Is the “partner track” in your future? What it takes, how to get there

So, you want to make partner? We applaud your ambition. It can be an incredibly rewarding career move, and not just from the standpoint of the billing fees that you can command; however, as with many other goals among the highly motivated – be it owner of a startup or owner of a seat in the C-suite – having a stake in the firm as a partner is most certainly not for everyone. Do you have what it takes? And have you reflected, sincerely and honestly, on what making partner could mean for you, your quality of life, and any family members and loved ones that you care about? Additionally, what separates the professionals who have just dreamed or talked about making partner from those who actually make it? Below, we’ll provide some insight into:

  • The “traditional” path to make partner

  • The skills, traits, and experience that are generally coveted in partners

  • The benefits of holding this coveted position

  • Considerations and questions that all would-be partners should ask themselves

  • Alternative strategies and ways to accelerate the journey to partner

Partner principles

As partner, you will go from making money for the owners and the firm, to one of the owners that guides the direction and growth of the organization. Not unlike owning other types of businesses or other ownership structures, there are many satisfying benefits of being one’s own boss. There are also caveats; notably, one must put “skin” in the game. As such, you have to be willing to accept the risk that comes with putting one’s own earnings or nest egg on the line.

First, the “carrots” that lead many hungry professionals on to the partner path:

  • The power to influence – Having a say in the decision-making process and in how resources are allocated

  • The satisfaction of a vision that is brought to life – Partners are visionaries; they have the ability to see beyond the limits of today in the pursuit of the possibilities of tomorrow

  • A secure financial future – Instead of just salaries and bonuses, partners are also eligible for additional compensation, including enhanced distribution of profits and a more robust benefits package

Partners are generally tasked with business development; marketing; strategy; and the management of clients, staff, resources and finances. These functions are shared among all partners and owners. The very functions and responsibilities that represent positives for partner-owners can represent the drawbacks that make professionals reconsider what may, at first blush, appear to be an attractive career route. So, secondly, we pivot to the “let’s get real” aspect of the process. It’s an absolute must to mull over the following considerations well in advance of sticking your flag in the partner pathway journey:

  • Have you bought in to the “buy in”? – Just because your title changes does not automatically mean that your total earnings will change considerably and immediately. Be patient. Different firms have different arrangements with regard to the equity stake that each partner makes in the firm. As a firm, we are actively hiring and are transparent about the opportunities that are available to each of our team members, as well as the responsibilities that are associated with each role. We invest in all individuals on our team, and take a vested interest in their career success. We assure that all of our professionals are well-informed. So, they can make the best career decisions for themselves and their families. There should never be any costly or unpleasant surprises on the path to partnership.

  • Your personal financial planning is paramount – Resist the urge to spend, spend, spend to what your new tax bracket might suggest. It will generally take some time to pay off the costs associated with buying in to the business. Sound financial planning, especially tax planning, becomes increasingly important as CPAs enter into partnerships. The tax obligations that were formerly handled by someone else are now placed squarely on you. Generally, you will want to set aside monies on a quarterly or year-end basis to cover tax obligations on reported income.

  • Be realistic – In some respects, this notion applies again to resisting the urge to “spend to your new tax bracket.” Bear in mind that earnings are tied to overall performance and, given that partners generally bear the responsibility for disappointing results, take-home pay may be less than what you had anticipated when you finally “made it.” We tell you all of this not to discourage you. But, rather, when you appreciate the changes and challenges, you are best prepared to pivot. So, you can then meet or exceed the professional and personal goals that you have set for yourself, in collaboration with an exceptional team.

The path to partner

There is no single, surefire track to partner. And each path is as unique as the firms that support talented leadership, and the talent that is working its way up the food chain. With that being said, The Journal of Accountancy reports that it largely takes 10 to 15 years to make partner at most firms – from regional organizations to the Big Four. With robustly-resourced yet still local firms, such as O’Donnell, Ficenec, Wills & Ferdig, you have many opportunities to pick up new areas of specialization and valuable skills. There are tons of ways to “shine.” So, depending on how you seize those opportunities, your unique journey to partner can be accelerated. As one works her or his way up from entry-level staff accountant to senior accountant and managerial roles, it is important to demonstrate qualities that show you are an asset to the firm. These qualities include:

  • A proven track record of building a book of quality business – The ability to build your own book of business is a reflection of how well you interface with clients, and your capacity to sustain client satisfaction.

  • Admirable leadership – Partly, you refrain from petty gossip. You inspire credibility among your talented and motivated teams. You also possess a great deal of so-called “soft skills.” These are the things that, in some cases, you can’t always train for. They may be personality traits, such as a flair for good conversation or a high level of integrity, that are effortlessly natural to you. Likewise, they may be features that can be refined upon; for instance, the ability to communicate clearly through body language, in typed or email formats, or in spoken word can be augmented by intentionally modifying bad habits or through training.

  • Strike a balance – Leadership is not merely about being a self-starter. While the ability to perform at a high level independently and with little to no guidance is a respected quality, partner “material” is also a “team player.” It is vital that you juggle self-reliance with collaboration among staff members, other accountants and managers.

Now, it is quite possible to figuratively hop over a step or two in the partner journey by being intentional, from the get-go, about the following areas:

  • Identify and develop a niche – Become a subject matter expert or specialize in areas such as tax or valuations. When you become known in this respective specialization, no firm will want to lose you. We at OFWF provide ample professional development and ways to pick up additional experience and skills in a hands-on way. We like to say that no two days are the same. You never know what you may learn next, and you may be surprised by how much you love that newfound specialty!

  • Benefit from the knowledge around you – As a 70-year-old CPA firm, we have numerous talented partners and seasoned professionals in our corner. These individuals each have decades of proven experience in securing and sustaining a loyal client base. Do not be afraid to tap into that knowledge. Generally, existing partners at firms act as “sponsors” and advocate for your moving on up through the chain. They will put in a good word for you, and connect you with other individuals, groups, networks and learning opportunities. These resources can all aid in building and refining your skills in areas ranging from people management to business development.

Seek work. Take on projects with enthusiasm. Don’t be afraid of “stretch” assignments. You want to get noticed for all of the right reasons. And, remember, we are hiring! We look forward to hearing from you. No goal is too big or too audacious when you have the right mix of experience and aptitude, a dose of realism, and a supportive and inspiring team to help you “get there.” Contact us today.


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