Partners are senior members of staff at a firm. Unlike normal employees, they own a share of the organisation, receive a profit share (rather than a salary) and will undertake legal responsibility for the firm’s affairs.
A partner interview is part of the recruitment strategy for the ‘Big Four’ accounting firms in the UK (PwC, KPMG, Deloitte and EY), and is the last stage in what can often be a lengthy recruitment process.
The purpose of the interview is to make sure the candidate is a good fit for the company. There may be some set questions – and perhaps a presentation – but the interview is largely reactive; the partner asks questions in response to what you are discussing.
A partner interview can last anything from 45 minutes to an hour or slightly more.
What Is a Partner Looking For?
Partners want to see your personality; they are trying to determine whether you are a trustworthy, genuine person who can be relied upon to deal with the firm’s clients and make the right impression.
They are also looking to see if you'll be a good match for the existing team.
It’s important to demonstrate that you have an understanding of the role you will be doing and its place within the wider company. The partner wants to see that you have a genuine interest in the organisation and in the part you will be playing to drive the company forward.
Make sure you have a good grasp on any recent news surrounding your subject – this could include the latest legislation, changes in procedure or a recent case in the national news.
Example Partner Interview Questions and Answers
The key to a successful partner interview is preparation.
While each of the ‘Big Four’ companies are different, their partners all interview in a similar way. Therefore, it’s about knowing the likely styles of questions that will come up and preparing effective answers.
Sometimes they will ask that you prepare a presentation to give on the day.
It’s important to note that preparing for an interview does not mean trying to remember the answer to every possible question that may be put to you. Your research should ensure that you have a set of malleable answers that you can adapt for anything that might come up.
Below are examples of questions you might be asked at a partner interview and our tips on being prepared to answer them:
1) Why Choose [X] over the Other Three Companies in the 'Big Four'?
(Similar questions: “Why do you want to work in this location?”; “What do you know about this company?”; “Why do you want to work for us?”)
If you’ve done your research, you will know what the company’s unique selling point (USP) is and why they think they are the best.
You should also be aware of important clients, success stories and anything else that makes the company stand out from the crowd. Use this information to inform your response.
Because you work with [Client Y] and [Client Z], I understand that you have made a commitment to promoting equality in the workplace, which suggests you are a progressive company promoting diversity.
2) Tell Me About a Time When Your Team Solved a Complex Problem
(Similar questions: “Tell me about a time when you had to motivate a team to achieve a goal”; “Talk me through a situation where you overcame what seemed like a big problem”; “Tell me about a time you had to lead a team in meeting a tight deadline.”)
Our team at university was tasked with organising an event for accountancy students. We had four speakers in place but on the morning of the event, two of them were on the same derailed train and couldn’t attend.
As the project manager in the team, I split the group up into two; one group sat down and rearranged the schedule – coordinating with the catering department and other individuals who would be impacted by a change. The other team contacted all accountancy lecturers on campus, to see whether at least one of the slots could be filled with a shorter than planned presentation or workshop at short notice.
(Similar questions: "What has brought you here today?"; "What does your future hold?"; "What influences have led you to follow this career path?")
Although it might seem like it, this is not an invitation to tell the partner your life story. Instead, think about how you would respond if someone said, “Describe your professional situation in two sentences”.
Earlier this year, I graduated from UCL with a first-class degree in statistics, economics and finance. I spent six months on a work placement with Whiles Accounting as part of my degree.
The experience I gained at Whiles piqued my interest in risk management, which led me to look into the possibility of working for KPMG. I am excited about the chance to work with your risk management department.
4) Tell Me About a Time You Got It Wrong
(Similar questions: “Tell me about a time you failed”; “Have you ever made a mistake in your career?”; “Tell me about a time you bounced back from failure.”)
The partner is looking for a significant failure here – not getting a B when you thought you’d get an A in your GCSEs.
The key is to show that you are able to evaluate the situation. Did you pick yourself up and learn from the mishap? Did you get feedback from your superior?
Talk the partner through how your mistake actually made you better at what you do.
While on a work placement, I was asked to cancel a client meeting on behalf of my supervisor. I sent an email to the client and didn’t think any more of it. Later that day, I was called in to see my supervisor who informed me that the client had turned up to the cancelled lunch meeting.
I learned the importance of communication and, in this instance, ensuring that an email of this sort was acknowledged. I personally phoned the client the next day and apologised for my mistake.
5) Your Friend's Lemonade Stall was Open from 15:00 to 18:00 and Sold 15 Cups. What Should his Opening Hours be Tomorrow?
Case studies aren’t about getting the answer right – there is often no right answer. The partner interviewing you will be focusing on whether your approach is logical and structured.
They will assess whether or not you can articulate your thought process, analyse the situation, identify the key elements and come to a well-considered conclusion.
Depending on the case study, you may be expected to employ a business analysis framework to help you reach your answer – like SWOT or the four Ps of Marketing, for example.
6) Technical Questions
If you have applied for a role in audit or cybersecurity, for example, you may be asked a technical question in your partner interview.
The best way to prepare for a potential technical question is to revise; look back over the notes for your final exams.
You can also use your network – you might have contacts who have previously had ‘Big Four’ partner interviews and can tell you more about the questions they were asked.
Online forums can be extremely useful – you might find documented experiences from other people who have been interviewed by the same company.
How to Prepare for a Partner Interview
The partner wants to see the real you – don’t leave your personality at the door.
Despite this being the final interview in the process, it doesn’t have to be the most nerve-wracking. You were already tested in the previous interviews and the company has clearly seen something in you, so be confident and personable.
Preparation for a partner interview is key to being successful. Do as much background research as possible:
- What clients does the company have?
- What is its mission statement?
- What are its values?
- Was it in the news recently?
Much of the information you need to know should be available on the company’s website or in the national news.
Check common interview questions and practise replying. You might think you know why you want to join the firm – but it’s very different thinking something to actually articulating a concise, powerful answer in a pressurised situation.
Tips to Help You Impress
Show that you are a willing, effective team member but also that you have the drive to succeed as an individual working in the firm.
Try not to show off. Bear in mind that the partner is likely to know much more about whatever you are talking about than you do.
Make sure you are personable, friendly, open and relaxed.
Show confidence. Shake hands, smile and be courteous. Make sure you hold strong eye contact throughout your interview.
Dress smartly – but don’t go overboard with an expensive suit.
Ask questions at the end (“You mentioned X, so what are your thoughts on Y?”). Come armed with a couple of prepared questions in case you don’t feel you can pick up on anything discussed during the interview.
Ask the partner what they enjoy most about working for the company.
Make sure you send a thank you email within 24 hours of your interview finishing. This may seem like a trivial chore but it’s important following a partner interview.
Despite a partner interview being more about assessing your personality than anything else, it is still an interview and you may be up against a large pool of people going for a small number of positions.
To be successful, practise as much as possible so you feel calm and prepared on the day; the only way the partner will be able to see the real you is if you are relaxed.
By arming yourself with knowledge about the company, examples of how you have dealt with different situations in the workplace (or at university) and revising any technical data you would be expected to know, you give yourself the best chance.