Stuart Landsberg: Passion, purpose and people
Stuart Landsberg, 19 December, 2016
Firstly, and most importantly, congratulations graduates of 2016! It is my distinct privilege to have been invited to give this address and to share with you this special moment. Your graduation is a tremendous achievement and testament to your academic prowess and probably, most importantly, to persistence. A skill that will serve you well throughout your lives. For many of you, your graduation is also testament to the support you will have had from families and friends over these years, and it is wonderful that so many of them are able to share your success with you this evening.
I have to say it is a somewhat daunting experience to be invited to speak at a graduation in this age of lists of best graduation speeches on Buzzfeed, or more appropriately for this audience, Business Insider.
Unfortunately, I cannot share with you the insights of Steve Jobs, the emotional depth of David Foster Wallace, or the humour of Tim Minchin. In fact, I recommend all three of those speeches to you. Instead, hopefully as a somewhat recent graduate, and also a current student at QUT, what I will try to share with you are three lessons that I’ve learnt so far that may be relevant to you also.
My first story is about passion… and tax accounting.
Some of you might be surprised that I can talk about being passionate about tax accounting with a straight face. Others might now be sitting uneasily in your seats wondering what this crazy person might be talking about for the next ten minutes.
In order to restore some credibility, I want to assure you that I was not always passionate about tax – I am arguably a little bit more normal than that.
In fact, this story is more about how most of us can become passionate about pretty much any career with the right mindset. Some fortunate few in this hall, will have a job or calling that they have always wanted to do. But for many of us, and certainly for me, this is not the case.
My working theory is that for most people, passion is usually the result of hard work and application. This means that for many of us, the range of careers or jobs that we can be passionate about may well be limitless. It also, importantly, means that passion is not a pre-requisite for working hard and applying yourself.
So, back to me. Like most children, I did not grow up dreaming of being a tax accountant.
In fact, tax was in no way on the horizon for me until I fell into a traineeship at PwC.
I did not have any “ah-ha” moment upon my introduction to tax either. I think it was at least a week or two before I realised that, in the world of tax accounting, reducing your income is a good thing.
It is safe to say that the passion had not yet manifested itself then. And in fact, it took a while. For my first year or so as a trainee I wasn’t particularly useful on a lot of matters, and so that gave me plenty of time to read. And once I exhausted news.com.au, I started to read about tax. I read tax cases, I read journal articles, and I even spent quite a bit of time working through the 20 odd thousand pages of the legislation itself.
As I started to read more, I understood more. I could connect the dots between these previously foreign concepts. I started to become more useful at work and that meant I started getting involved in more interesting work. And at some point I became passionate about my job.
For me, passion was a process and it was easier to be passionate about my job the more successful I became at it. And I don’t think I’m alone in this.
When I talk to people about their jobs, it is amazing the depth of feeling that obscure or niche jobs can elicit in some people, and it is amazing the correlation between those who enjoy what they do, and those are successful in their chosen fields.
The converse of which is that I know of some people who think that passion is a pre-requisite for hard work and that it is ok for them not to work hard now, because they are not passionate about what they are doing. And that as soon as they find something they are passionate about, then they will work hard. Unfortunately for those people, passion seems an ever-elusive concept.
This isn’t to say that you will never be instantly inspired by what you do. Some of you will be. Some lucky few of you may already know exactly what you are passionate about. That is great, but it is not common.
I think for most of us, the surest route to finding passion and fulfillment in our careers is by working hard, and by giving our careers a chance. That is certainly how I happened to become passionate about tax. And I guess if I can become passionate about tax, there is no telling what you all can become passionate about – and life is a lot easier and happier when you’re passionate about what you do.
My second story is about purpose. Again, this might be surprising for you. Some sceptics among you may even wonder, what is the deeper purpose behind helping multinational companies comply with their tax obligations?
At a purely intellectual level, I quite like my firm’s purpose which is “To solve important problems and build trust in society”. At this level I am happy to say that I can find purpose in making submissions on technical aspects of law to help improve Australia’s tax law. I can also say that I find purpose in helping solve client’s problems so that they can invest more, grow more, and create jobs and wealth for Australia.
All of the above is important, but it’s not really what motivates me to get out of bed and go to work every day. For me, it is actually about helping people. I’m not saying that tax accounting is the best vehicle for helping people and I’m always humbled by those that work in education, caring and medical professions, but, and this is important as I stand in front of a room of business graduates, you can help people in any profession.
Even as a tax accountant there is plenty of scope to help people, whether it is the junior consultant who you invest time in and see develop over time, or the tax manager of a client who asks you for help both professionally but also on a personal level.
It is often these experiences that are the most powerful. I remember the loyalty and connection that is built out of helping clients, the person not the company, when they need it most.
Recently, one of my most meaningful experiences was working with a family who were under Australia Taxation Officer (ATO) audit and who were facing severe emotional and financial stress. The audit had been going for three years through no fault of their own – effectively they had been receiving bad advice from their previous tax adviser.
Over the course of that engagement I feel that half of my time was dealing with the technical work – the work that most people would associate with being a tax adviser – and the other half was almost acting as a counsellor to a family that was under tremendous stress.
On the day we had the successful settlement meeting with the ATO, one of the clients said to me: “you’ve literally saved my life”. Resolving that matter meant that we’d helped lift an enormous weight from her shoulders – and that was incredibly meaningful to me.
Again, if I can find purpose through helping people as a corporate tax adviser, think how much easier it might be for all of you in your chosen careers!
Finally, continuing the alliteration of the p words, the final theme I wanted to talk about is people. It is easy for people with finance and accounting backgrounds to dismiss talk of people skills as being “soft” skills and somehow less worthy or important. To be honest, when I started my career I probably felt the same.
For me, I aspired to be the technical expert, the so-called “smartest guy in the room” and for a time that served me well. On the back of working hard, and applying my somewhat strange passion for tax, I was able to advance quickly as not much more than a solo operator.
But this approach has limits. In today’s world of continuing technological change and innovation, being a pure technical operator is potentially even more limited now than ever before.
I found this too. Eventually there was a limit to the volume of work that I could do on my own and I needed to start better developing and utilising those people skills. To be honest, I wish I had focused on it earlier.
More and more, I am realising that those so called soft skills are actually the most fundamental skills for your career.
In this respect, I have recently started supporting PwC’s grassroots diversity and inclusion network, Inclusion@PwC, and the opportunities this role has given me to learn more about diversity and inclusion, and to work with amazing people, has just emphasised to me the importance of people skills. The research is incredibly clear that diverse teams can solve complex problems better than non-diverse teams. In my opinion, one can also extrapolate this to mean that diverse teams can solve problems infinitely better than individuals working on their own.
I would urge you to embrace your people skills, even more so if they do not come naturally to you. Build your emotional intelligence – it will be every bit as important to your success in business and in life as your IQ or your technical ability.
So that is it, three lessons I’ve learned in my brief career so far and hopefully three messages for you to consider as you embark on, or continue, your own careers.
You are graduating into an interesting time. There is fundamental uncertainty at a geopolitical level, our economy is in transition from a resources based economy to a services economy and the threat of disruption looms over all of our industries. But out of these challenges come enormous opportunities.
You are graduating from a university that is immensely practical and which is focused on preparing you for this changing world. You are graduating in a country that has enormous scope to benefit as the centre of economic power moves from the West to the East. And you are graduating at a time when graduates are able to have more of an impact earlier on in your career than at any other time in our history.
If you focus your careers on working with people, in an area you are passionate about, on matters in which you can find purpose, I can assure you that you will be more likely to be successful and you will definitely be happier.