It’s no secret that professional services firms – especially public accounting and law firms – demand a lot from their employees. It’s also common knowledge that, as a young professional working in these firms, you’re unlikely to be paid as much your friends who’ve gone out into industry. So why do people even bother working in professional services? They do it because there’s a whole lot more to be gained from operating in these firms than immediately meets the eye.
I’ve found that – generally – those who are disgruntled and can’t wait to leave their firms are those who haven’t quite figured out how to extract all that additional value. They haven’t leveled the playing field, so the relationship with the firm becomes a whole lot of give with very little take. In contrast, those of us who seem to enjoy our stints in professional services have figured out how to take just as much back from our firms as they’re taking from us. The challenge lies in these benefits often being intangible and very difficult to quantify. It’s much easier to reflect on remuneration alone: to feel undervalued. But are you considering the full package?
This year will be my eighth year surviving in a Big 4 public accounting firm. I often tell people that I don’t actually like auditing but that, most days, I love my job. One of the most common questions I get is “why do you stay?” It’s not straight forward, but the answer lies in aspects of the experience that I’m very careful not to take for granted.
While auditing itself is not a passion of mine, the way in which the work happens really resonates with me. It’s fast-paced, with no day ever being the same. Each day brings with it its own set of problems to solve, meaning I constantly feel challenged. But there are some other very real benefits that I put in the same bucket as the salary I receive each month.
What I’m getting beyond the paycheck
- The people – there are not many other jobs in the world which would allow me to work with that many other people within 5 or 6 years of my age. This makes for a great mix of social and professional life. Some of my best friends today are friends I’ve met as a result of work. We also have the advantage of working with many different teams on a daily basis. When you move into industry, you often exchange that social life for curt interactions with the same three old debtors clerks day-in and day-out.
- The travel – my firm has taken me from South Africa to Sweden (from which I was able to visit 15 different countries in a 6 month period) and now to Australia, where I hope to get a lot more traveling done. Travel brings with it the opportunity to work with many more people and be exposed to different cultures and perspectives. While traveling is – in its own right – a rewarding experience, I truly believe the cultural experiences have made me a more empathetic, self-aware individual. It’s tough to put a dollar value to broader perspective; for me, it’s priceless.
- The learning – I imagine young professionals only really start to appreciate the learning you get in professional services once they leave and realise that it’s not quite the same everywhere else. It’s easy to be frustrated by the number of e-learnings (formal training) we’re subjected to, or the thousands of review notes (informal training) we have to answer. By doing so, we take for granted the extent to which we’re developing our professional and technical skills in the process. We also often forget just how much we get to develop our soft skills – conflict resolution, teamwork, communication, empathy, and a host of others. Constantly working under pressure can feel overwhelming, but it helps to reflect on that pressure being a catalyst for fast and effective learning.
I’ll forgive you for not being able to get on board with the learning being a benefit just yet, but think back on it when you’ve left your firm and begin shelling out thousands of dollars just to keep up with your CPD requirements!
There are many other, smaller, benefits that come with the job, but the ones above are the ones that I feel clearly add value which is not on my payslip each month.
This guy’s clearly brainwashed…
I am sure that, reading the above, many of you might be thinking “look at this guy – he’s clearly been brainwashed.” I don’t blame you – I’ve thought similar of people who have shared these views in the past. I’ll add some context: I certainly don’t plan to work in professional services indefinitely. Partner at a Big 4 firm is not on the cards for me. I’m simply treating my relationship with my firm as an ongoing transaction – as long as I feel that what I’m taking from the firm is close enough in value to what they’re getting from me in terms of effort, it’s a beneficial relationship. Once that balance starts to shift in favour of the firm (and it will, eventually) then I’ll know the time is right to leave.
Fortunately, as I’ve written about before, that’s perfectly okay with most firms. They’re not built for everyone to make partner. Their business model is to use you at your best for as long as it’s cost-effective. As long as your model is to use them for absolutely every inch of career progression and personal development that you can get, you’ll find that the value proposition is not nearly as out of balance as many of us might think.
The benefits I’ve listed above might resonate with you, or they might not. If you don’t see value in these points, and there is no other value that you do get beyond a salary, then maybe the scales aren’t balanced.
If you’re early on in your career in professional services, keep asking yourself the question. Are you taking as much from your firm as they’re taking from you? If not, how are you going to tip the scales in your favour?
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