Is Indirect Tax becoming a personality free zone? by Guy Barrand

As I’m well into my third decade of working in the wondrous world of Indirect Tax, I occasionally find myself contemplating nostalgically ‘the good old days’. And a good number of my clients also regularly comment about it being a different world from when they first embarked on their Indirect Tax careers (often suggesting wistfully that things are not what they used to be). Is that fair? Is it better or worse? Should we just stop hankering after the days of our youth, and accept the status quo? Read on….

One of the biggest reasons I got into Indirect Tax recruitment to start with, and indeed what’s kept me working in it for the last 20 odd years is that the industry has always been packed to the brim with ‘characters’ – where individuality was key to success. The people I particularly enjoyed working with (whether as clients or candidates) were ‘different’. The discipline was not the domain of stuffy accountants or consultants peddling empty corporate speak. The Indirect Tax specialist of yesteryear knew and loved their subject matter. They were able to explain, advise and provide solutions to those less knowledgeable in the technical intricacies of this seemingly dry subject matter. They were supremely personable, going about their business with intelligence, humour, and a focus on client service, whether that’s external (if they were in professional services) or internal (if working in-house). So far, so good – it’s just the same these days as it was back then.

So what’s missing? One word….

QUIRKINESS.

Quirkiness is what engendered that sense of Indirect Tax community – we all knew our chosen career was peculiar. Personalities matched the subject matter – Indirect Tax specialists were peculiar! Quirky! And great fun. By sharing and rejoicing in the peculiarity of the discipline we were part of, the Indirect Tax world came together with a real sense of community, in the knowledge of how different we were. We saw the numbers of those operating in Indirect Tax grow in direct correlation to the discipline becoming ever more complex and gaining a higher profile on the global stage – it was all down to the collective energy of the Indirect Tax peculiar community. Our community was different to those operating in other more humdrum fields – and the buyers of Indirect Tax services bought them because of the quirkiness of the Indirect Tax offering and those operating in it.

I’m suggesting that somehow that quirkiness has been diluted, and therefore that sense of community isn’t so strong these days as once it was. I believe it’s started to have an impact on retention levels – more people contemplate leaving the discipline than they ever did before. More Indirect Tax specialists struggle with passing technical exams than they ever did back in the day – maybe part of that is down to not ‘loving’ the discipline and the field they work in as much? Just a thought.

It’s not all bad news of course – far from it. We’ve all got slicker, more knowledgeable, more professional, more global in outlook. There’s been bigger fish to fry, and consequently greater financial and professional rewards. And greater and more varied career opportunity. Dare I mention too, that some of the more questionable behaviours that occasionally came hand in hand with quirkiness back in the day were gradually eradicated? By and large. My liver is thankful too (if not my heart) that not quite so much business is done down the pub these days.

But I do think that something has been lost for sure.

Why?

Going back more than twenty years ago, the vast majority of Indirect Tax specialists operating in the private sector in the UK were ex HM Customs & Excise (as was). They all had the same experiences in their youth, encountering the same professional challenges inherent in a career in the department. They shared these experiences and then chose to do something more profitable and commercial with the knowledge they had gained.

These days of course, a UK Indirect Tax specialist may have started out in HMRC, but more often they have started their Indirect Tax careers as a graduate entrant. Or a school leaver entrant. Or from a direct tax background. Or an accounting background. Or increasingly from a technology background in the current environment. BLT’s recently published Indirect Tax Market Report & Salary Survey 2020 (shameless plug here – email vat@blt.co.uk to get your free copy) shows 60% of the current UK Indirect Tax private sector population did not originally join from HMRC. That shared background which engendered the building blocks of a community right from day one is no longer there.

In my view, one of the strongest sense of an Indirect Tax community that remains these days is in the Netherlands – by and large most Dutch Indirect Tax advisors have studied tax at the same handful of universities, and that has helped the Dutch community retain that sense of ‘belonging’ that the Indirect Tax world elsewhere is starting to lose.

Of course there’s loads of positives that come with appointing from a greater variety of backgrounds, that’s not in question. A variety of experience brings with it a more diverse set of opinions and approaches, and therefore creates a more rounded Indirect Tax offering. Of course diversity of race, gender, sexuality, politics, religion and educational background all bring huge benefits to the operations of any business, both as employers and providers of services to clients. But has the Indirect Tax world forgotten that a good proportion of its success has been based on diversity of style of personality?

When BLT first helped the UK Big 4 (Big 6 back then) establish their own Indirect Tax graduate training programmes in the mid to late 90’s, the successful graduates that joined at the time (the bulk now Indirect Tax Partners or Heads of Indirect Tax in industry), were inspired by the quirkiness of the Indirect Tax community of the era and quickly became part of it. Very few left the discipline. They were fully briefed about the pro’s and cons of life in Indirect Tax, and where such a career could take them. Having bought into the philosophy of working in the field, they were then hired on the basis of their genuine interest in Indirect Tax as a career in itself as well as their intellectual and professional potential.

My sense is now that entry level hiring into Indirect Tax has become a blander proposition. Intellect – yes. Professional potential – yes. Hunger to achieve – yes. Adherence to a set of personal/professional competencies – yes. But quirkiness? Difference? Genuine interest in a career in Indirect Tax as opposed to other areas of professional services? I’d say by and large – no. I’d go so far as to say that an increasing number of Indirect Tax specialists that operate in our discipline are comparatively similar in style, personality and attitude – great people of course, both personally and professionally. They have a huge amount to offer our Indirect Tax world – it’s what the business world of today expects after all. But you don’t see as much ‘quirkiness’ around, and by ignoring this, we are running the risk of losing the differences that helped bring the Indirect Tax community together in the first place. That helped it be successful. And what has made working in Indirect Tax such a rewarding and enjoyable experience over the years.

Some suggestions for the Indirect Tax world:

  • Employers – look for the difference. Hire quirks. Take a risk. Don’t use a cookie cutter model to recruit entrants – you’ll end up with identical cookies.
  • Individuals – find your quirk and show it. Dare to be different. It’s your differences that will get you spotted and enable you to make the most of your potential.

What do you think? Are we losing that sense of Indirect Tax personality? And therefore community? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Eggs


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