We spoke with Diane Dossin, Chief Tax Officer for Ford Motor Company, about the increasing number of women in tax leadership roles and asked her to reflect on what has changed during her 35-year career.
Tax Insights: How have the presence and perception of women changed over the course of your career?
Diane Dossin: My career is pretty long now — over 35 years. It has taken much longer to produce women in leadership positions than I would have expected. Women who study diversity issues say that you really need some critical mass to get it going. I think the critical mass is finally being produced, but women in leadership is still a pretty special thing. I look forward to the day when it’s not so extraordinary.
Nevertheless, tax is one area where women can be found in leadership roles. Aside from your own position, have you found that to be the case?
Fairly recently, yes. The heads of tax at Ford and General Motors — of all places! — are now women. And some other rather traditional manufacturing companies, such as Caterpillar and GE, have women tax leaders.
What are the main reasons for this development, in your view?
I’ve actually tried to explore that by talking to one of our retired CFOs (chief financial officers), who said that women are especially good communicators. Today you have to really give the proper content to decision makers, but present it in a way that they can understand.
In terms of leadership of a group, women tend to be collaborative. And in tax, because of the complexity, you really need some kind of moral compass guiding you. And maybe women project that in a particular way.
“Ideally, you want tax planning that is organic to the business, that touches the business and that makes the business better. But you have to have cooperation from your business people for the whole thing to sing.“
Diane Dossin, Chief Tax Officer, Ford Motor Company
Is there something particular about tax itself?
Well, it’s not mainstream! Certainly not at Ford. It’s a very specialized area. Ford is all about engineering, and tax is something very different. It’s very offbeat. And there’s more room for differences in fringe areas. I didn’t have to meet anybody’s perception of what a tax person is. They didn’t have any perception.
What specifically do women bring to the table as tax directors?
I already mentioned collaboration and communication. But there is a third characteristic, and that’s responsibility. I have to be able to say to senior management, “I’ve got a risk item here, and it’s because of planning that I did in 2011. Let me tell you about it.”
I think women do tend to take responsibility and be accountable. Not necessarily as distinct from men, but it’s still a quality that they have.
Why did you decide on a career in tax?
My father was a math teacher, and math came very easy to me. As an undergrad, majoring in accounting, I began to apply my math skills to something. And then I decided to go to law school. I wasn’t following anybody’s path; I just decided to go. And that exposed me to thought processes and articulating points of view. When I graduated, I had an interesting package of skills: ease with numbers, an accounting background and good thinking and writing skills. It just created a perfect path toward tax.
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How relevant are existing approaches to the current and future needs of tax and leadership education?
It’s been a long time since I was in school, but I don’t think education today needs to be that different. Things that I might find useful today are more international topics, especially if you are going to work for a large multinational like Ford. And different tax systems. Even if you’re going to be a US domestic tax professional, it’s important to know that the US way is not the only way.
How easy is it for you to hire the talent you need?
We don’t have trouble hiring. Maybe that is partly because we are not hiring right out of school. We would prefer that the accounting and law firms hire graduates right out of school and train them.
The ease of hiring the talent we want is closely related to the economic conditions of the automotive industry and Detroit. Ten years ago, for example, it was not easy to attract people to jobs here. But over the last couple of years we have attracted people from law firms and accounting firms who travel to work here and are happy to do so. So the issue is probably more economics than quality. I do think the quality is out there.
What are some of the most interesting problems in tax today in your opinion?
All of the issues that are raised as the US considers tax reform — both corporate and individual — interest me a great deal. I enjoy representing a manufacturer in that kind of setting.
To me, the challenge of the moment is helping this country understand what the next generation will be. My career began in the Ronald Reagan era. I learned most of my technical tax during the last big tax overhaul in the United States, which was the Tax Reform Act of 1986. It’s now 30 years later, and we’re out of step.
How is the role of the tax director evolving?
It’s one thing to work inside a company and be a teacher, nurturer and bringer of value. But I also have to be able to tell our tax story externally, and to teach others to do so too. That could mean to the IRS (Internal Revenue Service), it could mean to members of Congress and their staff, it could mean to securities analysts or it could mean to the press.
If we are put in a position where we have to explain — for whatever reason — then explain. Make it as clear to the press as I make it to the board and to the CFO. Just speak plainly, and it’s not so mysterious.
Another important change is that the tax department is becoming more integrated with other business functions. How do you view this evolution?
Ideally, you want tax planning that is organic to the business, that touches the business and that makes the business better. But you have to have cooperation from your business people for the whole thing to sing. Because of the nature of the automotive business, that hasn’t always been an easy sell.
Today, however, when my team and I bring ideas to the business that come out of our understanding of who we are as a business and our tax profile, the business people are much more apt than in the past to listen and accept and help us execute those plans, even if they add a bit of complexity.
What would you call your greatest success?
Bridging the gap between the tax function and senior management and board. Feedback tells me we’ve succeeded in explaining Ford’s tax profile, the tax drivers of the business, risks and opportunities. I like it when I’ve had a meeting with the CFO, I’ve brought a topic that has some complexity and requires some decision making, and at the end he says, “I always learn so much from you.”
Diane Dossin is Chief Tax Officer of Ford Motor Company and has global responsibility for tax compliance, tax audits, appeals, litigation and tax planning for direct and indirect taxes. She is also responsible for financial reporting of taxes, transfer pricing and employee benefits. She joined Ford in 1979 following her graduation from The University of Michigan Law School. Prior to that, she graduated from Valparaiso University with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration (Accounting). She serves on the Board of Directors of the Accounting Aid Society through which Ford’s tax office has provided volunteer income tax preparation assistance to low-income Detroit residents for 20 years.