways.

The Lure of Consulting

Consulting offers a unique blend of intellectual stimulation, variety, and impact. It provides the opportunity to work on diverse projects, solve complex problems, and make a tangible difference to businesses and their stakeholders.

For many, the appeal also lies in the learning opportunities. As a consultant, you're constantly exposed to new industries, business models, and challenges. It's a role that keeps you on your toes, pushing you to grow and evolve continuously.

Transfer of Skills and Knowledge

The transition to consulting is a natural next step for ex-Big 4 CPAs with industry experience. These folks bring a potent combination of technical expertise, practical knowledge, and soft skills to the consulting arena.

The technical skills honed at the Big 4 – be it in auditing, taxation, or whatever else – provide a solid foundation for consulting. From there, the practical knowledge gained in industry roles enhances their understanding of business realities and operational constraints. And the soft skills – leadership, negotiation, communication – are critical to managing consulting engagements and driving client relationships.

Independence and Objectivity

As consultants, ex-Big 4 CPAs can offer a degree of objectivity that's not always possible in an internal role. They can take a step back, look at the big picture, and provide unbiased advice.

Their diverse experience across different firms, industries, and roles also allows them to bring fresh perspectives and innovative solutions to the table. They're not just repeating what's been done before. Instead, they're leveraging their wide-ranging experience to devise tailored, effective strategies for their clients.

Entrepreneurial Aspect of Consulting

Consulting has an undeniable entrepreneurial allure. Even as part of a larger firm, you're trying to win new clients, deliver innovative projects, and manage relationships. It's a role that demands initiative, resourcefulness, and business acumen.

The satisfaction derived from this entrepreneurial aspect can be immense. There's nothing quite like the thrill of winning a new client, the pride of delivering a successful project, or the gratification of seeing your advice translate into real-world results. Likewise, coaching and mentoring more junior staff can be an extremely rewarding experience in consulting – passing on knowledge provides genuine fulfillment.

Suffice it to say, a role in advisory services can be challenging, rewarding, and extremely well-suited to an individual with Big 4 and industry experience.

Why are Ex-Big 4 CPAs with Industry Experience Thriving as Consultants?

That's all fine and dandy, but what does all of this look like in the real world? Well, we're glad you asked. As a firm with its fair share of ex-Big 4 CPAs with industry experience, we can speak first-hand as to why these consultants are seeing so much success in the industry – a unique blend of skills, credibility, and adaptability that sets them apart in the consulting world.

Fusion of Skills

Ex-Big 4 CPAs with industry experience possess a unique fusion of skills that distinguishes them. They combine technical expertise from their Big 4 days, operational insights from their industry roles, and a suite of "soft" skills crucial in consulting.

This comprehensive skill set helps them tackle a wide range of consulting engagements, from strategic advisory to operational transformation, with a level of insight and effectiveness that's hard to match.

Network Benefits

Over the years, these professionals develop an extensive network of contacts in the Big 4, in industry, and later in consulting. This network is a powerful asset, opening doors to new client opportunities, facilitating knowledge sharing, and providing support and mentorship.

Increased Credibility

The Big 4 brand, coupled with industry experience, lends significant credibility and represents a background that clients respect. They recognize the rigorous training, diverse experiences, and the commitment to quality that it signifies. This credibility can be instrumental in winning new clients and influencing key stakeholders.

Adaptability

The diverse background of these professionals equips them to adapt quickly to new clients and industries. They're used to learning on the fly, immersing themselves in new contexts, and navigating different corporate cultures. This adaptability is a huge advantage in consulting, where every engagement brings a new set of challenges and opportunities.

Credibility in Communications

Ex-Big 4 CPAs with industry experience are bilingual in a sense – they speak the language of the Big 4 as well as that of industry. This dual language skill helps them bridge the gap between theory and practice, between advice and execution. It enhances their communication with clients, making their advice more relatable, understandable, and actionable.

Building Trust and Rapport

Lastly, these professionals have a knack for building trust and rapport with clients. They understand where their clients are coming from because they've been there themselves. They can empathize with their challenges, celebrate their successes, and navigate their corporate politics. This ability to build relationships is at the heart of successful consulting.

Looking Ahead

Long story short, ex-Big 4 CPAs with industry experience are uniquely positioned for success in the consulting world. Their fusion of skills, extensive network, credibility, adaptability, and relationship-building prowess set them apart.

As the business world becomes increasingly complex and challenging, the demand for such multi-faceted consultants will only grow. They represent a critical component of consulting's future – professionals who can blend technical expertise with practical insights, who can advise and do, and who can bridge the gap between the Big 4 and industry. The future, indeed, looks bright for these versatile professionals.

And that brings us to Embark. Sure, we offer an innovative, extremely competitive comp and benefits package, not to mention a unique, caring culture where leaders actually walk the talk on the work-life balance and support fronts. All true. But most of all, you’re valued at Embark. Truly valued and respected. So, if any of this has hit home for you, we'd like to have a hearty chat about joining our team. Because you just might be a born Embarker, but just don't know it yet.

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