Advice on the ascent: the route to Head of Tax

by communicate-rs_cms

Our Tax team recently carried out market research on the progression routes of Heads of Tax currently operating in commercial businesses ranging from the Fortune 500 to AIM-listed organisations. Our intention was to understand how our junior tax candidates can best pursue a career in-house and ultimately make it to a number one role. We focused primarily on when the best time to make a move away from practice was, if sector experience was a necessity and what were the biggest challenges the current Heads of Tax had encountered. The data yielded interesting results; on the question of when to move there was a staggering consensus, whereas the debate over sector experience seemingly remains split. Obviously every individual takes a different path to the top, however, we hope by discovering the similarities and highlighting the obstacles most commonly faced that we are able to provide beneficial advice for those looking to grow their career in tax.
As the saying goes, timing is everything. Picking the appropriate moment to make the switch from practice to in-house is not a decision to be taken lightly. The consensus that prevailed was that the best time to move is when you are at manager level. Moving prior to this level limits the amount of experience and exposure you get when working in practice. However, Jeremy Pearson from Pitney Bowes highlighted that “if a decision is made to move early, then it is critical to ensure that the in-house role to which you are moving will give you the support necessary in order to succeed, particularly around study support”. On the other hand, those who move later on in their career often struggle to find a generalist in-house tax role as they are seen to be more specialised and therefore somewhat of a recruitment risk. The company will probably have to pay more for the candidate and there is the worry that if the hire doesn’t adapt to the in-house role that the entire tax team will struggle. John Bentley of Tesco notes that “those who transition later can struggle with not having the support network they have been accustomed to” so it may be worthwhile to consider a secondment within industry if you intend to remain in practice until senior manager / director level.  It is also important to consider that within practice, roles post senior manager level often only see benefits that are incremental.
The question regarding the importance of having specific sector experience when trying to progress up the ranks of a business produced mixed results. Many argued that specific experience wasn’t essential as the key skills required are transferable over multiple sectors (excluding oil & gas and financial services). Instead, it was suggested that candidates should focus on areas or industries that they are interested in and will therefore enjoy working in. Something that should however be taken into consideration is the size of the company and the tax team – with Emma McCartney from Ted Baker urging candidates to consider if they “want to have a broad role in a smaller company with the potential to cover more than one tax or would you prefer to be part of a bigger team in a bigger company with consequently a more focused specialist role”.  She adds that “one of the difficulties of joining a relatively small in-house team is career progression as there may not be progression opportunities unless other people in the team move on”. This indicates that company make up is often more influential than sector experience, with John Bentley of Tesco pointing out that the “key is understanding the issues arising in the sector in which you are working”, rather than a previous role in that sector.
Others claim that to progress into a senior level role, hiring managers will require you to have prior sector experience. It is therefore suggested that candidates should sample and move between sectors when in junior roles, rather than trying to switch at a senior level, with most recommending not specialising too early as this can limit future opportunities. Don Shackley of Burberry proposes that “to some extent, one must be guided by their own interests and experience” but that “there is more opportunity in some sectors than others”.  This is something that should be taken into consideration when picking a sector to progress within.
The most surprising feedback, however, came from the discussion on the biggest challenges those in a Head of Tax role had to overcome to be successful in their current position.  A common obstacle highlighted was that you have to juggle multiple commitments and understand that your role is no longer just tax based; it also includes a variety of duties ranging from HR responsibilities to communicating effectively with other members of the business. Charles Middleton of British Land suggests that “the dynamics of a Head of Tax role have changed over the years – moving from being technical to more around stakeholder management and being able to speak in a language that people can understand”. This point is echoed by John Bentley of Tesco who says that “the biggest challenge of being number one is dealing with the various stakeholders as well as running the department and understanding that the buck stops with you. It is not necessarily your technical skills that are key”.  Other challenges brought to light were being able to manage and motivate your team, having the ability to communicate technical issues and work alongside senior management and the board effectively and ensuring you are aware of the implications that the political and economic climate will have on your business. Of course you need the required tax skills, knowledge and expertise to rise to the top, however, the role encompasses so much more than that and it is essential that candidates take this into account.
Whilst there is not necessarily a correct route to progress into a Head of Tax role, it is evident that several suggestions prevail. Candidates should spend enough time in practice to ensure exposure to a variety of responsibilities but they should be aware of the risk involved with trying to transition into industry at a senior level. In regards to sector, skills are transferable and a candidate should look for a role in an area that interests them, but they should always consider size of the company and tax team, as this will impact the breadth and scope of the role. Finally, the key challenge to be aware of is that a Head of Tax role encompasses far more than just tax. Whilst expertise is essential, softer skills such as people management, stakeholder engagement and organisation also need to be taken into consideration.
Communicate’s Tax team would like to thank all those who took the time to be part of our research. If you think we can help you with your next move or if you want assistance with your hiring needs then please get in touch now with James at or visit our job page.