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The pros and cons of becoming a career manager in a Big 4 firm

Can you have a meaningful career in a Big 4 firm as a fee earner without wanting to make partner? In this blog post Heather Townsend shares an exclusive extract from the 2nd edition of ‘How to make partner and still have a life’ (Click here for a free sample chapter) and explores the positives and negatives of the career manager role within a Big 4 firm.

Becoming a career manager

If you look at the hierarchical nature of professional services, not everyone is going to make it to the top of the pyramid. It’s just not possible. Some professionals who realize that they either don’t want to make partner or are not going to make partner choose to stay in professional practice. These people become known as career managers or career associates. Sometimes professionals fall into this position because they lose sight of their end career goals and ‘drift’ in career terms for a certain amount of time. But this isn’t necessarily the case; increasingly people are consciously choosing to remain a career manager.


With the professional services world so focused on ‘making partner’ it can often be quite difficult to articulate the positives of staying as a career manager, ie someone without significant business development responsibility. However, throwing off the feeling that you are continually chasing career progression can sometimes be very liberating, if this is not what you want for your career and life. For example, if you are experiencing significant change in your life outside work, such as becoming a new parent, you will often welcome a less demanding time at work – whether temporarily or permanently. The great thing about pressing the pause button on your career’s upward progression is to know that this is not a career dead end – you still have many career options left open to you. You can press the play button when you are ready and reignite your partnership ambitions at any time, or take
a role outside professional services if you prefer. Staying as a career manager means you can focus more on the technical or managerial parts of the role rather than building up your own client portfolio. For many professionals, the technical aspects of their role are their key motivation for entering the professions; therefore being a career manager can mean playing to your personal strength, providing excellent client service and enjoying the personal satisfaction which comes with being able to do that.


Becoming a career manager or career associate is often seen as a holding role, until you work out how to progress your career further. Many of the bigger professional services firms have (and apply vigorously) an ‘up or out’ policy; that is, you must progress up to the next level of seniority within a certain timescale or it will be made clear to you that your future lies outside the practice.

In many professional practices you can become very vulnerable as a career manager. Most firms hold on to their talent by dangling the promise of upwards progression within the firm. However, as most firms can only accommodate a finite number of people at senior grades, this means that if the existing professionals’ careers are not moving forward, this has the effect of ‘blocking’ the career progression of more junior members. This is often referred to as ‘bed-blocking’ by partners. When bed-blocking exists in a firm, it effectively makes it more difficult for the firm to deliver, or can prevent it from delivering, on its promise to staff of upwards career progression – hence the existence of the ‘up or out’ policies. That said, the world of professional services firms is changing and many firms have recognized that there is
an important and valuable contribution to be made by career managers.

How to Make Partner and Still Have a Life 2nd editionGet your copy of the 2nd edition of How to make partner and still have a life

To get your copy of How to make partner and still have a life at a 20% discount, use code HTMPG20 at the checkout on the Kogan Page website. Click on the image buy your copy


This article originally appeared in a different form on the How To Make Partner website.


Heather Townsend helps professionals become the The Go-To Expert. She is the author of the  award winning and best-selling book on business networking, the ‘FT Guide To Business Networking’, Poised for partnership and the co-author of ‘How to make partner and still have a life’, and ‘The Go-To Expert’. Over the last decade she has worked with over 300 partners; coached, trained and mentored over 2000 professionals at every level of the UK’s most ambitious professional practices. 


Heather blogs regularly at How to make partner and still have a life and works with future and current Big 4 partners and professionals from mid-tier firms all over the world.


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