Date posted: 14/01/2019 12 mins. min read

Making partner, then and now

What’s changed about being an EY partner in 30 years? Soon-to-retire Steve Ferguson and newly appointed Sonia Swinney compared notes.

In Brief

  • EY has more than doubled in size in 30 years, with the digital revolution, diversity awareness, and the necessity for mental wellbeing making big changes to how the firm runs.
  • When Steve Ferguson was made partner in 1989, he doesn’t even remember doing an interview. Now, potential EY partners create a business case.
  • EY introduced gender targets in 2015, and aims to have at least 30% female partners in total by 2020.

By John Burfitt

It was a conversation 30 years in the making when EY partner Steve Ferguson ACA met newly promoted colleague Sonia Swinney CA for a congratulatory coffee in Sydney. Swinney was made a partner in July 2018, while the soon-to-retire Ferguson became an EY partner in 1989.

“The business back then was more simple. Not easier, just different,” Ferguson told his younger colleague. “The job as partner is something to be valued, but it’s worlds apart between now and then. Not just the company has changed, but so has the profession and Australian life.”

That initial discussion was a few months ago. But in October 2018, a few days before Ferguson bid farewell to EY – where he had been a Financial Services partner and previously the Asia-Pacific Financial Services Assurance leader – he was again comparing notes with Swinney.

Their conversation highlighted just how much the landscape of being a partner had changed between the ‘then’ of Ferguson’s time and the ‘now’ of Swinney’s new role. There was the size of the firm, workplace structure, the digital revolution, technology’s evolution, gender equality, diversity awareness, and the necessity for mental wellbeing.

Becoming partner

Steve Ferguson and Sonia Swinney Sonia Swinney and Steve Ferguson

Scottish-born Swinney relocated to Sydney in early 2017, having first joined EY in Glasgow in 2001. She has also worked for EY in London and Brazil, focusing on areas such as retail and finance function effectiveness. Today, she’s a director and partner with the Financial Accounting Advisory Service. After being made partner, Swinney attended the EY Global New Partner Program in Shanghai, which welcomed all new partners from across the world.

“What was really telling about one session was there were many questions about diversity and the way the firm has responded,” Swinney says. “Another discussion that resonated with me was about always remembering where you come from and being true to yourself.”

Ferguson’s experience of promotion to partner in 1989 could not have been more different. At that time, the firm in Australia spread over just two floors of one Sydney high-rise. “The people who decided whether you became a partner were all in the same office around you,” he recalls. “There was no formal process of creating detailed business cases and a number of interviews. In fact, I don’t even remember having an interview.

“[In 1989] the people who decided whether you became a partner were all in the same office around you.”
Steve Ferguson

“These days, it’s far more rigorous and more open, but it needs to be because the firm is now so big. EY needs to know they’re getting the right people for partnership in a competitive environment.”

In the same year that Ferguson became partner, the original Ernst & Whinney merged with Arthur Young & Company to create Ernst & Young. “That doubled the business overnight and there was suddenly so many more people to factor in,” Ferguson says.

The big changes – flexible hours, diversity and technology

Of all the changes, Ferguson deems the introduction of flexible hours the most significant. “I remember when the first person went to four days a week, and that was a huge deal,” he says. “After that, the rules changed, especially for parents coming back from leave with a child to factor in. These days, we have all kinds of flexible workplace scenarios and everyone is used to it.”

Gender diversity within EY is another landscape to undergo dramatic change. Ferguson can remember a time when only a few women ever became a partner. In 1986, Lynne Sutherland became the first female partner in Oceania.

Over the past three years, however, women have represented nearly 30% of newly promoted EY partners globally. The aim is for EY to have at least 30% women partners in total by 2020. Five gender targets were introduced in 2015, including that half of all promotions to “SM4” – the level just below partner – are women. Another was that 50% of all graduate hires were to be female, and this goal has been achieved every year since.

Swinney first noticed a marked shift in diversity a decade ago at EY, and that has continued with the Vision 2020 and Accelerate programs. Vision 2020 is the plan to make EY the world’s leading professional services organisation by 2020, and to excel during a period of rapid change and complexity. The Accelerate program supports women within EY to build their business case for partnership, using a combination of classroom learning and a sponsorship with a senior leader.

“I’ve seen that filter throughout the company, with the philosophy for each person to ask, ‘What am I contributing to my team’,” she says. “There’s more to be done, but I like to think that as a mentor I can make a difference, especially with Accelerate, which supports and encourages high-performing women within the firm.”

The digital revolution is another arena where the rules changed. Ferguson recalls the early experiences of trying to work with a team in Europe – “I had to take a computer home, and we’re talking about a big desk computer not a laptop,” he laughs. “I would log in on the dial-up modem, hope it would maintain a signal, and keep clicking to see if the Czech Republic office had picked up an email. It would take hours. That whole transaction can now be as simple as looking at my phone. Expectations may now be more immediate, but so too is technology, when managed well.”

Which is why, Swinney adds, she feels a need to put clear boundaries around what’s expected of her team. “You need to lead by example and be sure your team does not feel they need to be online 24/7,” she says. “Of course we act when something is urgent, but it’s not culturally expected that people are available on their weekends.”

“You need to lead by example and be sure your team does not feel they need to be online 24/7.”
Sonia Swinney

Work-life balance is now a priority

With their conversation coming to a close, the discussion between the EY partners of yesterday and today lands on the topic of work-life balance. “That simply would not have been a conversation back then; it was all about keeping your head down,” Ferguson says. “If people had spoken about taking time out to go travelling, that would have come as a shock. Now, there’s a far greater understanding of what people need in their life.”

Swinney adds that it’s now more a matter of making decisions that allow individuals to be the best in all areas of their life.

“It’s about being conscious of what the role looks like and what success looks like, but also what my boundaries are and how I do things within that space every day,” Swinney explains.

“I love my job and I love working with a team who are great at what they do. But I also love living in Sydney with its amazing outdoor lifestyle, so I can sometimes go sailing at the end of the day. All of that is about taking care of my wellbeing, so I am doing my best as a new partner.”

Tips for new partners

Steve Ferguson, an EY partner for 29 years, shares advice on making the right moves in the step up to partner.

  • Take time to settle into the role and enjoy the process.
  • When surrounded by a team of intelligent people, be sure to consult properly.
  • Make the focus of your own brand being good to work with.
  • Remember this adage: “The worst decision you will probably ever make is the one you make on your own.”

How to disconnect from the pressures of the job

This is how former and current EY partners Steve Ferguson and Sonia Swinney strike the work-life balance.

  • Have boundaries around what you’re doing and know when to put your phone away.
  • Understand yourself and what you need as an individual to operate on a daily basis.
  • Empower your team as they are your greatest support and have the skills to step up.
  • If you need time out, arrange it. The sooner holiday time is in the calendar, the easier you will make it all work.