S4:E6 Are You an International Team Player? with Lori Nichols

Updated: Sep 23, 2020


Patrick: Hey listeners, welcome back to Cultural Conversations. This is Patrick McMullin with IHUb. Today we will be meeting with Lori Nichols, Senior Director for Tax at Adobe. Lori has worked in various countries around the world on various tax projects. And we are honored to hear from her today about her experiences working abroad. 

Meg: Thank you for joining us today. First, could you tell us a little bit about your background. Where are you from? Your education? Where you are living now?

Lori: Sure. I was born and raised in a small town right outside of Portland, Oregon. And I received my Bachelor’s and my Masters in accounting from BYU. It feels like just a few years ago. But I’ve been in the Bay area since I graduated from BYU other than a couple of internships in Washington D.C. So I feel like I am a California native. Almost. 

Meg: That’s great. What was your brief timeline of your career after you graduated from school?

Lori: Well I took the public accounting route. So after spending a couple of summers in WAshington D.C. in their national tax office I started my career in San Jose, CA. And so when my focus accounting and always in corporate taxes I did complete my audit hours in order to get my CPA. And I had been at ENY as a tax manager for about a year and a half when I decided to leave public accounting and venture into the industry. And I took a domestic tax position at a small software company. And this is where I started to get the on-hand experience with international operations and international tax projects. And from that small company they were acquired by IBM and my boss and I continued to work at IBM for about a year and a half while we wraped up the IRS tax audit and helped IBM with the various integrations. But I had consciously made the decision not to move back to NY with IBM. But rather take some time off and travel and then find another job afterward. And with my tax network here, in the Bay Area, I was easily able to find another job and that’s when I started this job at Adobe. Where my focus has been 100% international tax. And next month I will have been here 15 years. 

Meg: So I am curious. I feel like often we hear about job titles and think international tax. But sometimes what you do is different. Have you found that there is a common misconception with people concerning what people think you do and what you actually do?

Lori: Well I would say the common misconception is that people think tax is boring. But it’s nothing of the sort. As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of variety in my work, it can be complex, there are lots of moving parts. But that’s what keeps us on our toes. I get to work with people from literally every part of the company. So every function within Adobe we have interaction and the longer I’ve been with Adobe and the more projects I’ve done and the more operational I’ve become it’s true. I work with literally every function within the company. Especially when I am dealing with the integration for acquisition. So working through due diligence. And when we operationalize the integration plan and have to tax efficiently, combine operations of an acquired company I get the benefit of working with people all over the world and all over the company to accomplish that. 

Meg: Wow. That is interesting. I guess that’s something even I didn’t realize about it. So what is the nature of your business with different cultures or different countries? 

Lori: Well, so as I mentioned earlier…. My first industry job is when I really started working with people across the world and got experience in the international tax realm. But in my role now I have teams of people that are in the US, Ireland, India, and I even have a person in Bermuda. So on the daily basis I am working with people from different culture right here in my San Jose office. 

Lori:  But also I am working with all around the globe. In international tax, that’s just the nature of our business and I work with people all over the company. I also travel not only to visit my teams so in Ireland and India, but to meet with tax authorities and to meet with our tax advisors, sometimes for tax policy conferences. Just last year I was in Paris, Milan, Madrid, and Dublin a couple of times and I’ve also been to Singapore, Tokyo, Dubai, London, Munich, Amsterdam, Stolkholm, and other places over the years. In an international position there is some travel and I love to travel so it’s not a problem for me, I really enjoy it!

Meg: That sounds amazing actually, visiting so many places!  

Lori: Yes and I usually, even though it is work, I usually do, especially if my team is traveling with me, try to make something fun of it, whether we go to a historical site or take the weekend and enjoy a couple of days learning a little bit about the culture and seeing where we are. Business travel is hard enough as it is, that it’s nice to be able to have a nice dinner or be able to go for a walk and see a park or something, instead of just being on an airplane.

Meg: Instead of just the long travel, that’s true. So in these visits, would you say you have ever experienced culture shock or noticed a big difference in culture and maybe have an experience with that?

Lori: Well I grew up in a home where we always seemed to have an exchange student living with us. In total I think our family hosted probably 12-15 international students so as I was growing up I learned to appreciate and respect different cultures, because I was living with them and sometimes as a teenager that is not always easy. That said, before I traveled to Japan for business, I took advantage of one of the tools that Adobe offered, this was an online resource were you could learn about any culture in the world. It talked you through travel tips and culture and etiquette. Greeting etiquette is important especially in a country like Japan, where in the US we tend to shake hands so that we immediately reach out and shake a hand. In Japan that is not appropriate.

When they bow, they put their hands together and bow, but reaching out your hand I don’t know if it is a cleanliness matter or what it is, but I found that that was really helpful to be able to educate myself and I would say that probably Japan and India have been two countries where I really had to think about the culture before going and understand how the business operates. The one experience that comes to mind is when I was doing my first income tax audit for India. Again, in the US we have a certain way of managing tax controversy and dealing with the IRS auditor and dealing with our tax advisors.

But, culturally India is really different and communicates differently and negotiates differently. While I was wanting to come in and be a little bit more direct as we generally are in the US, our tax advisors had to educate us on what the best approach was in negotiating and coming to resolution with those tax officers. That was extremely helpful.

Meg: I can imagine. That kind of goes along with this next question: Did you ever have to change the way you were working and adapt to another culture? Maybe as part of this, is the way you interact with your different teams around the world dependent on the culture they are from?

Lori: I think one always has to be aware of culture and the fact that that drives how one works and how one communicates.

One of the exercises that I did with my team several years ago and honestly at that point in time I had somebody in my team from India, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, China, and the US. We did this exercise where we learned a little bit about our cultures and how people communicate. Like you said earlier, some people are very direct and some cultures are very direct. Others I don’t want to say “beat around the bush”, are more flowery in their language. It was a very interesting experience just within my small team to help us understand not to get offended when the Swede was communicating very directly because culturally that’s how he grew up and in other countries they may not be that way. 

So it doesn’t change how I interact with my team, I think it helps me understand where they are coming from and to be sensitive to that. I suppose yes, it changes only so that we are aware and aren’t offensive or don’t take offense and communicate a little bit better.

Meg: Yeah, you have to be it sounds a little more flexible in how you do things.

Lori: Yeah well you know with global business I think anybody these days is dealing with people all around the world and it is just helpful to be thoughtful and respectful about how we communicate.

Meg: Definitely, so coming from a country like the US where it seems we do have a lot of regulation and rules in place, what other type of regulatory environments have you worked in or lack thereof in other countries?

Lori: Well, again because international tax we are dealing with tax authorities all over the world. So most of what we do is governed by strict regulatory environments. I will say that Adobe has operations in a lot of different countries. Again we are trained, our legal team trains us on all the different compliance requirements, the Foreign Practices Act, and such. As a company, we have certain compliance requirements, regulations, policies that we follow as a company, regardless of whether in certain countries they may operate differently, but we have a standard we hold for ourselves.

There have been some countries where I would say it is not as easy to do business in because of certain cultural norms may go against even Adobe’s practices.

Meg: Is there a specific example that comes to mind when you say that or just in general?

Lori: Well, I don’t want to list countries, but I would just say that if one is acting with integrity and I have a CPA so I have a professional code of conduct and ethics that I operate by. I think that that is the best way that you need to operate.

Whether you are dealing with a tax authority or people in other countries who may not act upon the same strict line of integrity or ethics, I think that is a personal rule that I live by.

Meg: So, in spite of what other regulatory environments may be, always set your own. I like that. So let’s see, what are some of the biggest complexities in what you do?

Lori: Well I think there’s are a couple of different things. On the technical side, interpreting all of the tax legislation and the guidance that comes out, and applying those facts to our business as you can imagine. there’s the law then there’s regulations that helps explaining what the law is and then there is some technical guidance and court cases that determine some of this facts are applied to the law.

Lori: There’s the law, then there’s regulations that help explain what the law is. And then there’s some technical guidance or court cases that again determine how some of those facts are implied to the law, or how the law applies to the facts. That gets complex because every situation is different and every company is different. How we’re structured and operating is different than some of our peers. So sometimes we get questions from the business like “why can’t we do what company A B & C are doing.” But we may be operating differently in that particular jurisdiction and so different laws apply to us, so I think interpreting all of the tax legislation and applying it is challenging. The other part is really navigating the business and navigating the politics. You’re gonna help politics in any organization and in any business and just the complexity of a large organization and navigating through to accomplish common goals is challenging. It’s also rewarding, but it’s challenging. 

Meg: This next question might go along with that. What is the most challenging but also the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Lori: I would say that people management can be both the most challenging and the most rewarding. There are situations where really certain personal issues are challenging, and then there’s also opportunity for growth when you’re leading a team or having to counsel and develop your team as well as communicating with your peers and being able to negotiate and get people in agreement with the direction you want to go. But I love my team,  I have a fantastic team. They truly make my day everyday. The people you work with make a huge influence for me on how I enjoy the work that I’m doing. It’s not just my team, it’s the other people I work with that make it as well. 

Meg: I think that’s true. I’ve noticed that even if it’s really rough work that you don’t enjoy, as long as you have good people around you it makes it doable. If it’s in reverse it’s so much more difficult. 

Lori: Right.

Meg: The last question I want to cover with you is what advice would you give  to a business person or potential student who is planning to work in the same situation you’re in?

Lori: I would say be curious. Be curious. Ask a lot of questions if you don’t understand something, ask. That’s one thing that we tell our team. My management team, we tell our folks that if you don’t understand something ask about it. We don’t want you going off and not understanding what the purpose is. In international tax as well as just working with people all across the globe, or in those cultural matters that we discussed today I would say assume the best in people. It’s easy to get set in the way we do things, and I think assuming the best and not letting those misunderstandings like cultural misunderstandings create problems, but assume that people are trying to understand and work together. Sometimes there are cultural differences in how things are said or written communication, so when you are dealing with people from all over the world assume the best in all situations. 

Meg: Overall would you say there’s any other do’s and don’t within international tax?

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