Top Tips For Becoming A Partner - A CA’s Guide

By Kathryn Swan

7 October 2014

Kathryn Swan, Head of Public Practice for recruitment company Hays, looks at what it takes to be a successful partner in practice.

We live in a world where job titles are becoming ever more convoluted, yet increasingly trivial. In the context of professional services, however, the simple term 'partner' continues to retain its mystique.  

A wealth of authority, entrepreneurialism, expertise, knowledge, leadership, prestige, talent and trust is conjured up by just two syllables, but what does it take to live up to this title, and most importantly how do you get there? Hays surveyed almost 400 partners in UK accountancy practices, holding the position of equity partner or salaried partner, between October 2013 and April 2014 to find out.   

Key findings 

No two partners will have matching skillsets or have followed identical career paths. Nevertheless our research found that partners do tend to share some common characteristics in terms of their training, personal attributes and the challenges they face.  

Prepared for success 

At its highest level, the accountancy profession continues to be male-dominated and four-fifths of respondents to our survey were men. Most partners are graduates and nearly half studied at either Oxbridge or a red brick university. The CA or ACA, is by far the most commonly held qualification in practice with 73% of partners having this designation.  

  • Partners are typically men in their 40s and 50s, with 60% of respondents aged between 41 and 55.
  • Higher education plays its part, as 68% of partners went to university.

The path to partnership 

Partnership can sometimes be achieved more quickly in independent, regional firms. Nearly three-quarters of respondents from regional firms achieved partner with between five and 10 years' post-qualification experience (PQE) under their belts. Less than half of respondents from a Big 4 background had made it to partner within the same time frame. Partners who work in general practice are more likely to become a partner earlier than their peers who specialise in audit, tax or advisory work. 

  • Partners are getting younger, 74% of partners aged under 40 had no more than 10 years' PQE when they made partner.
  • The route to the top can be faster in independent regional firms. Overall, 61% of respondents achieved partner status with between five and ten years' PQE.

Challenging times 

'Internal structure' was cited as the biggest career challenge for 59% of respondents over the next 12 months, probably reflecting their frustration with their firm's decision-making processes. Succession planning was a pressing career issue for 45% of respondents. Fee pressure was identified as the greatest challenge facing partners in general over the coming year, according to 47% of respondents. 

  • Succession planning is a particular career challenge for 45% of partners.
  • 48% of partners believe that regulation will be a major factor in shaping the role of the partner over the next five years.

Character forming 

Partners in accountancy practices see themselves as business people, hence they rate a 'can-do attitude' as being critical to their success. Enthusiasm, flexible thinking and ambition were also identified as important by more than half of respondents. Partners are less likely to have furthered their careers abroad than finance directors (see our DNA of a Finance Director Report), with just 25% having worked overseas on a permanent or secondment basis. More than half (57%) have been actively trying to increase their professional network over the past year.   

  • 75% of partners believe that having a 'can-do attitude' is among the personal characteristics that have been most critical to their success.
  • Despite working at the top level, 19% of partners use a mentor.

Leading the way 

When asked about advice they would give to the partners of tomorrow, over half of partners placed being commercially aware among their top three tips. This is primarily because of their responsibilities to build client relationships and develop new business. Two-fifths also rated people skills highly, reflecting the partner's role as a leader and mentor. Partners are happy with the career choice that they have made – 80% of respondents would still choose to become a partner if they had the chance to start their career all over again.  

  • 80% of respondents would still choose to be a partner if they had the chance to start over.
  • 59% of partners placed being commercially aware in their top three tips for the next generation.

More tips 

For more of our top tips, case studies from leading partners across the UK about how they got to where they are today, and to access the full results of our survey,request a copy of the Hays' DNA of a Partner report. Hays Recruitment is also one of our featured recruitment partners and you can browse the latest partner roles

About the author
Since joining Hays in 1998 Kathryn Swan has been instrumental in developing Hays Public Practice into one of the UK's leading specialists for accountancy recruitment, and now heads up the division on a national basis.


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