Advice for Black accountants in a Big Four firm
Black representation in the accounting industry is essential. It can bring positive attention to the profession and will ultimately lead to more accounting students and career accountants. It’s also incredibly important because with each new Black accountant, there is a mentor to help future Black accountants navigate the industry. Throughout my three years in Big Four accounting, two years in audit and one in advisory, I really wish I had someone that looked like me that would guide me through my journey. In case you're also looking for support, here are three important lessons for Black accountants who are working in public accounting.
3 lessons for Black accountants in the Big Four
My experience in the Big Four started early, as a college sophomore and diversity intern. This internship was designed to give future diversity hires an introduction to public accounting, get an idea of the office and client environment, and understand each line of service.
I can remember feeling important stepping off the train in downtown Chicago from my hometown of East Chicago, Indiana. I remember the sense of pride I felt getting my official badge, laptop, and cubicle. I even remember how nervous I was every day – I wanted to make the right impression and say the right things. Most importantly, I remember how accomplished I felt at the end of that first summer, and each subsequent summer, when I was consistently invited back and earned glowing reviews regarding my performance. This performance led me all the way to a full-time offer.
Here are three lessons that I learned throughout my time in public accounting – and that I wish I’d learned before earning my full-time role in a Big Four firm.
Lesson 1: This is a competitive environment. Treat it as such.
When I received my full-time offer, I thought I was set for life. As I mentioned in my article about Black representation in accounting, professional success is important to me, my family, and my community. At 22, I had been offered a job at one of the most prestigious accounting firms in the world. To top that, I was in one of the most sought-after markets, Chicago, which touted various marquee clients.
What I failed to understand and what I should’ve paid more attention to is the competitiveness of my new workplace.
I quickly learned that many of my counterparts were plotting, planning, and strategizing their career paths as soon as they arrived. Some people wanted to work all the way up to partner. Others fought for visibility and access to specific teams so that they could go directly into working in the private sector. I was just excited to have what we called a GOOD job in my community.
But I wasn’t a fool, and I didn’t wear my rose-colored glasses for long. Whether it was for diversity statistics or pure merit, I was being used as an asset to bill against the firm’s budget. My work was worth only $30 to $40 an hour in my pocket, but more than triple that amount to the firm. Soon after this realization, I began to strategize and plan on what I wanted to gain from this experience and what I wanted to take along with me.
Whether you’re just joining the Big Four, or you’re a seasoned vet, be sure to have a long-term plan and understand how your current role will lead to the future you’re envisioning. For some, this may be the first time that you’re surrounded by peers who are just as smart and who are ready to take ownership of their next career step. You have just as much value to the firm – remember this fact and maintain your confidence.
Lesson 2: Identify superiors who are invested in your success.
As in any industry, it’s important to build rapport with mentors – you can learn from their mistakes and successes. Unfortunately, this was a lesson that I never seemed to conquer. My lack of mentorship negatively impacted my experience at the firm; if I established such a relationship, my career journey would’ve taken a much different route.
I returned to the Big Four firm after previously leaving audit to build my own business. My plan was to work at the firm while attending graduate school and leverage the time to establish what I like to call “my billion-dollar business model.”
This time, I had my long-term plan intact, but I started to see how insignificant this plan was without a supporter who was invested in my success. I moved from the Chicago office to San Jose, California, where no one knew me as the 18-year-old intern. I had zero relationships – and zero experience in my new function as a consultant.
Consulting was totally different than the audit practice, and the learning curve was short and steep. On my first few engagements, I seemed to learn quickly and develop relationships with my team members. But as I moved from engagement to engagement, and moved onto different teams, it seemed that success in one instance was incompetence in another.
During my fourth and fifth engagements, I was placed on highly visible teams that were already well developed. I felt like I was thrown into it – I was playing a supporting role, while the other players were comfortable in their groove. I was given the worst pieces of each job, with the least amount of experience, and I felt like none of my teammates were in my corner.
If I asked questions, I could feel my superiors questioning why I bothered them or if it was worth their time. No matter how much extra work I did, the extra effort was never enough. I would give ideas in team brainstorming sessions that would be ignored. If someone else shared the same thought, it would be praised. This was totally different from my experience at the firm’s Chicago office, where I was embraced and encouraged to grow due to the strength of my relationships. I was the only Black person on these teams, which heightened my sense of isolation and frustration even further.
Beaten up, broken down, and overworked I walked away.
My final experience in public accounting confirmed that I could perform at a high level under stress. Most importantly, it taught me that mentorship and companionship at work are essential to your job satisfaction and success.
Lesson 3: Public accounting is no different than other environments in America – it’s not built for Black people to succeed.
Firstly, I’ll make this clear: I do not believe that the Big Four is actively seeking to harm Black accountants or drive us away. However, I do believe that these firms need to work harder to create environments that are welcoming and inclusive of accountants of disenfranchised communities.
The level of pride I felt when I first got hired in the Big Four was rivaled by the amount of disgust I felt when racially charged injustices occurred in the public. I’ll never forget how my colleagues would look at me after the 2016 US presidential election. I was so uncomfortable that I physically began to separate myself from my team members and work alone. I couldn’t handle the microaggressions and racially charged conversations and, quite frankly, didn’t care enough to dispute them. I had already decided that I was leaving, and I wouldn’t fight this fight in addition to my fight to be professional and make my hometown proud.
Today, I’m disappointed that I didn’t stand up and speak my mind because my perspective might have led to a more inclusive environment. However, I hope to be able to support other Black accountants that are coming up behind me, so that you can thrive in areas where I didn’t.
As you step into public accounting, especially at a Big Four firm, don’t be afraid to be yourself and live out loud. Your background and perspective is important in these spaces – without your candor, the environment of the Big Four cannot change for other Black accountants.
There is a clear path for Black accountants to walk into public accounting and be successful.
There are Black partners, senior directors, and managers in Big Four accounting firms who are dynamic, authentic, and important to the practice. Identify them as you can, study their career paths, forge a relationship, and learn from their lessons. The only way to get the most out of the experience is to have a strategy on how you will be successful in your public accounting career. Work hard, work smart, be competitive, but most importantly, be yourself.
Whether you create a thirty-year career or only do two busy seasons, you will be working with some of the brightest and most skilled professionals across every industry. Don’t take the opportunity for granted but respect it for what it is: a launching pad and not a life raft.
Hollis Fullilove is an accountant and entrepreneur from East Chicago, Indiana. Formerly an accountant in one of the “Big 4,” Hollis is now the Founder and CEO of Crane Financial, LLC, where he provides efficient tax planning and strategy to educate and empower individuals and small businesses in his community. Follow Crane Financial on Instagram for helpful tips on tax and entrepreneurship.