A taxing but rewarding career – fiona dillon

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Not too many teenagers do work experience at the same organisation they spend the best part of their career with, but Fiona Dillon is an exception. As a 15-year-old she did work experience at the Australian Taxation Office in Adelaide.

Now an Assistant Commissioner, Fiona currently serves in Paris, chairing the Joint International Taskforce on Information Sharing and Collaboration (JITSIC) on behalf of the Australian Commissioner of Taxation and representing Australia in other OECD taxation initiatives.

She has previously held senior tax leadership roles in both government and the private sector, including stints acting as the ATO’s Deputy Chief Tax Counsel.

Alpacas and avocados

Fiona chose to study law at Adelaide University as it was “something that interested me, so I was single-minded in that.”

She says lecturer Michael Butler made classes very engaging as he illustrated concepts with real cases.

“What I discovered in that time – and has resonated throughout my career – is the incredible variety that comes with tax. Anything that you could be interested in, any hobbies, any passions, all usually have an aspect of tax touching on it.”

Joining the ATO as a graduate, the first area Fiona worked in was legislation for hobby farmers. Even though she was fresh out of law school and was, she says, “working at a low level doing editorial checks”, it was exciting that when she had added “a word here or a word there”, some of the words made it into legislation.

“It beats most junior roles you would get straight out of uni. You had to learn how many alpacas were needed to run an alpaca farm, and the fact that it takes seven years to grow avocados. So I learned the context of these things and not just the tax. It was kind of cool,” she says.

She then moved to Melbourne (from Adelaide) where she worked in media and communications, “working out the various areas of radio frequency spectrum that telcos owned, floating over Australia. Again, something you don’t expect working in the tax world.”

Attractions, challenges and highlights

“The variety is definitely one of the main attractions of tax for me. Also, as a lawyer, the technical variety you get,” she says.

Fiona has worked in areas such as law design, litigation, technical advice and policy design. Now in the international arena with her OECD role, she says her career has been completely varied, particularly in the public service.

“I’ve had really good experiences in the private sector as well. I feel almost every area I’ve worked in has had its own highlights and challenges. Just last week here I chaired a spontaneous meeting that facilitated 37 countries coming together for a common cause, all under Australia’s leadership.

“When I was in a previous role, we also revolutionised how the ATO provides advice to the public. We became more conscious of providing different types of advice, depending on the level of detail required by our tax-paying and professional communities. For example, lawyers may require a detailed dissertation while everyone else may prefer a summary.”

Turning a negative into a positive

On a personal level, another highlight was a role that Fiona was initially reluctant about.

“For a short period of time, seven or eight months, I was the lead negotiator for the ATO’s enterprise agreement in the latest round of industrial bargaining. I didn’t have a background in industrial relations or HR law, so negotiating with unions, appearing at the Fair Work Tribunal and trying negotiate a good deal for our 18,000 employees was a personal challenge.

“Again, similar to all my roles, it was very much aided by the good people I work with. I’ve been really impressed throughout my career with the calibre of people in the profession,” she says.

Not a ‘set and forget’ profession

As a leader, Fiona values authenticity – “It’s extremely important, particularly when you’re trying to instigate change and dealing with intelligent people. You’ve got to be really authentic in terms of your objectives and motivations. At the same time, being agile is critical in a changing environment. We’re not in a profession where you can form a view, set and forget.”

When it comes to the perennial issue of work/life balance, Fiona says she can be “her own worst enemy at not achieving balance. It’s a constant challenge.”

It means acknowledging that there’ll be times when there are higher demands on her work time, but also recognising that this can’t be the norm.

“We work our crazy hours, long days, weekends, when there’s something important on. But there are alarm bells if that’s what you need to do to get through your business-as-usual work. I tend to get wrapped up in my work quite easily and have to remind myself at times how important my family and friends are. I fall into the ‘tax vortex’ from time to time.”

Career advice

Asked what advice she would give to young women beginning a career in tax, she says: “believe in yourself and make sure your voice is heard.”

“Women are well represented in the tax profession and more women are reaching pivotal positions. While there’s still work to do, we are very well placed in the tax profession to offer a rewarding career for women.”

 This article was originally published on The Tax Institute 29 January 2018.


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