TEI Roundtable No. 47: My Tax Journey, Part Two
Tax professionals share insights into their unique journeys and roles

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In this continuation of last issue’s Roundtable, participants from TEI’s 2023 Annual Conference panel, also titled “My Tax Journey,” discuss work-life balance, handling personal and professional crises, and the next generation of tax experts. The panel includes Josephine Scalia, head of tax at Nestlé Health Science and senior vice president of TEI; Wayne Hamilton, vice president of global aCorporation; and Loren Ponds, member and practice co-lead of the tax policy practice at Miller & Chevalier and moderator of the original conference session. Sam Hoffmeister, Tax Executive’s managing editor, moderated this discussion.

Sam Hoffmeister: What does “work-life balance” mean to you, and how have you aimed to achieve that balance throughout your careers?

Loren Ponds: I think we could all in theory work all the time. Nobody wants to do that; it’s not good for ourselves or our physical or mental health. I don’t think that I do anything any better or worse than most people. It’s just a real commitment to being conscious about and intentional about shutting down, whether that be not spending every extra second looking at email or thinking about something I could be doing for work, and just really unplugging and spending time with family or friends or just reading a book that has nothing to do with tax. But it does take a real effort. It’s easy to do something that you like and that you’re good at all the time, but that’s not the only thing you’re here for.

Josephine Scalia: Two concepts: chunking and interweaving. Because I agree with everything Loren just said, I now have to say something different. “Chunking” is basically breaking your day into three chunks of time: the morning, the middle part, and then you can kind of separate also the evening. But you can also look at your weekend the same way. So, for example, Friday night. Maybe there’s five chunks on the weekend: Friday night, and you have Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, and then Sunday the same. I feel a little bit strange with “work-life” because work is part of life. And this is kind of what I want to say. I have two children, and of course raising children brings the challenges for my husband and I if there was fever or whatever. You sort of have to make time to make sure that they’re OK. So you have to bring them to the doctor. Let’s say you missed part of the morning. Well, I look at work-life balance as flexibility. If my work was flexible with me to make sure that I had time to bring my child to the doctor so that they’re OK, then I’m obviously going to be flexible back. Maybe that night I work late, or another day. Sometimes maybe I have to work on the weekends, and certainly having worked in the Big Four we understand that there’s deadlines, and we’re all the type of people that we’re not going to miss those deadlines. I like to look at work-life balance like that, as flexibility, and the chunking as well. As long as I can allocate some of those chunks of my day to make sure. Of course, a big part of it is going to be work—let’s just say what it is. But as long as you also take a few of those chunks. And then the uninterrupted time is so critical. So that if you do spend that time with family, with friends, even by yourself, that you try as best as you can to make it uninterrupted. I think it used to be easier in the olden days, if you will, before we had everything instantaneous and everybody expected everything right away. And I think that COVID sort of did that, too; we see the calls starting earlier and earlier in the mornings, where we used to have that commute time. The calls are already starting much earlier.

“Interweaving” is an interesting concept that I really like. As students, you could study one subject, and then you move onto another one just to give your brain a chance to take a break. And then when you come back to that first subject, all of a sudden you’re able to see it in a different way. I really like music, and I had played some musical instruments at one point, and my kids play piano, and my son really likes guitar. Sometimes when you just take a break from studying and then you go, you learn a new song, you do something so different on the piano or whatever, and then you go back to it. Suddenly you’re like, “Oh, wow. This makes sense.” I think that applies also to work. Sometimes it’s good to take a break. And, of course, we’re multitasking constantly anyway, so that happens naturally, and then you go back to looking at “Oh, what about this?”

Wayne Hamilton: Next time I want to go first because then this would be a whole lot easier [laughter]. I believe this idea of work-life balance is a misnomer. I really appreciate what Josie’s saying. When I’m at work, I invest 100 percent of my energy at work. When I’m at play, I go for 100 percent play. I am not good at multitasking. I like to take breaks, as Josie said, which is great. I walk away from it and come back, and I try to have that discipline. So, for me, work-life balance is when I’m at work, I’m here. If I’m at home, I really cut down, or I have select times where I’ll go check. I leave phones in the other room. That’s how I work around it. “Balance” means I try to do both of them at the same time, and I just don’t do well with that.

Jenn Bowers: I agree with everything that was said. It was interesting when we did this presentation and that topic came up. I believe someone asked the question in the audience. I think we all looked at ourselves, like “We are not good people to answer this question” [laughter]. But there is a couple things that I would think as we’re trying to help other people think about their career. I do think that what Josie said about being flexible goes both ways. People want to have flexibility to take their kids to the doctor, or go to their kid’s sports game, or even be a coach for their kid’s sports team. Or they love music, and they want to go to another city to go to a concert. Whatever it is that’s like your passion or need outside of work, if you expect they’re going to be flexible with you to support that, same thing goes back. My daughter’s early life I spent a lot of nights working from like ten p.m. to one a.m. Because I was out the door at four-thirty in the afternoon, whatever it is. And I also think that those things in life, like work-life balance, there’s a lot of transition that happens through life. Whatever you need right now, it’s temporary. It may be temporary for four years, but it’s temporary. What you need now is going to be different. But I think the one thing that is consistent if I look over my career is I was always interested in learning and doing more. And I always had tension over what I actually wanted to accomplish at work and what I wanted to do out of work. There’s a lot of tension that happens there. As Loren said, you have to be diligent and allocate the time as best as you can. There’s no perfection when it comes to work-life balance, because it really is, as we all said, just part of how you fit it in. But I think that two-way street of flexibility is important for people to consider if they’re feeling like they aren’t getting the work-life support they want from their company.

In Times of Crisis

Hoffmeister: What motivates you to stay focused on your work during times of crisis, whether that’s a work conflict or something outside of work?

Hamilton: I wish I’d gone last on this one [laughter]. Distractions are part of life. I have maybe a more personal story. My daughter was very ill during COVID. She was in the hospital for eleven months—in and out of hospitals and rehab for eleven months—and afterward, someone made the comment, “We didn’t realize you were going through something.” I don’t know if that’s good or bad. But what I’ve been able to do is compartmentalize what’s going on in my life. Yes, she was sick, and yes, I was traveling back and forth, and sometimes I was in Boston. But I needed to get something done, not only for the company but for the people on my team, the people that depended on me. I realized how long I could go without then having to take a break. I’m good at two and a half, three hours’ focus, and then I gotta get up and walk away. So I learned to manage and go, “OK. I have two and a half hours to solve this, and then I’ll walk away and come back.” Doing that, then I can work with the distractions. All of us will tell you, no matter what the day starts out to be, there’s something that’s going to happen that derails that. You then have to make some tough decisions about which ones you need to push off and have the courage to go, “I can’t deal with this,” or “I can’t help you with this right now,” and focus on the things that are of great value. And that’s how I deal with the distractions.

Bowers: I do think that was a perfect example of true crisis and trying to manage through that. I think in tax we have so many things. We have deadlines, of course—statutory deadlines—but there are a lot of deadlines that are just inherent in what we do, and they’re not driven by the places that you would think. Of course, there’s financial deadlines, the quarter’s going to happen. Those are predictable. There’s what I think of as predictable deadlines that you can manage around what crisis might come up. You know the resources. If somebody quits on you the month before close, what are you gonna do about it? You can mentally plan for that or get through it. But I also think that in our area sometimes the business is doing a transaction and they want a decision from you now, or there’s some new fact to the business, and what’s the impact now? There’s a lot of things that happen with “What should we do now?As Wayne said, getting really comfortable with which things require me to actually go chase down more facts, which things do I have good judgment on, that I can big-picture, figure out what the answer is. I just think that those are crises that come up. I fortunately don’t have an example like Wayne that sort of derailed what I was doing in life. I think almost everything that happens with your child or your family—I’ve had a parent pass away, that kind of stuff—those are temporary. Having a workplace that you know is super supportive for those times has been good for me. I’ve had what I needed in those moments. That’s what I would have to say about crisis.

Scalia: I again agree with everything that they’ve said, and I really liked where you were going with that, Jenn. I’ve been really fortunate to have fantastic mentors throughout my life. Sort of this concept of having a personal board so that if you end up in a situation where you have issues—I’ll just say issues—it could be crisis, it could be whatever, but when you have a life-changing moment, you can go back to your board. You want to make your friends during times of peace so that you have them there in times of war. You want to think about this. You actually want to deliberately think about, “OK—if I was a company I’d have a board of, I don’t know, ten to twelve people. Who on a personal level would I have on my own personal board?” It could be old bosses. It could be old teachers. It could be aunts and uncles that you respect. Obviously your parents are probably on the board. No matter what, you are the chair. It’s your life. You are the chair, the main one on your board. That way, hopefully it develops like a company, like people roll in, they roll off. So, as you grow and evolve, then maybe you have a friend that’s a lawyer on your board. If something comes up and then you’re like, “Oh, you know what, let me call…” and they know, by the way; you give them a name. It’s not just “You’re actually on my board, and I’ll be on yours if you want” kind of thing, like it’s reciprocated. So that when those times come and you start thinking, it’s like, “OK, let me see what kind of advice.” In the end, you can listen to everyone’s advice, but then you have to take your own.

Ponds: I think what Jenn said toward the end of her comments is really important. When you have a personal crisis, knowing that you are somewhere where you will be supported is important. That’s probably the last thing you want to be worried about—are these people going to fire me if I have to take this much time off or I can’t be here every day? So, kind of evaluating where you are. It’s the same thing with the flexibility in the schedules. Where are you? Where are you working? Is this an organization that can really support you, or is it just one where you show up to do your job and you leave? Thinking about that as you navigate your career is important. And then, whenever I’m in a mode of having to do a lot, or have crazy deadlines, I just put my head down and do it. You kind of have to get through. There’s no way over or around; you’ve got to go through it. I don’t know if that’s helpful for people, but it’s what I’ve done.

Hamilton: You know, Sam, maybe as I think about what I’ve heard, I don’t think it’s the crisis that scares me. It’s the lack of a plan. If I have a crisis and I have a plan, I’m going to be OK. It’s when I don’t have a plan that really—and everyone said it—if you’ve got the crisis but you’ve got a network, a group of people you can turn to, that’s powerful. Because if you have a crisis and you don’t know how to solve it, that’s where the real problem is. I think Jenn said it best. We know what’s happening if someone quits or if there’s an emergency and something has to get done. We all can talk to someone and say, “Hey, have you gone through this?” and they can say, “OK, here are the three or four things you need to think about.” For me, if I can’t immediately solve it and I don’t have somewhere to go, that crisis has now become bigger.

The Next Generation

Hoffmeister: Speaking to the next generation of tax, what advice do you have for aspiring young professionals looking to either get their foot in the door or to take that next step in their careers?

Bowers: I do think it’s important to be curious, to have the ability to be creative with things that are challenging, but curiosity is what gets you there. So, I think if you are in consulting or even you start work for a new company, be super curious about the facts of your company. Who does what where, and what does your technology do, and how is it being used, and where’s that technology development going? None of this is tax stuff, but actually all those business facts help you think through where that business is evolving and what tax issues they’re going to face. And then the other thing that was important to me, I remember as a staff person—I think I might have been a manager working in public accounting—and I had this client who was actually my same level. She had a question, and I researched to try and come up with an answer. She just kept asking me “Why?” for what felt like five hours. It wasn’t that long, but she asked me “Why?” so many times. Later I got to know her in real life, and she’s just like, “I just keep trying to make sure I understand.” And I’ve thought about that since then. It’s more than just asking why, because we can all do that when we have something that we’re trying to learn. But instead it’s that curiosity of, like, “They’re telling me this, but that seems very different than this other thing I know.” And it can be related to a tax technical issue, it can be related to the business. It can be related to whatever it is you’re discussing. Trying to connect the dots with what you’re hearing and what you know, or if what they’re saying to you just doesn’t connect and you don’t understand, it is important to pick your conversations. But don’t leave those conversations just saying, “I guess they know what they’re doing.” Get to the point where you are learning. I think that’s important for your own development. And I think for getting your foot in the door, go to TEI stuff. Introduce yourself to people. It could be a company you want to work with, it could be an advisor you want to meet, it can be someone who knows something about a technical matter that you want to know. It can be someone who you want to be friends with—like, “Oh, that person likes to go wine tasting. I like to go wine tasting. I’m gonna just try to get to know them better.” It’s your place to, like, create your culture of your work and your life environment. That’s my advice.

Ponds: I feel like there’s never been a better time to get involved in tax. We’re all looking for talent. I always say I’m always looking for people with energy, which is a one-word encapsulation of everything Jenn just said. Be curious. Probe. Ask questions. Don’t just take what somebody tells you as gospel or assume that just because someone’s talking that they know more than you do. I look for people who have a passion for what we’re doing and want to know more and want to keep digging and getting to not just the answer, but understanding more globally what they’re doing, why and how what we’re advising on fits into the bigger picture. And that takes energy. It’s not just doing the task before you. It’s thinking bigger than that.

Hamilton: I like taglines, and the one I’ve come up with for this is, “It’s more than tax technical. It’s more than continuing education. It’s creating.” You’re creating a personal/professional environment that will carry you through your entire career with people who share some of the same topics, the issues and challenges, that you’re going through. What better place to build that resource than TEI? At every stage in my career, I’ve been able to find someone going through it, someone about to go through it, someone who has gone through it and helped me think through “How do I solve this?” Whether it’s “I’m thinking about changing jobs,” whether it’s “I’ve run into this problem; how do you solve it?” or “How do I take this very complex bit of regulation or tax law and articulate it in a way that the business will understand?” It’s also a place where you get to do dry runs on things like that, where you may not have that in your work setting, but in this smaller, informal setting, you get to try these things out and practice them. It will accelerate the growth of your career. I also think about it as we appreciate that there are social media and other ways to connect with people, they serve a place, but nothing beats the acceleration of anything than getting in the same space.

Scalia: Of course, this is an area that’s very dear to me. We have a student committee. We have student membership that we created in 2019, a student committee that we created in 2023, and a case competition, the student competition, international case competition. The real base of the case competition was, number one, get people excited about tax. It’s a simulation of what it is to be a head of tax or someone in an in-house tax function, which is a little different than your regular case competitions that are more like moot. So this is really looking at it from a different angle. We had different schools participate. The other thing is that the TEI student committee had to put on a whole series of monthly events for anybody who wants to learn more about it. They have some really interesting things, like how to build your network, where we had a recruiter come and explain a whole bunch of tips. One of the things that he said was, “Don’t be afraid to find role models on LinkedIn and just reach out and connect.” You’d be surprised how many people like us want to give back. And if somebody that’s really interested just asks for advice, worst case that happens, they won’t follow up or you get basically a rejection, but it’s still worth a shot. The other items that we had, we have some other events like pursuing higher education in the field of tax. Everybody knows you can get to tax through accounting, like a CPA, down that path, or through law, but that we’ll explore and then you’ll see that there’s other things, too; transfer pricing—if you consider that part of tax, you can get there through economics, through different states. I think somebody was saying recently—I think it’s the AICPA had a state of the profession, a survey showing that a lot of the new hires—when I say a lot, I think it’s like over forty percent—in the firms were not necessarily with the typical accounting background. So, now, more and more—well, I think there was a tendency that less people are going into accounting, but we’re seeing other fields really grow a lot, IT and different. I know that some people were saying it’s easier to teach an IT person tax than the other way around [laughter]. I think that things are just changing so much that by being part of TEI you can kind of understand, something a bit like this panel, different careers, different advice. I would say that that would be the best advice: Don’t be afraid to get involved and volunteer. You’d be surprised that when you give, you get a lot more back in return.

Hoffmeister: Excellent. That concludes our discussion. Thank you all so much for your time.

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