How to move from a Big Four to a smaller firm

Author Annabella Mestrinho
March 23, 2023

As a recruitment firm supporting HR across professional services, we often speak to HR professionals who’ve decided to transition from a Big Four firm to a smaller and less established business. The UK’s Big Four firms are Deloitte, PwC, EY and KPMG.

We sat down with Annabella Mestrinho – specialist HR recruiter in professional services – to hear what’s driving this change for the UK’s Resource Managers.

How are Resource Managers finding the transition from the Big Four into a smaller firm?

It sounds like there are a few significant learning curves for Resource Managers when moving from the largest legal service businesses. One of these is leaving behind the more established resource functions.

Big Four firms tend to have plenty of support with in-house training and established strategies and plans. Some startups and smaller firms are much earlier in their journey and are hiring HR professionals to start building those functions.

“The key for these professionals changing firms is to be confident.”

In the Big Four and other FTSE businesses, there are layers. HR professionals and even leaders are a small cog in a large wheel. You could be amongst over 100 Resource Managers. But in a startup or smaller firm, you might be the sole contact and will liaise directly with the business rather than reporting to a Resource Director. It’s an opportunity to engage with stakeholders who value what you can bring to the table.

The key for these HR professionals changing firms is to be confident. They have the experience and expertise to work out what needs to be done to achieve the business’s goals and lead that change. They’ve been hired for this exact reason and are in a good position to bring that expertise to a less established firm.

How different is it working at a smaller firm?

Within the Big Four and other traditional firms, there’s always someone more senior than you – sometimes as many as three tiers: Manager, Senior Manager and Resource Director. You’re also working alongside operations teams who are involved in resources too.

“Avoid winging it if you do decide to move.”

Work and strategy tend to funnel down and then it’s your responsibility to roll them out. You might have some autonomy to tweak it, but generally, you’re delivering someone else’s ideas.

I’ve spoken to many professionals on this topic and some guidance they give is to avoid winging it if you do decide to move. You do need to have the right experience to successfully transition to a smaller environment and manage a staffing function.

On one of my contact’s first days, they were given a wonderful onboarding and introduction experience – but no delivery plan. They were the lead and were expected to engage with stakeholders and create a strategy.

It’s important to be proactive. Book one-to-one meetings with all of your new stakeholders. Get to grips with the skillsets of the practice plus any existing or previous strategies. There’s likely to be more of a people management focus for these smaller firms rather than reporting.

What are the main challenges and benefits?

A challenge can often become an opportunity. My contacts tell me that any experience you have dealing with stakeholders and senior partners will be useful for this. It’ll help you know what battles to pick and when. Remember, this business wants you to come in and steer.

“It’s crucial in the first few weeks to really listen to senior partners to understand their challenges too.”

Within the Big Four and other large firms, you always have a point of escalation. You don’t have this safety blanket in a smaller firm. To overcome this challenge, back yourself with your confidence to deal with complex situations.

It’s crucial in the first few weeks to really listen to senior partners to understand their challenges too. Get to know their personalities and how they like to work. Your ideas as the subject matter expert will likely be respected.

These businesses are essentially infants in the industry compared to the Big Four where processes are already in place. Your previous company probably had whizzy dashboards and tools. Your new firm might not have these but you’re the one who can bring that potential and build from the ground up.

Is it hard to leave the Big Four?

It’s always scary starting any new job – especially where you’re going to be the sole Resource Manager and you’re used to working in a large team with a big headcount. Make your first weeks count: set your timelines or gap charts, prioritise where you can add value in the short and long term and present that to your leadership team.

It can be difficult to establish your value from the start. You feel if you don’t get enough done, your new employer will carry on as it was without any change. Whereas in a Big Four firm, you’re part of the ever-turning wheel.

“There’s only so much you can do in one day, so focus on the priorities and let your personality shine through.”

There isn’t a handbook for this situation. On the one hand, if you’re too structured you might not come across as personable. Partners tend to spot this quickly. There’s only so much you can do in one day, so focus on the priorities and let your personality shine through.

If you’re still with your new employer for another ten years, your function will be far more established thanks to the value you can add – so embrace it and don’t hold back.

What kind of projects will I work on when transitioning to a smaller firm?

It sounds like this very much depends on the firm itself. One of my contacts who’s recently changed firms has created a project plan already and is adding to that plan every week. Every day they think about how they can improve it. They update key stakeholders with this on a weekly basis.

“When you change to a smaller firm, you’re giving the Partner group all the hours back they usually spend actively resourcing.”

Another contact of mine has introduced a similar advisory approach where multiple stakeholders come together to create a unified approach to resource management and to develop processes and systems.

What influence can you bring from a larger business?

A key influence is business sense. When you change to a smaller firm, you’re giving the Partner group all the hours back they usually spend actively resourcing. This enables them to focus on growing the business.

Resource Managers can also help productivity by working on morale – making employees feel valued and listened to. You can ensure they’re working on what they enjoy and feel they receive the support they need. We all know that making employees happy is the key to business success.

Get in touch today to discuss your hiring needs or career.

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