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This contribution is a summary of the research article “Les déterminants d’accès aux fonctions de gouvernance dans les grands cabinets d’audit” published in the November 2015 issue of the review Management & Avenir No 105.

Accessing top management (TM) is the ultimate responsibility that young associates working in the major auditing firms can aspire to. These apprentices start their careers as junior auditors, but they rarely succeed at reaching the summit of these organisations.

The characteristics of the major auditing firms’ TM are very different from those of large listed corporations. In fact, in addition to being shareholders, the TMs of major firms are all employees and managers that have operational and functional responsibilities in their firms. Also, the process of appointing members of the board is different since their peers in the general meeting must elect them. We have sought to identify the professional and human qualities that allow young employees in major auditing firms to find a place in these governing bodies. To do this, we conducted a qualitative study lasting around two years with nineteen members of different auditing firms’ governing bodies. Our results have identified four predictive factors for career success.

The ability of associates to adapt to the firm’s organisation by gaining in-house visibility appears to be the first key factor in rising up to top management. First, associates must work on demonstrating their legitimacy, meaning showing their technical, managerial and commercial assets. According to many different respondents, this is a prerequisite.

Known, recognised expertise

This assumes that the associates have developed on their own a technical skill recognised by their peers, employees and clients. Heading and succeeding in major projects for the firm and creating and developing new business constitute examples of success that help to expand associates’ in-house recognition and increase their legitimacy.

The second factor is related to the internal network. Associates must actually develop their own network to become known, not only within their division but by associates working in other operations at the firm. This is very important when being selected for top management is the result of election or appointment by the president. This is done by attending cross-functional meetings and important events and collaborating on collective missions.

The last factor is communication. Associates must have communication skills and the ability to speak in public, allowing them to demonstrate their posture and stand out as being an indispensable representative of the firm. These communication qualities are also important during appointment campaigns insofar as they will be expected to present their plans and defend them in front the board members.

In order to gain recognition by their clients, associates must first succeed in their duties, create a close, trusted relationship with the clients (while keeping their independence) and satisfy them. They must also acquire an understanding of the market and attain a level of expertise in their field that helps them to become known and recognised as an expert in their sector of activity. These factors allow associates to develop their external network, particularly with the top managers from major listed corporations and, as a consequence, become aware of different opportunities. To develop their external visibility, associates must also develop their reputation in the ecosystem, meaning become known by governmental bodies and organisations in the economic fabric (such as professional associations, the academy of entrepreneurs, Medfed, etc.).

Rewarded courage

Lastly, associates can succeed with the different involved parties through their ability to embody and defend the brand’s values in an increasingly complicated and competitive business world. Regardless of the political or economic stakes associated with the different duties of their position, associates must be able to perform their work with professionalism and distinction by respecting the firm’s values and ethical rules (meaning integrity, independence, transparency, respect, etc.).

Leadership—meaning the associates’ ability to lead and motivate their employees, take risks, confront challenges and have a sense of the common good—is also proved to be a crucial trait. According to the persons surveyed, associates should have a pleasant and gracious personality and seem easy going and sociable towards their employees. They must also possess empathy, sincerity and a desire to understand others.

Courage appears to be another characteristic of leadership. For the respondents, executive managers must express their ideas and defend their convictions with courage!

Finally, it is also important to have an understanding of the firm’s common interest. To do this, associates’ need to show their commitment to cross-functional projects and important events and contribute to the firm’s development and reach.

Avoiding internal disputes

The analysis of the interviews has also identified the ability to adapt to others and manage stress as a key trait. In fact, to be elected or appointed to a governing body, associates must first show the ability to adapt to different situations connected to internal changes in the organisation. Demonstrating this ability in difficult, changing situations or in periods of crisis, improves in-house as well as external visibility and increases the reputation and trust score of the associate looking to go to the top.

Therefore, it is necessary to work on one’s ability to step back and reflect and never enter into internal disputes! This quality will help associates stand out by showing their strategic reflection and communication abilities and a certain level of wisdom. This will gradually lead to them establishing their legitimacy so they can access an upper management position.

As we’ve seen, there’s little value in pushing forward one’s technical skills as we once thought. It is essential however to reassure one’s colleagues with strategic and human qualities. This is the best advice for success, even in other professional contexts!

>Translated from the article published in French in The Conversation France on March 11, 2019: « Carrières : les clés pour réussir à accéder au top management dans les cabinets de conseil »