Tax leaders seek an appetite for learning in new employees
Tax directors say a new employee does not need to know every tax rule, but must show they are willing to learn, embrace new skills, be adaptable and, most importantly, offer something different.
As tax departments try to do more with less and adapt to digital ways of working and the increasing demands of their business and tax authorities, they are diversifying the skills available across the team.
For one global head of tax at a New York-based corporation, the two keys things about talent management is determining what a potential employee is bringing to the table.
“Tax is changing constantly. As a result, departments are changing, how we do things is changing,” the global head of tax said. “We have to use technology – it's just a necessity now – whether it's new tools like robotic process automation or alternatives, you have to be able to embrace technology.”
A prospective employee needs to be able to adapt and change, as well as be willing to embrace technology, which are the key things that the global head of tax looks for when assessing current talent and looking for new individuals.
However, what a tax director wants from a potential employee is not always easy to explain to talent recruiters.
“One of the things we all struggle with is how to convey the concept of what we are looking for to our HR departments,” said the global head of tax. She explained that this department, or external recruitment agencies are a crucial link to employing the right people because “they are the first line of defence”.
“When I talk to our talent recruiters, I say to them that I'm looking for, for example, someone with ‘R&D plus’ – I just need someone with a ‘plus,’ anything in addition. I honestly don't care what it is. It could be that they have dabbled with international tax, or they have dabbled with technology or they've written a book,” said the global head of tax.
One VP of tax in New Jersey said that although most US tax professionals began their tax careers with state and local taxes and these skills are important in a new employee too, it’s also important to look for individuals with skills beyond this.
“I look for someone who's done more in technology, or they're trying to do something else, because that is a different perspective that they can bring to the team, especially now with tax laws changing so drastically,” they said.
For one managing director of tax at a private equity company, she does not look for someone who knows all the tax rules when she is hiring either, as that is an area that requires constant education. Instead, she prefers to get “someone who has an appetite for learning and a proven track record in tools, whether specifically in technology tools, or who has had different paths in their career”. She added that, while you can teach someone about tax, you cannot teach them to have an appetite for learning.
The managing director said that if she asks a potential employee why they want a particular vacancy, and their answer is because they are leaving something, it makes her feel “queasy”. However, if they say they are interested in a new opportunity, then that suggests an appetite for learning.
However, in addition to learning, the ability to make decisions is important, according to the VP of tax.
“I tend to focus on decision making so that I can understand that, when I or their managers are not going to be there or when we’re going through a difficult time, how they make decisions. So, it's really important to understand if they are good decision makers,” said the VP of tax.
For the VP of tax, she also likes to challenge people at the interview stage and within her team to see how they manage outside their comfort zone.
“As the candidate moves through their career, I like to question them on the part of their personality that deals with change and how they accept different responsibilities,” she said, “and I challenge people, even at the director level, with taking on roles or projects that are outside of their comfort zone.”
“It really resonates with me if someone say, 'well, that's not my job, it's someone else’s job, so why do I have to do it?' That's one of my biggest turn-offs,” the VP of tax said.
Existing employees must embrace change
The global head of tax also recommended that those already within the tax function should not be afraid to try something new either.
She mentioned one example where she had a junior tax professional in her team who focused on sales and use taxes, but as the team was running behind on other tax filings, she was trained to help in these other areas to ease the pressure. “Don't be afraid to raise your hand because tax departments are so strapped, that I think any tax department leader would welcome you if you say 'I want to try something else and I want to expand my knowledge’,” said the global head of tax.
On building talent, one of the things the VP of tax has done in her team is to take time to assess how a team could have performed better after completing a busy period.
“We look back and think about what are some of the areas where we felt the team could have been stronger, and some of it is soft skills,” she said. “For example, one of the training topics I added to our training calendar was the difference between a project manager and a traffic cop. It's important to understand the distinction, because there is a distinction and it's very important to your leaders, I assure you.”
“It doesn't really cost anything to develop the more junior members of your team, build confidence and establish leadership skills,” she added. The VP on tax pointed out that with tax departments being asked to do more with less, using the skills across the team to train each other is a great way to build soft skills across the tax function.
Whether it is a prospective employee or an existing one, the strongest individuals in the tax function are those that have a range of skills and are willing to learn more. These are the people that are more likely to rise up the career ladder and become tax leaders in their own right.