I have been practicing tax for more than 35 years. My original ambition was to be a medical doctor so that I can take care of the well-being of people. By a twist of fate, I became an accountant – specifically, a tax accountant and advisor. My career became that of taking care of the financial well-being of businesses and individuals.
What does it take to be recognized as a trusted tax advisor? I believe the requisite attributes are largely similar to those of a trusted medical doctor. For every client and colleague whom I encounter in the course of my work, I have applied my "doctor's mindset" to attend dutifully to them, and this is what I have done throughout my career.
Whether you are currently in a professional firm serving clients or working in a corporate firm serving internal stakeholders, who in this context, would be your internal "clients", I do hope the following ten tips would be useful to you.
Strong blend of hard and soft skills
Having deep tax knowledge is not just a fundamental requirement for our profession, it is a given. Tax legislation is being introduced at a rapid pace. Hence, we must always stay on top of tax legislative changes in order to bring the latest knowledge to apply to tax issues on hand. There is no room to be lax in our learnings. Keeping up to date with new tax laws will equip all – whether the young or the experienced in the profession – with critical technical knowledge. Layering on your years of practical experience to help solve problems in a practical way will further set you apart as a highly skilled advisor.
I would also emphasize that you need to reinforce your soft skills like interpersonal skills as well as public speaking skills. You cannot portray yourself as a technical expert if you cannot articulate what you want to convey to your clients or stakeholders nor inspire confidence for them to work with you. The ability to relate and explain tax concepts in a simple, understandable and friendly manner will certainly go a long way in establishing your reputation in the market.
While we are dealing with a corporate's tax affairs, we are, at the heart of it, dealing with the board, management and employees of the company. Apart from understanding the background to the transaction or situation on hand, we also need to put on an empathy lens – what are the circumstances surrounding the request? Does the client need to take urgent leave and hence there is an urgency to complete the assignment at a faster pace? Or has the client been given a tight deadline to present the findings to the management and hence we need to work on an expediated manner to help the client deliver the work on time?
Understanding and empathizing with your client's situation is a key aptitude in serving our clients.
Integrity and professionalism
In our day-to-day work with existing and prospective clients, we must uphold integrity and professionalism in our services. It is important that we must always act in an honest and ethical way.
Tax is governed by a different set of legislation in each country. When you are taking a position on the tax treatment of a transaction, it must be supportable by the tax legislation. There are times when the tax laws are not clear or appear to be equivocal. If the outcome appears to be a showstopper for the transaction, always think out of the box and seek to exhaust all acceptable avenues. Do not give up, especially if the transaction is important and material to your client. In such cases, with your client's approval, be bold to raise the issue with the tax authorities to hopefully reach a positive and amicable solution. Even if the desired outcome cannot be reached, your client will understand that you have done your best. I have personally worked on many situations in which a seemingly "impossible" tax outcome was achieved after my clients took a chance with me to pursue the "impossible". Don't underestimate your ability to pursue the impossible and make a difference. Importantly, you should continue to maintain integrity and professionalism as you seek to achieve these outcomes.
Analytical mindset and sound judgement
An analytical mindset and the ability to process think is helpful in our profession. By process thinking, I mean, having the ability to not just think about the obvious issues on hand, but also about the "invisible" issues that should be addressed, Further, the ability to make a judgement call and to break down the issues into small steps and address the tax implications at each step to arrive at an optimal tax solution will definitely serve your clients well and position you as a preferred advisor.
Humility and mentorship
Our profession is one where we are stewarded and mentored by our predecessors. The guidance received from our seniors has helped us to achieve the successes we have today. Therefore, be humble and modest of your achievements and spend time to steward and mentor the next generation.
Leave a memorable legacy by coaching and mentoring the younger generations and this would definitely be deeply appreciated. It is not fear but joy when our juniors exceed our own abilities. This is something to be proud of.
As advisors, we need to engender trust in our clients and the tax regulators. As such, we must be confident – not only in the quality of the work we deliver, but also in the way we hold ourselves up to our clients, the tax regulators and our team.
Our profession is known to be one involving long hours. We must treat our colleagues with respect and we must dedicate ourselves to our work to deliver our promises to our clients.
Our work ethic must be true to our profession and to our people. While personal life is important, professional life is also equally important. How we manage our personal and professional lives and strike a healthy balance between the two is integral to our success. I am happily married and a mother of five children. This is testimony that you can achieve success at home and at work too.
Teaming and building relationships
Our success in our profession is not solely due to our individual efforts only. It is the collective efforts of our team that make us successful. Therefore, teaming and the ability to lead a team towards success is key to our overall success.
Spending time to connect and invest in new and existing relationships with your peers and clients is a must. Building these relationships is important, not just to facilitate work but also to enrich your life, both professionally and personally. Over the years, I have converted many of my business relationships into friendships and very proud that I have many colleagues and clients whom I now regard as friends.
I recall being asked before whether, as tax advisors, we are the equivalent of the "samurai" or the "merchant". I believe we are both. Like the samurai, we are expected to serve in a certain way that represents honour, nobility and service. At the same time, we are also like the merchant supplying services.
Our job is to take good care of what we have, whether it is our practice or our tax function, and leave it in a better state to the next generation than when we inherited it. The importance of stewardship cannot be undermined.
Finally, I urge you to dare to dream. Whether you are just starting your career or in the middle of it, you must set your goal to be the best that you can be in your profession. Only then will you be able to achieve your dream.
I hope my sharing is helpful in your journey to becoming a trusted tax advisor.
The writer is EY Asia-Pacific Tax Policy & Controversy Leader and Partner, Tax Services at Ernst & Young Solutions LLP.
The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organisation or its member firms.