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Talent & Culture

How to attract and retain indirect tax talent through upskilling and career development

Natalie Runyon  Director of Enterprise Content and Talent, Culture & Inclusion Strategist in Market Insights for the Thomson Reuters Institute

Natalie Runyon  Director of Enterprise Content and Talent, Culture & Inclusion Strategist in Market Insights for the Thomson Reuters Institute

Facing an increasing workload from growing use of indirect taxes, corporate tax teams are looking to hire and retain needed talent in this critical area

According to the Thomson Reuters Indirect Tax Survey, leaders of indirect tax teams (IDT) indicated that developing their team through conducting deeper strategic analysis, opening communication, and leveraging new tax technology is one of their top-two priorities over the next five years.

Almost one-half of IDT team leaders surveyed also talked about developing the skills within their team so practitioners could do much more than simply crunch the numbers. Technology, one respondent said, would free up resources to “do better analysis to find the root cause of discrepancies and fix it at source” without having to expand headcount significantly.

The challenge, however, is that many individual contributors want to do the number-crunching, which is increasingly being automated. “I would love to have people thinking about the business more strategically — how to reduce tax burden and protect us from controversy — instead of just the bureaucratic processing of going through different files, spreadsheets, data sources,” one survey respondent stated.

According to the survey, there is an ongoing debate among IDT team leaders around whether to hire tax experts and teach them about technology, or hire technology experts and teach them about tax. Generally, there was a preference for the former.

With the desire to transform the IDT teams’ skill set to better service clients in an advisory role rather than just doing compliance work, leaders are going to have to focus on developing strategic analysis skills, in which technology plays a critical role. Those tax professionals who are handling indirect tax compliance will need to change from being tax experts to “system people” who understand what the systems are doing and can translate that into the compliance process.

The recognition of the importance of technology skills highlights the value that respondents see in much greater automation — the number one priority cited by almost all of them.

Recommendations for upskilling your team

Give your Millennial talent extra responsibility — Provide your younger talent the opportunity to explore and make recommendations for your indirect tax function’s technology strategy, including what tools should be used to drive compliance. Some IDT teams will do this by hiring new employees with technology expertise, and others will look to partner with the IT team to achieve their goals. Either way, this is a great change to give your mid-career team members greater responsibility, allowing them to have a bigger impact and grow their skillset. “We’ve both implemented software on our own before,” said younger IDT professional. “We’re millennials, tech is not scary thing for us — we need more tax support, not software support.”

This is the first step in advancing the collective team’s strategic analysis skills. If your organization already has a technology strategy, give your Millennial talent the opportunity to explore how to best use the system to maximize the output. Also, give them the opportunity to practice crafting narratives to help build up the strategic analysis and advisory capability in a safe environment.

There is plenty of evidence already on the benefits to corporate tax teams in making these investments. Indeed, those team leaders responding to our survey who had built out their strategic capability indicated that they were closely involved in strategic discussions on acquisitions, new product launches, and market-entry early on the process. This was partly due to being able to focus on value-adding advice once the tax team had ensured full compliance with regulations. This leg-up in compliance work usually came through the application of a technology solution, and was partly due to being able to demonstrate financial returns in the form of reclaimed taxes. In fact, one tax team leader talked about being able to reclaim $150 million in back taxes for the company that had not been possible before the tax team introduced a new system. Another team is looking at recovering up to $500,000 a year in value-added tax (VAT) that was too tedious and time consuming to reclaim before they brought in a new tech solution.

Expand the strategic analysis capability through mentorship — Job-shadowing and direct mentorship, both internally and externally, with those IDT colleagues who already have the strategic capability, is an easy way to expand the skillset within your team. Starting with your high-potential professionals, finding them a mentor or group mentorship opportunity over a three-month period in which they are watching someone perform the mechanics of taking output from systems, manipulating the data, and explaining how they find their insights. This way, the observers can see how the data translates into creating a narrative for strategic recommendations around some common, recurring scenarios.

For those that don’t have the capability in-house or face bandwidth limitations, reach out to your IT software providers to see if they have the capability of mentoring you and your team members in this type of data analysis. Also, when searching for new software, you could make a requirement in the contract that the vendor provide some analytical training.

Invest in teams’ public speaking and communications skills — If you have a small budget, ask your team members to invest their time in joining Toastmasters, which is a low cost ($110 per year for each member) nonprofit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of around 16,000 groups in 150 countries. Alternatively, you could pay for your team members to take a public speaking class at their local community college.

These recommendations are simple but not easy. Indeed, balancing the daily demands and prioritizing these longer-term investments is a challenge. However, both are necessary to meet IDT teams’ current commitments to the organization while making sure you are able to meet the future ones as well.

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