My Journey from a Consultant to a Partner at a Big 4 Accounting Firm: Perspectives From a Female Leader

  • I am Christine Oliver a qualified Chartered Accountant and Forensic Accounting Expert.
  • I started my career with Ferrier Hodgson, Melbourne and presently a Partner at a Big 4 Accounting firm in Australia.
  • I am a fan of the sentiments in the Serenity Prayer: Accept the things you can’t change, have the courage, and change the things you can, develop the wisdom to know the difference.
  • Here is my journey so far - From a Consultant to a Partner at a Big 4 Accounting Firm

Becoming a Chartered Accountant and Starting a Career in Auditing

I didn’t always plan on being a Chartered Accountant.

In high school, I was good at STEM subjects, but I didn’t want to go into science and programming was still a real niche area. So I took a lot of mathematics-related subjects, including Accounting.

While still in university, I started my accounting career by doing ‘Vacation work’ (a summer clerkship) at an Accounting firm in Australia.

During my vacation work at this Accounting firm, I realised Accounting was a good way to make a living with the skills I had. In fact, I was lucky enough to be offered a part-time job while I finished university.

So all of these experiences led me in pursuing Chartered Accountancy from CA ANZ (Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand).

After qualifying as a CA, I got an opportunity to start my career in Audit with a mid-tier firm in Melbourne. I worked in the Audit practice for a few years.

While I learned a lot in audit, I didn’t feel audit was for me in the long term and the team I was in had changed significantly from when I started.

That’s when I started looking for another field where I could use the audit skills I’d accumulated but in a different way.

Moving from Auditing to Forensic Accounting 

Luckily, I met someone who worked at Ferrier Hodgson while I was doing the CA course and she pointed me to a role in forensic accounting at her firm.

I interviewed with the team and was lucky enough to get the role. That’s how I moved to Forensic Accounting.

While growing in my career I also got opportunities to develop my people management skillset. It did not come easy, I worked on a lot of feedback to improve my people management skills, more on it below.

As I learned how to become a better manager, it was really important to me that the generation of new leaders who came behind me were better prepared and faced fewer challenges.

In doing so, I found that I had a real passion for helping people grow and succeed – I managed to turn a weakness into an area of strength.

I also became fascinated by the science behind how we learn and what drives people to do the things they do and that meant I started reading a lot about individual and organizational psychology.

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Taking People Management Roles to Become a Partner 

After becoming a partner, our firm (Ferrier Hodgson) went through a strategic transformation, driven by changes in our market.

We needed someone inside the organisation to drive that change, so I took on that role.

It was a great opportunity to learn something new and bring value to my firm. So much of strategy and change management is really about effectively leading people, so having that lens was helpful.

Our firm was later approached by KPMG to see if we were interested in merging. That’s how I’ve ended up here now and it’s been a great experience.

Challenging the Status Quo is probably the best summary of my view on the world and what it can be like to work with me.

I don’t just do things the way they’ve been done before. I consistently question why we do the things we do and how we can make things better. This attitude and consistently trying to better myself might have led me to become a Partner at a Big 4 Accounting Firm in Australia.

I often get asked the following questions.

"What Challenges I Have Faced in my Journey?"

I think a lot of people who are great individual contributors struggle to make the leap to a people leadership role because what previously made you great is often the opposite of what works when leading people.

Probably, the 'biggest challenge' in my career happened when I was about a year into being a manager. I thought I was doing really well when I was called to a meeting with our HR team about the way I was managing people!

In hindsight, I wasn’t a great people manager at that time – I’m incredibly grateful to the people who were brave enough to speak up (one in particular who raised the initial complaint).

This gave me the opportunity to work on developing that skill and in doing so, I learnt a lot about myself and what it takes to lead a team.

EXTRA TIP: What really made the difference for me was being open with those around me about wanting to be a better leader and actively seeking feedback.

So if you want to be a leader is it important to take critical feedback as a learning step. This was one big factor that helped me in my career.

"How Do I Maintain a Sense of Balance in my Life?"

I am reasonably occupied most of the time, but I enjoy what I do. And I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities I have to share my skills and talents with others. There are a few things I do to stay calm and maintain a sense of balance:

  • I lean into things that give me energy. While all of us don’t have the luxury of choosing the work we do, I try to maximize the time I spend on things that give me energy. Anything else I try to minimize.
  • Automation and productivity tools help me make the best of my time. Tools I use include Quick Steps in Outlook, IFTTT and Microsoft Flow.
  • Setting boundaries. I’m really clear with my team and my clients that I don’t actively check emails outside of work hours or when I’m on leave. This gives me time to disconnect and recharge. It doesn’t mean I’m not available in an emergency – I make sure there are ways to contact me. My team is incredibly talented and is capable of handling pretty much anything while I’m away.
  • Meditate and exercise. I meditate every day and hit the gym at least 3 times a week.
  • Learn when to let things go. Even though I’m not religious, I’m a fan of the sentiments in the Serenity Prayer: Accept the things you can’t change, have the courage and change the things you can, develop the wisdom to know the difference.
  • Figure out what you can change and influence, and get going. There are things that are harder being a woman – that’s unfortunately still a reality. But just getting mad about it will only make you miserable.

"What Qualities Helped me in Becoming a Partner"

There are a few key things I’ve learned along the way that in hindsight, helped me on my journey to being a partner. They are:

1. Get a broad knowledge, especially early on in your career

  • The more “lenses” you have available to you, the easier it will be to solve problems.
  • While developing a specialisation later in your career is important, while you’re young, focus on accumulating as many experiences as you can.
  • If you’re presented with an opportunity to work outside your team or for a different boss, jump at it.

2. Life is actually a big group assignment, embrace it.

  • A lot of us dread group assignments (where you are marked not on what you do as a person, but how your whole team performs). Most people hate them.
  • Life is actually like one big group assignment: it doesn’t matter how good your individual performance is, no one wins alone. If your firm isn’t making money, no matter how well you perform, that pay rise is going to be a big ask.
  • Instead of thinking about how you can achieve your goals, focus on how you can be the best team player you can. If your team or organisation is winning, there will be enough to go around.
  • For example, if you’re great at something, teach those around you to do it too.
  • In a nutshell, focus on growing the pie instead of just growing your slice.

3. If everything you do fits in your job description, your performance is good, not outstanding

  • I’ve seen many people think they’re star performers when really, they’re just meeting the expectations of their role.
  • Being a CA often comes with long hours and complex jobs – doing these is not your ticket to quick promotions or a high-performance rating.
  • You need to find something outside your job description: improving a team process, leading a business development initiative.

4. Big rewards require a big risk

  • If you want to progress your career quickly, you’ll need to take a risk.
  • As finance professionals, you no doubt learned the relationship between risk and reward at university - the same principle applies to your career.
  • Be prepared to be wrong or take on a tough project that may not pay off or speak up when no one else is willing to.

"How Young Professionals Can Start a Career in Forensic Accounting."

Forensic is a hard area to get into as a young professional, especially straight out of university.

While some teams do recruit graduates, there are likely to be only one or two roles available in each team.

I’d recommend starting out in an adjacent or generalist field, like audit and transitioning once you have some experience.

After you gain some experience in forensics, you’ll find there is a range of opportunities. There are very few experienced, qualified forensic practitioners, so you’ll find your skills in high demand.

The best forensic accountants are:

  • Comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty: nearly every problem we face is new. Each job requires us to answer a new problem in a different context. If not knowing the answer makes you uncomfortable, then forensics is going to be hard
  • Great communicators: a big part of what we do is TO explain very complicated technical accounting, financial and economic concepts to people who aren’t accountants
  • Good logicians: we need to know how to construct a logically sound argument and see flaws in the arguments of others
  • Skilled in their relevant field: there are three main types of forensic accounting work: investigations, dispute advisory or litigation support (doing work related to court proceedings) and preventative engagements (think preventing money laundering, bribery and corruption) – some practitioners cover all three, but many only one or two.
  • An eye for detail also helps, as do financial modelling skills.

In Conclusion...

I think it’s really important to separate who you are as a person from the job you do, so I tend to define myself by my values NOT my role title. My values are:

  1. Authenticity
  2. Compassion
  3. Grit
  4. Generosity
  5. Growth

Now It's Your Turn...

If you have any questions for me kindly comment below and let me know.


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