Becoming the Global Head of Trade

Time and time again, we’re asked by junior candidates what it takes to reach the senior grades within the indirect tax world. And rather than give you our answer, we thought it would be best if we shared the views of those who have been there and done it!

Cristhian, thank you so much for taking the time out of your extremely busy schedule to interview with us here for our ‘Becoming’ series! I know that I was keen to hear about your story and your time at Google – I’m sure others will relate! So, without further ado, could you tell us a little about your background?

Hello everyone! My name is Cristhian Rodriguez and I’m an extremely passionate Global Trade Compliance Specialist. Let me walk you through my story… I was born and raised in beautiful Mexico. I grew up in a little town surrounded by nature in a very average family, but like most Latin Americans, I grew up accompanied by an extended group of cousins and friends, who basically did everything together. This situation helped me develop my core working skills at present – I love collaborating and interacting with people. Because I grew up in a small town, I didn’t have access to any technology; desktop computers, cellphones, cable, and even the internet. Yep, I was a millennial who grew up without tech. Shocking, right? Especially when I’m currently working for a company that represents the internet itself and I’m responsible for shipping the most technologically advanced devices around the globe. So, here’s the first lesson, your past and present circumstances don’t determine what you can be or achieve in the future.

At the age of 16, it was time for me to leave the nest and I tried to move as far as possible from home to go to college. Like most teenagers, I wanted to be independent ASAP. However, this turned out to be the scariest move in my life as I found myself living alone in a strange city where I knew no one. It took me about one week to get homesick and beg my Mum to accept me back. She said NO! She said I needed to continue with the original plan.

That’s what Mums are for, I guess! What was your main takeaway from that then?

I think you always need someone who encourages you to stick to your path, even if it’s a difficult one. I mustered up the strength to move forward because I just couldn’t go back. Thanks to Mum, I was able to finish my university program, which has enabled me to do amazing things.

So here are a couple of lessons:

1. It sounds cliché, but you really need to get out of your comfort zone – the most incredible things happen far away from there;

2. Always look for a person (coach or mentor) who helps you stick to your professional plans – the desire to quit when things get rough is inevitable so you need someone who will encourage you to keep playing the game, and;

3. Sometimes a rough path takes you to more exciting places, so next time a door closes, don’t overthink it and move on to the next challenge!

In most cases, I think that we all need a bit of tough coaching or guidance to push us in the right direction. I think it’s so important to understand that early on. I must ask – Why did you choose a career in international trade?

I’ve heard that many people landed in a trade compliance role by chance, that wasn’t my case. From the very beginning, I was so passionate and curious about the corporate world and I knew I wanted a profession that allowed me to travel the world, learn about different cultures, and have a global footprint. A career in International Business, Customs and Trade was the perfect option for that. So 15 years later, here I am, moving the coolest devices in tech around the planet, working at a cosmopolitan organization, interacting and learning from colleagues with different backgrounds and, once in a while, planning trips to remote places of the world. The full package!

So, after University, where did your professional journey start? I know that coming from a generation that saw Google develop, it’s a company that MANY people want to work for!

Indeed, working at Google has always been, and still is, my dream. Like many other people, I love and admire Google, its culture and its products. I’m extremely proud and excited to be part of this organization. But the journey until this point has been long, filled with obstacles and with plenty of mistakes and lessons learned in the process. So let me talk to you about a couple of decisions that brought me here.

I started my career in Sanmina, a global manufacturing firm, in the role of Planner Buyer. This was an exciting first job. I learned a lot about negotiation and operations. However, this role didn’t match my expectations and aspirations. At that stage, I always wanted to work in the advisory industry. I felt that working in that sector would help me apply my knowledge in Customs and Trade more directly, whilst also learning the particularities of different industries.

What happened after graduation?

When I graduated, what I wanted the most was to work for a Big 4 company. Suddenly the opportunity showed up at Deloitte. I didn’t second guess making an application as this was the role I was hoping for. Following the interview process, I managed to get an offer, but then the difficult part came. The salary of this role was half of my current compensation at Sanmina. Taking this job would imply a complete change in my lifestyle. When I looked for advice, all my friends and colleagues said the same thing, – Stay in your current job because you have a better economic position. I gave it a lot of thought but finally, I made my own decision.

I decided to take the opportunity to work in my dream job despite the circumstances. Because I was doing what I love, it took me only one year to get promoted at the firm and achieve a better economic stand, so here’s the most important lesson of all – in your career, always choose passion and purpose, the rest will eventually follow. Even when you reach out for advice, don’t forget to listen to your gut. You own your career, so be ready to take the steering wheel.

How long were you at Deloitte?

I invested 3 and a half years working at Deloitte, and they were totally worth it. In this amazing firm, I contributed to multiple projects in Fortune 500 settings, covering different topics in the field, from helping Nike with its import and audit process to supporting Honda perform origin calculations for its CR-V, to enabling Worldmark to obtain the certification as a trusted partner (C-TPAT). This gig was perfect and gave me an understanding of the full spectrum of trade compliance matters.

However, as much as I was enjoying working at Deloitte, I still wanted an international career, so my next move was to study a master’s program in the UK. The fact that I could merge my work experience with executive education opened up a bunch of opportunities for career progression. After I finished my master’s degree, I joined Amazon and started my career in the tech industry.

From Amazon, I learned the most important rule in business, ‘it always starts and ends with the customer’. This is my mantra until today. But of course, when I thought I had everything figured out, out came the big shake-up – an opportunity to join Google popped up on my LinkedIn. Was this real? I remember going to the cinema with my friends to watch ‘The Internship’ and remember telling them at the end of the movie that one day I’d be working at Google. Neither they nor even I believed that was truly possible. Those things only happen to special people, I used to believe. But there it was, my dream job knocking at my door. You know how the story ends.

Turns out I was incredibly wrong, there are no special people, there are just relentless people. I want to highlight the lesson here, things always look impossible, until you do them. And we are ALL capable of doing “impossible” things!

It’s quite easy to see the passion that you bring to your work, Cristhian. I agree with you and might add that it’s so easy to get tied up in day-to-day life but loving what you do is so important. With that being said, what’s life like for you as the Head of EMEA Trade Compliance at Google?

Well, let me start by answering the question that many people ask me: Yes! Working at Google is super fun! I enjoy the perks (free food, gym & nap-pods) a little bit too much. However, working in a company with the highest standards, whose products and services touch the lives of billions of people, comes with many responsibilities and extremely challenging jobs. I take my responsibility very seriously. From my side, I’m responsible for the importation and exportation of our consumer hardware in EMEA and I lead a team of brilliant trade compliance rockstars who every day go the extra mile to deliver our gadgets to the hands of our users.

I deal with many complexities in this position and must understand the business inside-out to be successful. For example, to set up our customs brokerage strategy, I need to be aware of all our supply chains, logistics processes, and transportation routes in the region. To deliver our Go-to-Market strategy for a new product launch, I need to collaborate with my colleagues in sales, operations and transportation to find the most optimal ways to deliver our products to customers across the EU.

To design our fiscal optimization initiatives, I need to study and understand the different customs and tax laws governing our operations. So there’s a lot of information I need to assimilate in order to make critical decisions. However, what keeps me going every day at Google are the big things, the things that matter – I imagine our customers unboxing our new products and saying wow! I imagine our users using our hardware, apps and tools to express themselves. I imagine them using our products and software to drive change. With such a powerful vision, how do you not come to work completely pumped up?

I remember watching the Internship, and having that want to just visit a Google office! It did make me wonder if certain sporting events (Quidditch) were a regular occurrence. Now, I’m sure that many might ask you this for the sake of an amazing work environment – was there anything in particular that you did to put yourself in your role at Google?

That is an interesting question. I’d say the most important thing I’ve done is to be myself. I’ve never tried to change to fit in at the workplace. I’m very loyal to my values and beliefs, and I act on those every day in everything I do. I love it when people are so authentic and leverage their uniqueness to thrive. Being who I am is my superpower that nobody else has.

Perseverance is also critical. Many people quit at the first failure. But success is not a race, it’s a marathon. It’s not about speed, it’s about stamina and resilience. The important thing isn’t to avoid making mistakes; it’s about making a bunch and learning from those. If you’re not getting things constantly wrong, it’s because you’re not trying something new. So remain curious and be persistent, even when you feel knocked down, always stand up and keep trying.

I’d say that I’ve reached this stage thanks to being unique, learning from my mistakes, and never giving up.

Grit is something not everyone is aware of, and I’d be inclined to say it’s something that everyone needs to have to succeed in anything. Self-betterment is an aspect of perseverance I feel isn’t talked about enough – Are you active in self-education? How often do you gather your knowledge?

That’s a great question! I love learning! I’m a very curious person and always look for opportunities to learn something new. I’m a super fan of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). So I spend a lot of time on edx, Coursera or Lynda. I prefer to take courses on transferable skills, skills that aren’t directly related to my work but that I can bring to the table occasionally. For example, I took a course on storytelling to help me write better memos at work; I also took an acting class on improvisation to be able to tackle difficult meetings and presentations.

Of course, I also dedicate time each year to sharpen my technical skills, remain up-to-date and learn more about trade, customs and tax. This can be either by attending conferences, joining professional networking events or something more formal such as studying for a postgraduate diploma or pursuing a certification.

Anyway, I cannot stop learning. My brain needs to be constantly stimulated and I just love doing new things!

I suppose it’s a given when you’re in a diverse role like yours. If I were in your shoes, my brain would definitely need constant stimulation – Does this play a part in a routine? Or even better, do you have a daily routine?

Something that I can’t have is a routine. I think the only constant in my life is change. Therefore, it’s difficult for me to stick to a time and set of activities. My job requires me to travel significantly so I find myself in different time zones very often, therefore it’s hard for me to follow a schedule. However, I do have a series of rituals or habits that I take with me everywhere. For example, the first thing I do when I wake up is to do my bed; this task gives me the confidence that, after a long day, I can go back to a place that’s ready for me to take a rest.

The second activity I do is to listen to some short inspirational videos on YouTube, it could be either a TED talk, a Nike ad, or any Coldplay song for that matter. I like to start the day by giving it purpose, feeling positive and setting, the correct mood to make great things happen.

I’m a big fan of TED Talks myself – a great way of exploring other ways of thinking! Now, these are obviously more personal habits, but what key working habits do you think someone needs to become an expert in Global Customs and Trade?

Stay engaged in all projects you execute, try to see the big picture and understand the meaning of what you do. If you’re able to identify the real purpose of a project, you’ll be able to deliver the proper solutions and add value to any engagement.

As Stephen Covey said, ‘Sharpen the saw’; our industry is constantly changing, so stay ahead of the game by keeping pace with the recent developments in the field. Brexit, Trade Wars, Tariff Updates, Trump tweets? Everything has a potential impact on trade, so be ready to process information from everywhere.

Network a lot. Invest in relationships with professionals who you can help or can help you. Career progression heavily depends on who you know.

Finally, don’t forget to remain passionate about the field. Remember why you chose this sector and bring the best of you to any project.

Amazing. Do you have any words of wisdom you’d give to young professionals who want to drive their careers deeper into leadership roles?

Yes, I can give them some advice; these points have worked pretty well for me. It’ll come down to you to apply the information.

Take the challenge!

When an opportunity shows up, go for it. If you think a project or role is too challenging for you, give it a try first. Don’t walk away without putting yourself to the test. Take the risk.

Believe in yourself.

We’re always the first ones to put ourselves down. How many times have you let an opportunity pass just because you thought you weren’t ready or capable of doing something? It’s time to change the chip and start being more supportive of yourself. Cheer yourself up. Be your own super fan. Yes, you can do great things!

Learn how to work with others.

You’ll always depend on people to get work done. So be smart and invest in positive relationships. Connect with your colleagues; career progression is strongly influenced by your professional network.

Simply ask.

Do you want something? Start by asking a question. It’s very silly, but many people don’t get what they want just because they’re afraid to ask for things. Do you want more responsibility? More projects? A salary increase? Ask for it!

Want to lead someday?

Learn to follow. My favourite lesson from Game of Thrones! We all want to lead projects and manage people, which shows your ambition, and that’s awesome. But, if you want to do it right, start by being supportive of your peers and managers. Be a team player.

Shake things up.

It doesn’t matter your position or your hierarchy, you can always drive change in your company.  Don’t wait to have a position of power to make improvements or start influencing people positively; you can always challenge the status quo.

Enjoy the ride!

The most important thing is that you have fun and feel proud of what you do and who you are. If your current situation doesn’t make you happy, don’t invest more time and effort there, go and pursue what fulfils you. Your career should be an amazing journey, take the steering wheel!

Great points made there, Cristhian. It’s one thing to know, but it’s another to apply what you know. Finally, to close us out, do you have any recommended reads or inspiring books you live by?

I can strongly recommend the book ‘The Startup of You’ by Reid Hofmman and Ben Casnocha. What I like about this book is the metaphor that you and your career are like a startup. You need to constantly invest in yourself to grow, so focus on building relationships, define your competitive advantage, and be willing to take risks. You should always be on ‘permanent beta’, the stage in which you’re constantly improving and evolving. In the end, no matter what you do, think big and deliver everything you have to make your dreams happen.

You heard it here. Cristhian, thank you so much for spending time with us on ‘Becoming’. It’s been a pleasure hearing your story and I hope that others find your sound advice which will go a long way.

Are you at the senior level within Indirect Tax? If so, we’d love to hear about your experiences and share them with our global tax network.

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