don’t ask for a pay rise)

The increase in demand is due to COVID-19-related international travel restrictions cutting off access to foreign professionals, growing client demand and the natural turnover of staff to rival firms and industry.

The situation is a remarkable turnaround from less than a year ago, when most big four professionals were worried about having their pay cut or losing their job.

The turnaround has also caused bitterness among some of the more than 1150 staff made redundant, who are now watching their former firms searching for staff.

First, make a plan

What should staff working in a big four firm do to take advantage of the hot jobs market?

Surprisingly, asking for a pay rise is not the best first step, say the four executive search experts. Instead, staff should first ensure they have a clear plan about what they want to do with their career, they said.

Sinead Hourigan, the Queensland managing director of recruitment firm Robert Walters, said higher pay alone is not enough reason to leave a role.

Sinead Hourigan, Robert Walters Brisbane managing director. 

“First and foremost, don’t move unless you have given it proper consideration. Make sure you’ve thought about it long and hard. I’m not a believer in leaving a role unless there is a reason for leaving. Money isn’t enough,” she said.

Andrew Jackson of Maven Partners. Nick Moir

Executive recruiter Andrew Jackson of Maven Partners said professionals needed to have a clear idea of where they want to take their career.

“A regular question I ask people of all levels is: what do you want to be when you grow up? You need to have some idea of what your career goals are and what it means for you to say you have had a successful career,” Mr Jackson said.

“Is it to be a partner or become a CFO or CEO? Or simply to have a comfortable existence in a middle management role? This will help determine what opportunities you should be open to. Even if you’re not sure, you should always be open to opportunities that come up.”

He said professionals also need to tell their leaders about their career goals.

”They should be sharing their views on their career goals and have an awareness of the different paths the firm may be able to help with over time,” he said.

“You want to make sure those senior people around you are aware of what your career goals are, as they will be the ones to offer opportunities to help you advance. There is a lot of ‘luck in timing’ for a successful professional career, though taking the initiative and ensuring you have a genuine senior support network around you will help make you ‘luckier’.”

Ben Derwent, the founder of executive recruitment firm Derwent, agreed that professionals needed to first work out what they wanted to do with their careers.

“You first need to ask yourself: how do I think about my career? Am I in the right location, am I in the right service line and am I at the right level?” Mr Derwent said.

”You also need to know: what’s driving demand for the services of the firm I’m in? Where is my firm doubling down? Is it cloud, data, cyber-security, the marketing strategy practice? Then you need to attach yourself to that area.

“I think people should present a case to get into the hot areas or for their promotion pathway. The best people will get on the best projects teams and therefore should advance quicker.”

Look internally

The hot jobs market means big four professionals are in a stronger position to challenge their leaders on the types of projects they are assigned to, the training they receive and promotion opportunities. Higher pay will naturally flow from having more valuable skills and being in a more senior position.

“Staff have to be proactive in terms of managing their own career. The firm isn’t necessarily going to manage your career. It’s up to the individual,” said John Igoe, a former EY partner, CEO at Cap Gemini and founder of professional services executive search firm Wentworth Hill.

John Igoe of professional services executive search firm Wentworth Hill.  Supplied

“Young people have to be quite assertive in terms of developing their career plans and putting that plan in place. They need to work out the skills they need in place to do this.

“Don’t make rash moves. People get to a stage where they react. They’ve been on a job for years, and they get a call from someone who can paint a better picture and they’re out of there.”

Avoid ‘grunt’ projects

Mr Igoe said it was critical that big four professionals made sure they were working on challenging projects where they were learning new marketable skills.

“If I was advising somebody, don’t necessarily jump between the big four. First, make sure you’re challenging your employer on skills, on training, on advancement, on promotion,” he said.

“Most importantly, challenge your employer in terms of getting onto the quality projects – strong client brands and challenging assignments. There’s lots of grunt projects. People get lost on a project for years. The worst thing is to get stuck on a very large, routine assignment where they’re forgotten about on the client side and they’re not advancing.”

”Like if you’re on a large public sector project in, say, Canberra, and you’re not necessarily learning transferable skills that can be used in the private sector. A good loyal citizen in a consulting firm will just be a cog in a great machine. They’ll be left to move the widgets around the place.“

What firm leaders need to do

The response of partners to an assertive attitude about career development will help staff determine how they are rated by their leaders.

Mr Igoe said: “If you’re managing your career well and you’re rated by your firm, they’ll do whatever they need to do within reason to keep you.”

Mr Derwent added that leaders should be actively ensuring they are providing opportunities and advancement to their best staff – and pay has to be a part of the package.

“Leaders at the firms need to ask themselves what they are doing to enhance the opportunity for their best staff. But they still also need to think about how much they are paying. I think pay has been held back for some time,” he said.

To stay or to go?

In Mr Jackson’s view, the decision to stay at a firm or leave will be based on whether the existing employer can provide the right development environment.

“This is a market where you can certainly fast-track your career, but it should be viewed in relation to knowledge, experiences and internal opportunities rather than remuneration,” he said.

“Remuneration increases will follow in due course. Firms will help people who are genuinely interested in advancing their knowledge and experience, rather than looking for a short-term remuneration adjustment. If their employer can’t provide the career development opportunities in a reasonable time frame, then it is worth seeing if there is a firm that will provide the right enabling environment.”

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