What skills do you need to be an in-house tax professional?

From practice to in-house – it may not strictly be a one-way street, but it is most certainly the prevailing travel of direction.

Many have switched codes from an accounting firm to industry, but few have gone the other way.

It is such a well-trodden path in the tax community that a recent advice piece for would-be tax professionals on Accountancy Age firmly declared:

“Moving from practice into industry is much easier than the other way around. If you want to try both, consider going into practice first.”

To avoid swimming against the tide, we decided to assume that there is some truth in this bold statement. And as our website manager has demanded we get the biggest possible audience, we hereby offer a tax professional’s guide to switching from practice to in-house. After all, it’s all about the numbers!

Not everyone is interested in tax

The most obvious shock to the system is that, unless you are joining a very large corporation, you may not be surrounded by like-minded tax enthusiasts. Your enlightened lunchtime conversation about ESL filing frequencies may not be met with as much enthusiasm as you are used to.

Hugo Vissers, Indirect Tax Manager at Borealis, offers the sage advice:

“Do not bother your non-tax colleagues with references to court cases that they are not interested in.”

Similarly, a Global VAT Lead for a US Technology company makes the point that individuals must demonstrate the ability to meet the needs of many different types of stakeholders and, not surprisingly, confidence and communication are key. Your first direct rapport is always the most difficult. In the Big 4, you don’t really have direct reports in the true sense, but in industry, you need to keep them interested, develop them, and challenge them. 

There are no real soft skills that would have been taught in the Big 4. You learn as you go. It’s a rite of passage scenario for yourself, and it’s very easy to get this wrong in your early days in-house.

Skills required: You need to have excellent communication skills along with your technical knowledge.

A robust personality

At Harvey John, we find that one of the popular attributes that hiring managers ask for in taxation is ‘a robust personality’. Why? Well, as a senior figure in an in-house tax team, you’re tasked with dealing with many stakeholders, both internally and externally. This might be anything from the group tax function, Finance Director, VPs, CEO, tax authorities, compliance officers and lawyers. 

In-house tax professionals must be highly organised and never fazed by dealing face-to-face with leading stakeholders and top-level colleagues who are likely to be short of time and frequently demanding solutions to complex problems.

Hugo Vissers stresses the need for calm:

“Be patient and do not show any frustration or anger. For the majority of your new colleagues, tax is an admin burden – and a very difficult one. In their opinion, the tax department continuously imposes new tax admin requirements.”

Attributes required: Patience, strength and an ability to remain calm.

Taking ownership

Being managed in the in-house tax function is very different from being managed within a Big 4 environment, where you’re likely to have a director or partner signing off every element of your work and you have the fallback of tax and sector specialists to collaborate with. 

Take the example of the more niche areas of tax, such as transfer pricing or customs. In most organisations that have a dedicated in-house capability, you are the sole representative of this function. As such, you are effectively the eyes, ears, and voice of all things relating to this tax. 

It’s your baby and you need to be responsible for it. It’s important to remember that European businesses are currently facing upheaval and change, with lots of political and economic uncertainty. It falls to senior figures in the tax team to keep things on the straight and narrow. 

You need to be tenacious and ahead of the game so that the business is not jeopardised by incoming legal changes or market fluctuations affecting financial performance. This is where the need to be robust is so vital, coping with pressure while also being technically competent, a natural communicator, and always ready to collaborate and adapt to change.

Kiran Ramdas, Senior Manager – Global Indirect Tax at Juniper Networks, says,

“Nowadays, being just a VAT technical expert is not enough. You need to be a good people manager, to know how technology works and should have a good understanding of compliance as well. Moreover, you must have a good level of comprehension of the industry you work in.”

Attributes required: Leadership and the willingness to accept the buck stops with you.

The business comes first

Consultancy is often theoretical, whereas industry is practical, with decisions being made day-to-day. As such, organisations are looking for qualified, experienced individuals who can build solid relationships within the business and beyond it. 

They want someone who can make a difference to the bottom line and ensure their tax affairs are run in the most efficient and effective ways possible.

Even on a client call this week, the Head of Tax I was speaking to talked about how  ‘advisors don’t see the full cycle of the project and the commerciality outside tax.’ As such, he continued to say that much of the in-house job is about stakeholder management rather than legislation – and that means getting people to come to you! Your clients are your stakeholders. 

Equally, as the buck ends with you, it’s also worth highlighting that the tax authorities are a key stakeholder and managing this relationship is imperative. For many, it’s a shock to the system to acquire the relevant soft skills to be successful in-house because you are on your own with no hierarchy. And, as we’re so frequently told, businesses often do not care about the quality of the legislation; they simply want a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. This decision lies with you.

Essentially, you are looking after the financial interests of a business. As well as saving money you need to persuade others on the best policies. Hugo Visser concurs: It is the job of the tax manager, to ‘push’ the business gently but firmly into these requirements and if we have to explain ten times, we have to do so (with the same energy as the first time).

With many in-house tax roles becoming increasingly regional and (now more frequently) global, the in-house professionals of today are likely to find themselves juggling business interests around the world.

Speaking with Paolo Girgenti (Global Head of Indirect Tax at Puma Energy) about the international nature of his role, he explains how

“one minute you’re looking at excise regulation in South Africa, the next you’re reading the general tax code of Senegal, then jumping to review the tax balances of the company and explain any variances, while also preparing training for other colleagues or helping someone in the UK or Uruguay or Australia.”

Ultimately, the tax industry is constantly evolving and – what comes with that – is the growing need for dynamic tax technicians who can uphold a strong commercial outlook for the business.

Attributes required: A commercial outlook and the ability to see the bigger picture.

Which specific tax roles are most in demand today? 

The good news for those looking to take their tax career in-house is that the market is picking up from the Covid-19-related dip that we saw earlier in the year.

As we’ve been documenting our ‘monthly insights’, vacancy numbers are on the rise and we’re seeing more in-house opportunities opening up in both direct and indirect tax – music to the ears of many of our candidates who have been watching a relatively dry European in-house market over the last few months.

Alex Mann is the Associate Director of indirect Tax & Tax Technology at Harvey John

For expert advice on how to get the best out of your tax career, whether in a professional services firm or in-house, contact us today.

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