‘Becoming’ the Global Head of Indirect Tax: a 17-year journey to leadership, an interview with Paolo Girgenti
Time and time again, we’re asked by junior candidates what it takes to reach the senior grades within the indirect tax world. And rather than give you our answer, we thought it would be best if we shared the views of those who have been there and done it!
First off, Paolo, thank you for taking the time to tell us your story and give us an account of your journey. I’m sure there are many readers who are keen to know more! To kick things off, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Certainly - many thanks to you Josh for the opportunity to share a bit of my story, which perhaps can help others in the same career path. My name is Paolo Girgenti, I’m 38 years old and I’m working in indirect taxes for Puma Energy, a large wholesale and distributor of petroleum products. It sounds mysterious but it’s the gasoline or diesel that fills up your car. Puma has a very strong footprint in the African Continent, in Central and South America, and a good presence in the Asia Pacific region (Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, India, Australia). I’m Italian, originally from Rome, but I spent the last 17 years away from home, between studying, learning and of course, working in tax. So, I now have the opportunity to call many places my home.
It must have been amazing to experience so many different places over the last 17 years… Where did your journey in Indirect tax start? Did you fall into the sector, or was there something in particular that drew you to it?
My journey in indirect tax started in Dublin, Ireland. I went there for a 6 month European program working as an intern in the finance team of a multinational business and eventually left the country - 7 years later. It was a great experience - I studied law and did a Master’s in commercial law and the idea of my career path revolved around wanting to work for a company, so I needed knowledge around commercial law, accounting, and tax.
So, I did my Masters in Commercial Law, passed my solicitor’s exams and started the professional course to become a chartered tax advisor. That was the turning point - I realised that was way more interesting for me, so I applied to the PwC internship programme and joined their VAT team. It was a superb time in Ireland to learn about taxation, because of the number of multinationals establishing their regional headquarters or shared service centres in the Dublin area. So it all started with VAT.
I can certainly relate with your stay in Ireland. You could say that you never really expect to extend a stay! Now that you are well engrossed into the sector, what's life like being the Global Head of Indirect Tax?
I'd say challenging and never boring: one minute you’re looking at excise regulation in South Africa, the next you’re reading the “code general des impots” (general tax code) of Senegal, then jumping to review the tax balances of the company and explain any variances, while also preparing a training for other colleagues or helping someone in the UK or Uruguay or Australia … on the phone or skype, of course.
It’s always good to have variety in your work, I think… Looking back on your journey now, would you say there's anything in particular that you did to put yourself into your role at Puma Energy? Was there a certain skill, or attribute that you felt gave you the upper hand?
I think there’s a combination of factors: the time spent in a consultancy firm learning about taxation, the experience in the oil commodity trading sector, the passion for technology and accounting, and perhaps the importance given to the team work. The latter is probably the one in which I believe in most - we live in a complex world with many rules (tax rules in our case) in multiple countries, and one person cannot possibly master the industry knowledge all at once; some of the key responsibilities within the team are generally around developing tax skills and making sure the company tax affairs are in order. The obvious consequence is that there’s a need to be in a team and constantly help each other and share knowledge and problems.
Teamwork goes a very long way - I’m sure it certainly makes a difference in the working culture… Given that Tax has an ever changing landscape, professionals at your level generally encourage proactivity in learning - are you active in self-education? How often do you gather your own knowledge?
I'd say I’m more than active in self-education. It‘s key to my development and I practically do this on a daily basis. And just to note - it shouldn’t be limited to reading a piece of tax regulation or a case from the European Court of Justice or doctrine articles. There are plenty of skills where it’s very important for a tax professional to be active in self-education - typically, learning about technology but also about industry. For example, some time ago, I followed an online training on Coursera about “Third generation solar panels”. It’s not about the petroleum business but it’s very much connected to the energy sector and it’s important that we’re conscious about the evolutions happening in this economic segment.
Regardless of the field or sector you work in, I can completely agree with that sentiment. Information isn’t always served on a platter!
How does this play in with your busy lifestyle? I can imagine that, in the life of a Global Head of ITX, routines could be difficult to follow... Do you have a daily routine? If so, is it something you stick to?
I would say the “routine part” is limited, as something new happens every day. However, I like to try and keep my schedule as structured as possible, being conscious of two things: priorities and time differences. When working with Asia, Africa, and Latin America, it’s important to give priority to one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. It may sound obvious, but it’s important in daily organisation.
The other driver is priorities: I do it using the outlook task manager (there are plenty out there, but I know so many who still like to take their paper note and write down a list). I prefer to have my list in a digital way with the priorities ranking up in the list. Perhaps some of those tasks I’ll never manage to take off the list, but that’s what having priorities is about, right?
Agreed. I know many people who struggle to stay organised, but I definitely would agree and add that organisation can create further success… Now, as we’re on the topic of organisation, what key working habits do you think someone needs to become an expert in Indirect Tax?
I'd say one technical habit and one more related to people management. The technical habit is to keep up to date with changes in technology and new tax laws whilst the management one is to try and get the best out of people. One person in the team can be very good technically, but weak in communicating or may not like facing uncomfortable situations. The habit I have is to look for where that person is best placed so that his or her energy goes in such direction.
With that being said, what key advice would you give to anyone that wants to drive their careers deeper into leadership roles?
Develop patience, communication, and coaching skills and of course, lead by example. Being good technically doesn’t mean being a leader. It’s an absolute necessity to spend time with the people of the organisation and make sure they feel they can and will be listened to. Whenever someone in the organisation tells me “ah, don’t worry about it”, I reply “it’s my job to worry” and then things start melting and problems can be talked over in a professional manner. Other times when I’m told “it’s too complicated and time consuming” I say “so teach me and we can share the pain of doing it” (whether it’s an account review or the preparation of a tax return or the review of a scenario for which tax advice must be given). By explaining our own work, we get to understand it better and at times see different angles.
That’s a great approach to working - and in my opinion, mutually beneficial for yourself and your team. Off the back of that, what are your top 5 habits in your professional life and how can one adapt these into their day-to-day lives?
Top 5 habits…. Mmmm, let’s see:
- Keep my desk in order
- Read emails and return calls
- Never ever ever raise the voice
- Ask why? Does it make sense? (for example, whenever a new project is proposed, or we have a new client - understand the economic perspective; or when a new rule is passed understand what it’s trying to achieve, etc.)
- Never sign without reading
- Enjoy what you’re doing
Ok there are 6, but the last one had to be added (and it’s only partly a habit). I think these are all small habits which, combined in a structured way, do help to enjoy your professional experience.
Well said. It only takes 21 days to make these daily approaches routine! Considering your journey, who would you say are your career inspirations, or professionals that you look up to?
I'd say some of my professors in law school, whether at the University of Rome, Brussels, or Dublin. Most of them weren’t just teachers but lawyers and industry professionals. The best ones were great communicators, trying to show how complex rules can be explained in very simple terms. Another great source of inspiration is the world of sport, where you see professionals who tenaciously keep working and working and … working. Surely they were born with something special, but they did what they do best to become the best - learn and develop their craft. Whenever I watch athletes play, I do enjoy the game, but I also think about the effort it took them to get there - behind that screen there are hundreds of hours of hard and constant work.
It’s true when they say that onlookers only see the end result or success, but never see the hard work and investment of time.
To round us off for this series of ‘Becoming’, we like to cover any interesting pieces of reading that you’ve recently come across. Do you have any recommendations?
This is probably the most difficult question. A really good book I recently read is “Treasure Island” by Nicholas Shaxson, as it gives a very interesting view of the public eye about the international tax system. It’s also a way to say that indirect tax professionals should know and understand about the international tax system, even though it may sound like the “world of direct taxation and transfer pricing”. Another which has been on my bookshelf for some time, and I found inspiring is a more classic take on negotiation - “Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in” by Ury and Patton. We, as a people, negotiate every day… as indirect tax professionals, also, whether it’s with tax authorities, colleagues from the sales team or external consultants.
Amazing. We’ll add that to our reading list as well! Paolo, thank you again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. I hope that our readers will take lots of key information away from this!
Are you at the senior level within Indirect Tax? If so, we'd love to hear about your experiences and share them with our global tax network.
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