Jennie Granger: Revamping the tax office shouldn’t be taxing

How do you revamp an organisation such as the tax office? Jennie Granger, a Professor of Practice in the school of taxation & business law at UNSW Business School, spent five years as a commissioner and director general at Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs in the UK where she led a transformation and doubled compliance revenues. She spoke with Julian Lorkin for BusinessThink.

BusinessThink: Tax shouldn’t be taxing, but it should be quick, easy and compliant. But how do you change the culture of a team that’s gathering that tax revenue to ensure that it is?

Jennie Granger:  It was a whole team effort. We had a look at where there were risks that we hadn’t been paying enough attention to and started to move into that. And also the really crucial one for us, of those 28,000 people we had, at that stage 80% of them were over 50. So we knew we had a really big job to do passing on the generational baton.

By the time I left, 30% were under 30. That meant we recruited 15,000 staff. You don’t do that on your own. You do that with people. It’s also about exciting people about solving problems.

I guess my message – and I have, of course, been involved in very large organisation leadership – is don’t make that mistake of thinking you’re the infallible one who can make every decision. Not only will the place grind to a halt, but you’ll get it wrong because you’re not infallible, and there are no problems these days, very few problems, that only one person can solve on their own. It’s about how you can reach out and get the expertise together to solve whatever needs to be done.

And as I said, the mistake often is that we talk about that in very general terms – say, “This tool will be good for you” – instead of saying, “We’re going to put information on your desktop that means that you will have all the information about your customer when you’re contacting them. It will help you do this.” You have to be really concrete.

BusinessThink: It really seems to be down to changing the mindset of staff. But how about those staff who have always done it one way and they may not be digital natives, and now you’re telling them to do it completely differently?

Granger: One of my fun experiences on that, just to illustrate, is I had many tax inspectors say to me that while our digital analytics were very, very impressive, they could do better on the High Street themselves. They knew which businesses they needed to select and they could get better results.

So we ran that, and of course the computer won on that. But more importantly, what I did then with those people is say, “But I need you to work with our data scientists to help train the computer because you have your nose for what to look for around that.” That doesn’t work with everyone. I think you always try to engage, and you always listen. When people tell you something might be better another way, be open to what is good about that. Don’t just dismiss it.

But at the end of the day, there’s a hard choice. If people won’t come along in that way, then you have to part ways with some. But hopefully, and quite often what I find is once people can see their expertise is valued, that they can be part of shaping that change to be more effective and that we’re open to challenge as well as design, then most will come with you as they start to see things work. That’s usually your crucial point. They need demonstrations of how this can practically work and is better.

BusinessThink: Then how important is it for the leader of a large organisation to get down on the shop floor, as it were, and see how things are being implemented?

Granger: It’s crucially important to be on the shop floor. It’s really tricky where that is these days because in my case, I had 28,000 staff, 300 locations. I wasn’t going to be on every shop floor. But when I was there, it needed to be in a way that people could see that as genuine and interested, and also that it had results. Because oftentimes, what I found when I got there is really appalling support for our people in terms of what they had – the tools, or how to do their work, or processes – and so I always went with local leaders because you don’t want to be undermining your leadership either. But it often turned into positives about what we were going to do and then use that as word-of-mouth for the places that I wasn’t in, because that’s something you script – that’s what they tell their neighbours about what your visit meant.

BusinessThink: We’re continually being told we are in a global world where we just have one homogenous culture. But culture is very important even within an organisation. How important is it to understand that?

Granger: No, it’s not. And it was an interesting challenge for an Aussie, actually, even to figure out the culture because the first thing – and I know you’ll appreciate this – is I had to learn to talk some dialects. And I’ve got to tell you, I never got Glaswegian the entire time I was there. They were very patient with me, though. So, there’s cultures within cultures; there’s expertise cultures as well as there are regional cultures that you’re dealing with.

Australians are very informal and we are also … the polite term for it is direct. Some people would say rude or blunt. So, there were some things about me that I needed to temper to match in with that culture. And so, I don’t think they would ever say I got over being direct, but I think everybody came to like that I was open and that encouraged an openness as well. And I think that’s another important aspect of your leadership. For whatever your characteristics, it has to be very real. It has to be not that you’re modelling what you think a leader should be; that it comes through who you are, and people can see that.

And the other thing – this is going to sound like a funny tip: it’s really convenient if you make a stuff-up yourself fairly early and acknowledge that, because then people decide that you’re human, and it is all about how everyone works together. And if your ambition is to create cohesive teams, high-performing teams, that moving yourself off that pedestal fairly quickly is a really smart idea, if you can. But I’m not suggesting you deliberately make a mistake.

BusinessThink: You grew up in a small country town – which can be a goldfish bowl. And then you came to run a huge organisation. Again, a goldfish bowl. How important is it to be aware that you are always in the public eye?

Granger: One of the things that stood me in good stead to be under constant scrutiny – and that’s both inside organisations but also media scrutiny – has been being brought up in a goldfish bowl. It shouldn’t stop you from being who you are but I have to say that I’ve always been careful not to be photographed, for example, with a wine glass in my hand or whatever because unfortunately, what you’re doing can be twisted and put in a different kind of context. So, you do have to monitor and be thinking about that while you’re going along and making sure that you’re not operating in a way that might be inappropriately characterised – or unfairly characterised is probably the right term.

And of course, the other thing that has changed enormously is with social media. Something that you think is a relatively small moment can suddenly be anywhere and everywhere and it’s not always predictable what’s going to be of interest that way. So, it has its advantages, but it also means that suddenly you can be trying to explain what were you doing in some place. And in my case, of course, having worked where I was, also if there was speculative stories about restaurants or whatever, and whether or not their tax affairs or major corporations were up-to-date, one of the fun things would be to see if they could take a photo of you shopping, or having a coffee, or whatever around those. So yes, it can be a bit of a challenge sometimes.


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