When I came to Washington for my first real job, I had no political affiliation. I didn’t even know my member of Congress. I was more interested in business than government.
But during my time at Ernst & Young as I began to see how the tax laws were applied in business, I started thinking about what the laws should be. A few years into the job, someone approached me about a tax counsel position in Sen. John C. Danforth’s office.
I interviewed thinking I wouldn’t get the job, but I did.
I became a sponge. I had a thirst for knowledge and would talk with many members of Congress.
I did that for a number of years until Sen. Danforth announced he was leaving office. That was the year President Bill Clinton had his big tax bill. There was a tough vote for the tax increase, and as a result of the actual vote, Danforth was involved with setting up the president’s Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform. They asked me to be the chief of staff. That’s when I got really involved in large budget issues around entitlement and taxes.
When I eventually left the Hill, I co-founded a small lobbying and regulatory affairs firm that we grew to become one of the larger firms of its type in Washington. We sold it to Ernst & Young, and I took over the company’s national tax practice.
Then President George W. Bush appointed me assistant secretary of the Treasury. I was in that job after the Sept. 11 attacks. We had to deal with the big tax bill in 2001, the economic downturn and recovery acts.
When you’re in Treasury focusing on writing and signing off on tax law, you get lots of comments from many different constituencies. And they are very persuasive. You learn that there’s often more than one right answer.
Eventually you just have to get the rules out, which is one of the hardest things to do because you don’t know what the ultimate effect will be with those regulations.
But working for these high-profile leaders over my career, I found they listened really well and built good teams to debate issues. They did not act like they always had to know the answer themselves. It was okay to rely on other people.
That’s something I brought to business. The team is always stronger than the individual. If you don’t have different perspectives, you are going to probably make the wrong decision.
When I returned to Ernst & Young to lead the Americas tax practice and eventually became the global leader of tax, we brought great people from around the world to work together. Getting that group to operate as a team was crucial.
But it’s not just about diversity. It’s about being inclusive. You have to evaluate their ideas, listen, adapt them and learn from them.
Our people are working for us but we are also working for them. We have a strong investment in education and career development. It’s about helping them to polish their own personal brands so they are better professionals and hopefully they’ll stay with us.
Now as chairman, I’d like to continue to build on what we’ve built. We have a great people culture, which continues to be our primary asset. I will focus on hiring and training the best people and leveraging our global advantage.
— Interview with Vanessa Small
Position: Global chairman and chief executive-elect of Ernst & Young, an assurance, tax, transaction and advisory firm.
Career highlights: Member, global executive, global markets executive, and global public policy committees, Ernst & Young; global vice chairman, tax, Ernst & Young; vice chairman, tax, Americas, Ernst & Young; assistant secretary, U.S. Treasury (Tax Policy); member, Social Security Advisory Board; chief of staff, President’s Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform; chief tax and budget counsel, Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.); co-founder, Washington Counsel.
Education: BA, economics, Emory University; JD and MBA, Case Western Reserve University; MS, tax law, Georgetown University Law Center.
Personal: He lives in Potomac with his wife, Nancy, and their four children, Rachel, Noah, Sean and Ben.