How to build a successful career in a Big Four accounting firm

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Julie Hood is a partner in the operational transaction services (OTS) team, which is part of transaction advisory services, at Ernst & Young. In a Q&A session with eFinancialCareers, she provides advice to those aiming for a Big Four career.

Varied industry skills and life experience are invaluable

We look for a range of skills when hiring, and we know the value of diverse experience. The market is quite sophisticated and industry expertise is very important. For example, our clients may be engaging us because they are a pharmaceutical or oil and gas industry expert, however, if you have a broader engineering background with finance, you are unique and of interest. We absolutely take in to account the full package of academic, operational and life experiences. For example, I think my experiences traveling shaped the type of person I became.

It is very important to think about your career in terms of what you bring as a package not just your qualifications. The skills I learned managing complex construction processes are very transferable. When I was in the construction industry, working on sites 20 years ago, I was very much in the minority as a woman. Consider every opportunity at face value and create and take opportunities at all points of your career.

Essentially it comes down to merit. Most professional services firms operate on the value you bring to your clients. We have a very diverse client base and it is important to understand how you best align to that. It took me years to feel confident voicing a differing opinion in internal discussions or when advising clients, but you can often add extreme value because of your diverse point of view, whatever that might be.

Ernst & Young has a fantastic female partner group and a pipeline of future leaders in the firm. We are all passionate about ensuring we have diverse value to add to our clients. We have a lot of internal mentoring, and I believe it is a truly genuine conversation about diversity, not because we have to tick a box.

Graduate intake

We tend to attract a lot of the high-profile grads with a mix of academic qualifications; we see some exceptional young professionals. The rotation program enables them to find their feet and work out what area they may want to be in. We are lucky and manage to grab quite a few of them at the end of the rotation and they become permanent members of the OTS team – there is always some internal competition to sell your division to the grads.

Advice to grads

Because the Big Four have such a mixed portfolio of work across our clients, we can support businesses through the various stages of economic lifestyle. We have a strong foundation in audit and assurance, so the varied work I do can support businesses in a number of different environments. We can work through the ups and downs of the economic climate, but still be mindful of efficiency and effectiveness in how we do things. Most importantly, it is about maintaining great people, being a great place to work and working for great clients: those are the priorities.

Three top tips for a Big Four career

Consider your personal brand: It is absolutely fundamental that you think about your personal brand and that you need to continually build on this to progress your career. When I returned to Melbourne from London I was essentially an unknown so I had to decide what my personal brand was, and how I should develop it to ensure that I added value to internal and external stake-holders. Ernst & Young’s brand recognition in the external market is fantastic, but your personal brand is just as important as our clients engage people. I think we all need to be aware of that, and continue to challenge challenging ourselves.

I was given some sound advice very early on in my career: surround yourself with exceptional people – people who you know will give you honest feedback about you as a professional, a leader, or just as a person. I have always endeavored to make sure I am part of the best team possible. I am continually challenged and stretched, and I learn so much from the people around me.

It is also important that, every now and then, you take time out to think about your career and where it is going, then overlay that with your personal circumstances. One of the possibly mistaken assumptions we can all make is that we can’t continue with demanding jobs once we have children. It is important to always test these assumptions before reaching these conclusions.

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