Before we were all working-from home, our office had artwork of chess figurines throughout the meeting rooms. I started to wonder how chess pieces were in any way related to the markets which we recruit in (and how I’d ever explain this if someone were to ask!). Eventually, I found a few parallels between the tax market and these charming characters.
These are the heads of the industry, each holding a fat purse. The Kings horde and spend cash, with all eyes on them. The King can move in any direction – but they also can’t move that far. Similarly, the Heads of industry surround themselves with all key figures and have influence at every level, but there’s also not much space at the top and so mobility/progression prospects are scarce.
When a heavyweight Head of Tax announces that they are actively looking at the market, there’s not much difference to when they were not actively looking – they’ll get approached at roughly the same frequency. At this level, the advice would be to always entertain conversations with head-hunters who reach out, even if you are ‘not looking’.
These represent the delivery focused ‘doers’ (typically at a more junior level) on the board. This range spans between those with an accelerated head-start (perhaps the school-leavers), racing to complete their sponsored ACA/CTA qualifications without delay and doing the legwork in delivery roles, all the way to the end of the board. After the hard yards, they then join the queue to redeem a more senior piece – a promotion. Assuming we’re in the professional services, the dilemma here of course is that not everybody can be promoted at once, so comes the waiting. And the subsequent dilemma, which piece you choose?
It’s the newly-qualified to manager grades where we see most candidate scarcity in-house, and so it’s at the newly-qualified level where the opportunities present themselves for progression (i.e., jumping straight to Manager, in-house). In the professional services, a rhetoric can be passed around that everything in-house at the junior level is compliance focused and will limit progression. The way I see it – 1) it’s difficult for the partnership to promote everyone at once, 2) the partnership is keen not to lose their foot soldiers and 3) if the ‘less BD focused people’ move in-house at a more senior level (i.e., Senior Manager), this creates a favourable client tie ‘on the inside’ for the partnership while also helping their ‘who to promote to Director’ dilemma. So don’t believe the hype.
These represent the long-timers who spend years climbing a one-track ladder to progress – usually in the Big 4 or HMRC. They have a long, promising trajectory across the board with just two limitations: they are stuck to just one colour, and other pieces can get in their way. Similarly, the long-timers can find themselves easily immobilised – either via dead man’s shoes for promotion, or when they find a lack of mobility prospects to move to the other side.
After 3-5 years in one setting (Big 4 & HMRC), a danger of immobilisation sets in. There are less options at increasingly senior levels, and it is surprisingly simple to get stuck in a rut while focusing on a promotion-case which might leave you in a checkmate.
They score equally to the bishops, but with two main advantages. First, they can jump over other pieces on the board, and have mobility between the two colours (in-house and practice). Similarly, those who have remained nimble between the in-house and professional practice contexts and have not let themselves get confined to just one setting.
It pays to keep your options open. Building your experience between the in-house and practice contexts will only make you more valuable to each setting if you remain within the same sector. The tax market is a small world, and if you remain within the same network, moving between these settings after 3-5 years just establishes your profile (and in many cases sidesteps the politics of waiting for a promotion).
These high-profile characters tower over the remaining figures from the Big 4 corners of the board: the partners. In this game, the King can sometimes (under very specific) conditions swich positions with a rook. We occasionally see this in the tax market, where a Partner moves in-house or vice versa. However, mobility restrictions are a very real thing at this level. The industry heads typically spend a lot of time rubbing shoulders with the Big 4 partners with all attention on the king, but by no means does this mean that the two operate on the same level. After decades in-house, the kings of industry are often surprised to learn that a step into the Big 4 is at a level below equity partner – most often a Director.
The most powerful piece on the board. It can move any number of squares vertically, horizontally, or diagonally, combining the powers of the rook and bishop. Therefore, the parallel this represents is you, the reader. We can compare how each piece represents where an individual might be in their search, but ultimately the Queen has the agency to do their bidding and so should you. Furthermore, if you so please, if these ramblings have made you think about what moves you can make on the chess board that is the tax market, a conversation is always welcome.
Turns out there was something to the chess artwork on the walls after all. Like a career, I suppose it is whatever you make it to be.