Big 4 Audit Manager: Living life in Seasons


Author’s note

Auditors are widely perceived to work late into the night, perform repetitive tasks, and are often stereotyped as fault-finders scrutinizing details to uncover the slightest problems. While the long hours is a reality during peak seasons, what people may not know is that auditors otherwise do enjoy flexible working hours, and they’re in fact happier if there’s nothing wrong with companies’ financials. And at a manager level, they rarely perform the same tasks on a day to day basis. The truth is... that an auditor’s job is not as bad as most people think. In this article, we explore the role of a Big 4* audit manager in depth.

*Big 4 typically refers to the four largest audit companies:  Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG, PwC

What do they do

In essence, external auditors are engaged mainly to audit the  financial statements of companies. As an auditor in a Big 4, you are usually exposed to the bigger MNCs.

Audit is largely a team work. An audit team is led by a Partner and consists of a manager, a team-in-charge (TIC), and team members. Audit managers play an essential role in bridging the gap between the larger team and the leader. They are the ones that the partner looks for when they have concerns, and they are also the ones that the TIC and team members approach with questions. It’s never easy being in the middle, and there are some days when you may feel like a target board being shot at from all angles. 

A manager takes on a huge responsibility over the entire audit project. After all, there's really no one else standing between you and the partner. If things go wrong, you will have to bear the brunt of it. You have to show that you have really done your homework and research; auditors typically consult with both the question and answer on hand, to show that they have strong technical knowledge and are able to work independently. 

A typical day

A typical day starts from about 8.30am to 9.30 am, depending on your personal preference -- some prefer to start the day early. 

People in Big 4 are friendly in nature -- you usually start the day by chatting with the people around you. As you next log in to your email and intranet chat portal, you may realize that your team members have been waiting for you to come online as they have burning questions to ask you. By the time you have finished replying emails and chats, it’ll be mid-late morning. 

Lunch is a big deal in a Big 4 firm. Auditors love to go for early lunches to beat the crowd -- one of the perks since they do not have strict work hours. You get to have longer lunches too if there’re no meetings to prepare for. Lunch buddies are aplenty since auditors work with many colleagues on different teams. In fact, you rarely lunch with the same people every day. 

By the time you are back from lunch, it could be 1.30pm. Time to tackle what you did not have time to do in the morning. You could be reviewing the work performed by your team, researching on the accounting treatment for a certain issue your client has, or simply preparing for your next meeting. 

Audit managers spend a huge chunk of their time attending meetings and discussions. You will meet with your teams to understand and solve problems they have on the field; methodology or accounting solutions team to seek expertise advice; partners to clear the solutions that you have proposed; and of course, your clients. A good client relationship goes a long way in getting the job done. 

What makes an audit manager's role interesting

It feels like an extension of college life

Arguably the biggest draw of working in a Big 4 firm is the young environment and strong camaraderie -- it feels almost like an extension of university days. A graduate joins the firm with typically 20-40 batchmates of similar age. Batchmates are crucial to your mental well-being in a Big 4; they are your support group and your friends. You’ll also bond with colleagues in various audit teams after spending long hours working together for extended period of times. In peak periods, expect to spend 9am to 12 midnight with them everyday.

Ever challenging job. It never gets too comfortable no matter how long you stay

Even after being in audit for more than 5 years, you feel like there are still tons to learn. Besides the wide ranging industries and issues you’re exposed to, you need to periodically research on accounting standards to understand how to apply them specifically to your client, and understand auditing standards and methodology to remain comfortably efficient. The learning is steep in non-technical aspects too, as managers have to pick up skills in project management, team management and time management.

The not-so-interesting parts of being an audit manager

Dreadful long working hours during peak periods

During peak (busy) periods -- typically January to March in Singapore following clients' financial year end -- working hours can stretch till 10pm or even 2am, especially if you work on public listed companies. It starts getting dreadful when you work past midnight everyday for consecutive weeks and report into work the next day feeling fatigued and stressed over overwhelming deadlines. You'll begin to wonder why you're working as hard as investment bankers but getting paid much less. A high proportion of auditors that quit the profession do so because of the crazy long hours during peak periods; there's basically almost no work-life balance at crunch times. The only saving grace is that nobody will nag at you if you are late for work the next morning. 

Typical hours during lull periods can be the usual 9 to 6. But really, you are your own boss as an auditor. As long as you can finish your work, hours are pretty flexible. You can come in slightly later or go off slightly earlier occasionally if you need to run errands, or even work from home at times, as long as you complete your work and meet the deadlines. 

Unexpectedly long list of administrative duties

A manager has quite a long list of administrative duties, such as client billing and chasing for bad debt. Staffing of teams is especially a pain given the high turnover in Big 4 firms. These tasks take valuable time away from the actual audit work.

Demands of new engagements

While it’s nice to meet new people, it can sometimes be tiring to have to start new relationships all over again every few weeks because of new engagements which involve new client contacts and different team members. And there’s no ramp-up period for managers; you’re almost immediately expected to be an expert in the industry of the new client.

Survival tips for aspiring auditors

Manage your time and the people around you

Time and relationship management skills are crucial to surviving in audit. Because you have numerous clients in your portfolio with varied agenda and timeline, you have to learn how to prioritise. What makes it more complex is that you have different bosses and teams for different audit engagements. An effective audit manager has to learn the art of pleasing everyone. You have to be flexible in dealing with everyone, internally and externally. This is especially so when clients and even colleagues sometimes forget that their engagement is not the only one in your portfolio and expect really prompt responses from you. 

Take part in non-work activities

You will realise that it is critical to stand out from the rest as you progress in the firm (it does get harder to promote year after year), and the reality is that you will be benchmarked against your peers during performance reviews. Hence, don't just bury yourself in audit work; participate in other activities that you may be interested in. There are plenty to choose from, ranging from sports competitions to being part of the quality assurance committee.

Work smart and learn to let go

As a manager it is critical to be able to make judgment calls. This is where the concept of reasonable assurance is really important. Audit managers have to be flexible in managing limited resources to complete audit procedures to provide reasonable comfort. It is important to have the technical expertise and the guts to draw a line in the sand. Contrary to what people believe, auditors do not need to balance every dollar and cent. There is a concept called “materiality**” in place -- don’t be afraid to use it. It is your job as the manager to make the judgment call for the team. 

**Materiality is a concept or convention within auditing relating to the significance of an amount, transaction, or discrepancy.

Progression and pay

Auditors can expect to be promoted to managers after 5 years of audit experience after graduation. Those aiming for the chance to become a partner will have to stay for at least another 3 to 4 years as a manager, followed by an additional 3 to 4 years as a senior manager.

Auditors start with a salary range that's lower than most peers in finance for fresh graduates, but typically have higher increments such that they are able to match or even exceed their peers after 4 to 5 years.

Concluding thoughts

It'll be foolish to think of audit as simply a safe, stable professional career path, as it requires strong perseverance and great ability to manage stress well to survive the daunting work hours and multiple deadlines, year after year. The stress is multiplied for an audit manager, who needs to ensure timely audit completion while keeping all stakeholders happy (that is by no means easy). But with the job also comes the young environment, strong camaraderie and time flexibility. Life is akin to living in extreme seasons when you're an auditor -- you work relentlessly for a season, and enjoy the next. If this is a lifestyle for you, audit life can be surprisingly interesting.