You landed a prestigious job with a Big Four or another accounting firm right out of college. It’s not only been exciting to work with other top accounting professionals, but you’ve also learned a lot about your field — and you've seen a lot of the country while working with various clients.
You knew you might leave public accounting eventually, and now you’re thinking a move to corporate accounting is right for you.
Finding the courage to leave is a challenge for people who have worked for the one of the largest accounting firms in the world, said Ky Kingsley, Robert Half Finance & Accounting vice president.
“They are leaving a prestigious, professional work environment that offers challenging work and a structured career path that includes growth, along with a great network of mentors and peers,” she said. “It almost seems crazy to leave! However, grueling hours and a desire for work-life balance often leads them to look for other opportunities.”
Striving for work-life balance
It’s no secret that corporate accounting jobs typically offer better work-life balance — and that more professionals are expressing a commitment to their personal lives. In fact, more than half of the professionals in a Robert Half study say they have increased their commitment to their personal life in the last year.
In industry, compared with Big Four accounting firms, there’s less overtime and not as much travel. Some corporations have even started to introduce flexible schedules and work-from-home arrangements for their finance and accounting employees.
Other motivations for a change
Many finance and accounting professionals say they are eager for the career opportunity to build their skills outside of public accounting, Kingsley said.
Taking the leap from public to corporate accounting can give your career a boost down the line, too: When companies are searching for a new controller or chief financial officer, they often look for someone with both public accounting and industry experience.
If you’re ready to make the transition in your career, Kingsley offers the following four tips to ease the career switch:
1. Time it right and take the right steps
Most accounting and finance professionals recommend making the move after two to four years with an accounting firm. That’s when it’s easiest to jump from staff to senior accountant, or senior accountant to accounting manager.
As a first step, many candidates reach out to their own personal network of colleagues and previous supervisors who have already secured positions in private industry, Kingsley said. Sometimes they connect with a trusted recruiter who was probably referred by one of their peers. When working with a finance staffing agency, establish a relationship before you launch your search. The recruiter can provide insights on potential opportunities, be on the lookout for jobs that are a fit and help with timing.
Of course, once you identify a great opportunity, you may encounter some challenges.
“Although most public accounting professionals have excellent presentation and communication skills,” Kingsley said, “many haven’t interviewed since college, and they have to balance their extreme workload to find time to interview.”
2. Call on your experience
While working at a Big Four firm, you’ve had exposure to many different companies and industries. There’s a strong chance you’ve assisted clients in real estate, construction, manufacturing, healthcare, technology and more. Good news: Firms in all of those sectors, among others, are actively seeking accountants.
So when looking for a corporate position, first think about your past clients. Take note of the companies where you thrived, enjoyed the work and fit in well with the corporate environment. Then target your job search in those industries.
3. Be ready to stretch
Unlike public accountants, who work on projects for several different clients, corporate accountants have just one client: the organization they work for. That means they need a much more in-depth look at a company’s infrastructure and inner workings.
When you work for a company, you don’t just focus on tax and audit. You also work on a variety of business strategy issues outside of typical accounting, like budgeting, forecasting and cash flow management, and collaborate with the operations and business management teams. While this can be a mountain to climb when you first make the switch, it can be extremely rewarding in the long run: You can make a real difference in the company’s direction and bottom line.
Companies like to hire accountants from public accounting firms, because they have a strong work ethic, expert technical abilities, good presentation and communication skills, and a good deal of flexibility and adaptability. All of these characteristics make for top performers in the corporate world.
4. Prepare for salary discussions
Research prevailing salary ranges for the position you want to move into, taking into account local pay variances and added value your public accounting experience may provide. Look at resources such as Robert Half’s Salary Guide for Accounting and Finance and other industry reports for the latest benchmarks.
Also consider the perks offered by the company. Find out if the organization will provide the support, financially or otherwise, you need to earn the CPA (and other relevant certifications) and keep up with continuing professional education (CPE) demands.
When you let your firm know you’re leaving, do so gracefully and be prepared for the counteroffer discussion. It’s generally best to decline the counteroffer. Money likely isn’t the primary driver behind your career move, and it won’t make up for the reasons you’re looking to transition into industry; the manager also may simply be biding his or her time until hiring your replacement.
Your experience at a Big Four or other public accounting firm can be invaluable, so keep honing the skills you learned there. They’ll give you a leg up as you navigate your new workplace.
Ky Kingsley is vice president of Robert Half Finance & Accounting, North America. She joined Robert Half in 2007 and is an expert on career growth and development, hiring trends, and the use of social media in recruitment. She is based in the Los Angeles area.