Leaders with Ambition - Doug Michael - Expat Tax Expert blog and podcast

Leaders with Ambition - Doug Michael

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Doug Michael - Partner at Anderson & Brown.

Host Nicky Acuna Ocana's guest on this episode of the 'Leaders With Ambition' podcast shares great leadership insights as he is a leading expert on U.S. expat employment tax accounting. It’s a niche that Doug Michael, a Partner at Anderson & Brown, cultivated organically.

As Doug explains to Nicky, 'our paths are all individual, but staying open and stepping up are universal ingredients for success'. For Doug, that meant modelling his work ethic and desire for excellence on his parents, both of whom were teachers, and developing the confidence to make a detour when his course of study at university wasn’t a good fit.

A transition into the study of philosophy offered no clear-cut job trajectory, but it did provide critical thinking skills that helped Doug progress through a variety of leadership roles within the international accounting sector.

You’ll learn about Doug’s journey into team-building based on confidence, trust, empathy and honesty. He also reflects on the pivotal role that early mentors played in illuminating the path beyond a “menial” entry-level job at PwC and the lessons that toxic workplace cultures have to teach.

This conversation, which is full of actionable advice, wraps up with Doug’s take on both career highlights and challenges. He also offers up several pieces of crystal-clear advice that we can all put to use in growing our lives - personally and professionally!

If you enjoyed this discussion, please click here to find previous episodes of Leaders with Ambition.

Starting Out

Having teachers for parents, high standards, curiosity and an impeccable work ethic were always the expectation. With sports as the highlight of his day!

When a science-oriented course at university wasn’t for him, Doug experienced a “failure” that was in fact a growing edge – in no small part because his parents supported his decision to “make a left-turn and get a philosophy degree.”

Critical thinking and logic – the core of a philosophy degree – equipped Doug with skills that were applicable across sectors and a good fit with his aptitude and interests.

Out in the World/No Clear Path

Doug tried construction on the way to saving up enough money to relocate to London and launch his career… which was a work in progress.

When first starting an entry-level role it was both humbling and educational to start learning at ground level how the business worked and all the roles fit together.

Word of Advice

  • 'Opportunity can be reaped from even the most menial of jobs. Just keep your eyes open to opportunities to step into a project management-type role.'

  • 'Plans are made to be… altered.' Doug believes a flexible perspective is key to uncovering and taking advantage of unexpected opportunities.

Pivoting to Leadership: How a U.S. centric opportunity sparked a career passion

Expat tax advisory is interesting, complicated and a chance to learn continuously.

What keeps the work fresh and varied?

The people! Doug’s practice is constantly invigorated by new colleagues and clients, as well as a range of tax challenges.

Lessons learnt

  • You might feel ready but sometimes a lost promotion is actually the gift of time to mature, grow and subsequently come to the job better prepared.

  • About how humility and self-awareness go hand-in-hand with self-confidence – including the confidence to know you don’t have to know everything!

  • Negative leaders who create toxic cultures are a great learning opportunity when it comes to what NOT to do when stepping into a managerial role.

Doug reflects on the multiple roles that leaders must play, especially when they inherit dysfunctional workplace environments!

About Doug’s experience building an offshore element into his program, including an inclusive approach to overseas team members (and pandemic-era remote workers).

Why time, resources and awareness are the cornerstones for successful cross-discipline or inter-departmental integrations.

Reaching a Peak

Becoming a Partner at PwC was a huge mountain to climb and a north star for Doug, who moved to ABB when opportunity and his goals aligned.

As a leader, Doug believes it’s his job to get the best out of team members – for themselves; not to dissuade them from pursuing different options. You want employees to have as positive an experience in leaving as in working with you.

Transitioning out of PwC after 17 years and into a Partnership role at ABB has been relatively easy

  • Doug’s practice was always a business within a (much larger) business.

  • Changes at PwC had schooled Doug in adaptation as a natural progression.

  • The level of support and calibre of colleagues at ABB facilitated the transition.

  • An agile, people-oriented culture enables change management!

Doug’s Career Highlights

  • His progression through senior management and team-building at PwC – which could have gone badly but instead inspired leadership development.

  • Early opportunities to work with, model himself on and build confidence through working with senior managers who mentored and believed in his potential.

  • Making Partner, taking on new challenges at ABB – and bringing along former colleagues who trust him enough to go for the ride!

Doug’s Career Challenges

  • Interpersonal communication and differing perspectives require attention and nuance.

  • There’s a learning curve when going to work in a new company culture across multiple service lines with people who are unfamiliar. Building trust-based relationships takes time.

Doug’s Recommended Resources:

  • Networking with and learning from colleagues and acquaintances.

  • Recharging by just switching off and looking outside business-related media to music or fiction!

Looking Back

Doug wouldn’t change anything in his career progression because new skills and learning picked up at each stage opened the door to whatever came next.

Parting thoughts

  • Change the things you can and let the rest go!

  • If something that can be changed is amiss, then make the change!

  • Cultivate authentic, quiet confidence (the kind that needn’t be trumpeted).

  • Trust people who can admit not knowing how to do something!

Key quotes

  • “I didn’t struggle at school. I was absolutely fine. Got decent exam results. Probably could have worked harder. My approach to school work was to always do the least amount you can to get a decent enough result … It’s not that I was lazy. I called it efficient.”

  • “I have a certain level of patience, but not enough (to be a teacher.) … Hat’s off to anyone who is a teacher or in that world. I couldn’t do it.”

  • “For someone like me who had been at university and had these grand aspirations, (my entry-level job) meant I had to reset some ambitions.”

  • “I always wanted to make the most of everything so I would look for additional duties.”

  • “Whatever you do, do it to the absolute 10th degree, the best of your capability, so that you are always the person that will be looked at and… that people will want to progress.” (Nicky)

  • “If I tried to explain what my job is now, it’s a million miles away from what I thought it would look like … That’s the joy of it. You can’t do that if you’ve got a very linear perspective.”

  • “It’s so self-defeating to try to claim credit for something that you weren’t involved in, because you’ll get found out and the people who are looking to trust and work with you won’t.”

  • “Sometimes you get caught up in what you’re doing and forget… (but) it’s really, really not that difficult to praise people.”

  • “It’s a massive cliché to say getting a knock back of some sort can be helpful. It can, absolutely, but it’s about that self-awareness. It’s about understanding.”

  • “Having innate confidence is vital… The second you are confident enough to know what you know – and even more what you don’t know – that’s when you get the best out of people.” 

  • “Change isn’t always good for everybody. There were quite a few people who were quite happy doing what they were doing at PwC and didn’t want to change. But sometimes it’s inevitable. You can’t always bring everybody with you.”

  • “You don’t force people out if something’s not a good fit. You make sure whatever happens is the right answer for them.” 

  • “My whole senior management progression and taking control of that team was a massive thing because I learned everything that I’ve learned about leadership.”

  • “Don’t worry too much about things – especially things you can’t control. If you can’t control it, it doesn’t deserve any worry … If you can control it, then either do something about it or don’t – and then don’t worry about it!”

  • “I think some of the biggest problem characters in the world are people who actually project confidence, but don’t really have it. Because they’re constantly looking for validation from other people, constantly wanting to be liked or needed.”

About Doug

Doug Michael is Partner & US Tax Practice Lead in our Payroll and Employment Taxes team based in our London office. Doug specialises in advising and consulting with a wide range of clients on all matters concerning global mobility, employment tax and payroll. He advises clients that have a US footprint on their obligations either domestically within the US or with their international cross-border operations.

About Nicky

Nicky has led high performing recruitment teams for over 20 years. As the Regional Managing Director of Ambition UK, Europe and USA, she leads a team of highly-skilled recruitment consultants who are experts in their niche specialist areas. 

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