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When leadership gets tough, channel your inner swan

Speakers at ITR’s Leading Women in Tax Forum in London shared tips on how to make it look easy when you are leading and building a tax department, mentoring and trying to work together.

As all in-house advisers know, time is often tight and resources are stretched, meaning strenuous demands on tax teams. The fourth panel of the day at the ITR event tackled these issues head-on.

In such situations, “I would like to be seen as a graceful swan, gliding through the water – while my feet are paddling frantically below,” said one in-house tax leader, emphasising the importance of keeping a cool head and projecting a serene image.

On the swan analogy, it’s also important that a team paddles together too. Outwardly, a team should also look like a graceful swan.

“When I was managing my operations team [in a previous role] lots of things were going on in the background,” said another panellist on the day’s fourth panel. “We wanted to show outwards that everything was fine.”

Ideally, you don’t want to present yourself as someone who is paddling frantically because this can sometimes erode the trust of others in you to do the job – but that also doesn’t mean you don’t show your vulnerabilities.

But, far from concentrating solely on the outward image that you and your team project when you are balancing a heavy workload, great leaders must also be noting the performance of their teams. One panellist, who deals with M&A, said: “After a project there is always an email that goes around congratulating people. I always email some people individually who have particularly impressed me. You have to individually notice people.”

Building teams – and making it diverse

The panellists, who focused their discussions on embracing power, influence and running a successful tax department in a style that suits you, noted the importance of planning to build a strong team, and that leadership can mean stepping back from some aspects of day-to-day work.

“I’m a tax professional and people look to me as a tax expert,” said one panellist. “As you get more experienced this [expertise] becomes less important, you need to build up a team of subject matter experts.”

“The first place I looked when recruiting was the Big 4,” said another panellist. “My team’s gender balance was driven by the gender balance of who was qualifying that year.”

But keeping individuals motivated and feeling valued is a challenge no matter the gender balance of the team they are in.

“Coming from big 4 or a law firm you have very structured promotion and appraisal structures,” said the first panellist. “In private practice this isn’t practical.”

When people leave that environment to move in-house, it can be a shock. Promotions are not as easy to come by. Panellists advised giving people extra responsibilities as a way of keeping their roles fresh.

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