Profile: Tracy Wood, the youngest partner of a Big Four firm

For most stroppy teenagers, parental revolt is par for the course, but for
Tracy Wood it took a slightly unorthodox path. She turned down a place at
Cambridge University to train as an accountant. ‘Not going to university was my
way of rebelling,’ she admits.

The anecdote is not all it seems, though, because Wood, now 28, is by no
means a nerd. But she is incredibly focused, mature beyond her years (she admits
to having a 40-year-old head on her shoulders), and one of the rising stars at
Ernst & Young.

Having recently been appointed as the youngest-ever partner in the Big Four
firm’s global history – a career move celebrated with a press release – she’s
something of a secret weapon in the battle to boost female representation at the
highest echelons of the profession.

Yet you sense that Wood feels torn by the accolade. On the one hand she’s
visibly proud of her achievements, but the focus on her gender is something of a
distraction. It is perhaps less likely that a male colleague promoted to partner
at the same age would have received quite the same publicity.

‘I don’t feel disadvantaged because I’m a woman, but certainly we need to
encourage more people to say it’s doable,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to be
misinterpreted as a feminist.’

E&Y is doing a reasonable job, in comparative terms at least, of
attracting women into the firm at an entry level. Today, around 40% of E&
Y’s new recruits are female. But across the profession, the proportion of women
gradually decreases as you move up the career ladder; at the top of the
industry, women represent a pitiful 9% of the partner population.

‘We lose too many women at senior management level,’ Wood admits. She doesn’t
have any theories about why that might be, but concedes a lack of suitable role
models certainly can’t help the situation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she can’t point to any female accountants who acted
as role models for her, but admits that her parents drummed it into her from a
very early age that there was nothing she couldn’t do.

‘I think they did focus on me more than they did on my brother. I remember
playing memory card games when I was much younger. My parents are very proud of
me. They’re not pushy but my mother’s very inspirational. She’s a very strong
woman, but she didn’t achieve her career ambitions,’ Wood says.

Her move up the ranks at the firm was no accident, although during her
A-levels (she got straight As in maths, further maths, physics and chemistry)
she hankered after a career in business. ‘At that stage I wanted to wear a suit
and carry a briefcase; and at 18 I said I wanted to drive businesses forward.
Maybe it was from watching films like Wall Street on the TV.’

It was the school careers adviser who first suggested a career in finance,
and Wood identified accountancy as the route she’d most like to follow. ‘I admit
there are stereotypes, but I fundamentally believed I could change anything.’

One prospective employer for an actuarial job suggested she went to
university, but Tracy shunned higher education.

The high flyer admits she was turned down by a big firm. ‘It was the first
time I’d been turned down for anything – they said I wouldn’t fit in,’ she says.

In hindsight, though, she thinks it was a good call. ‘I’ve looked at it and
people at that age are often not mature enough.’

Luckily, she was later accepted as a trainee accountant with Lathams, a
Manchester-based 20-partner practice. Wood started alongside 12 others, but was
one of only two joining the firm straight from school.

‘I sat down with them at the start and said I wanted to be partner.’

Five years after joining Lathams, and having qualified, the firm was sold to
Tenon, prompting Wood to consider her next career move. But Lathams’ managing
partner, Keith Seeley, continues to be a huge inspiration to her. ‘He built up
the firm from nothing to a £20m practice. He’s a real entrepreneur.’

This time round on the jobs market, she was accepted at E&Y. Working long
hours became par for the course at her level. She points to another female
partner at Ernst & Young, also promoted in June, as a example of how being
senior need not mean working all the hours

God sends. Her partner colleague, Elaine O’Donnell, works in corporate
finance and was promoted to partner just two weeks before her second child was
born, and manages to work a four-day week.

Historically, whenever examples have been given of women that ‘have it all’
they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Wood takes a diplomatic
stance on the issue. ‘Work/life balance is a very individual decision. If I
wanted to change my work/life balance, I feel I’d have the support of my partner
group,’ she maintains.

‘I spend a lot of time at work because I love it. But I’m conscious that I
have to be careful about the message I send out. The time that you spend at work
doesn’t necessarily equal promotion. It’s not the reason why I got promoted.’

Yet it is one of the reasons why there aren’t more women following in Wood’s
footsteps, as the demands of juggling a career with a family take its toll. And
for those that do struggle with childcare and the long-hours culture – something
which senior partners at large firms claim is on the way out – the latest
Accountancy Age/Robert Half Finance & Accounting salary and
benefits survey published at the end of October found that women continue to
take home almost £10K less than male colleagues doing the same job.

Wood, however, certainly has no complaints. Her work day is pretty varied,
but might consist of going out to meet client – both existing and prospective.
She also spends an increasing amount of time coaching others and helping them to
develop their careers, including many of the ‘strong northern women’ that make
up the Manchester office. ‘We have a lot of alpha females,’ she admits.

So how did Wood succeed where so many others have failed? Intellectual rig
our, the ability to exercise judgement and lead others? They are all essential
to moving up the ranks, Wood says. ‘There are lots of people who fit the bill,
but I think what makes the difference is that I have a huge amount of passion
and drive for the business and it’s about using that to inspire others.

‘I want to create a business where people are skipping to work. I’ve been
here five years and people have been incredibly supportive all the way through.’

She admits it’s not always easy. ‘The hardest part of the job is that it’s a
huge responsibility being a custodian of the firm. People bring you a lot of
problems. When things aren’t going well, you have to make some tough judgement
calls. Staying positive when faced with so many negative things can zap your

If there’s one area that she admits needing to work on, it’s how people tick.
‘It used to be a constant source of frustration that people weren’t as motivated
as me. I used to think the answer was to get rid of them and bring in people who
were more motivated. But now I’ve realised it’s about finding ways to inspire

Wood’s resisting the temptation to look beyond the next two years. ‘Up until
now, it’s been “I’ve got to get to partner, I’ve got to get to partner.” I want
to stay with E&Y and the corporate side of things doesn’t appeal to me at
the moment. Right now, it’s about building success and passion in my team.’

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