You could call Sonal Shah a tax advisor, but it would be a slight understatement. She represents multinationals, SME’s and individuals, assisting clients moving to or from the UK, providing strategic advice on cross border transactions and structuring, with a particular interest and expertise in property structuring.
It sounds complex – and it is – but Sonal’s passion injects energy and life into work that might otherwise be perceived as a mundane minefield. Innately inspired by people and building relationships, Sonal weaves a personal touch into work, relieving the stress from clients, creating friendships along the way and ultimately making tax feel less taxing. For Sonal, work should never feel like work and her clients reap the benefits of this personable approach, perceiving her much more than a tax advisor.
Having recently been made partner at Gerald Edelman (GE), Sonal shares some snippets of her world and how she is maintaining some sense of normality in unusual times.
So, tell us a bit about yourself…
Born and raised in Kenya, the definition of success was narrow, and my route felt pre-set. Balancing this however was my family’s entrepreneurial nature and hard-working ethos which I now know had a profound effect. Zooming forward some years, having recently been made partner – and with life feeling so different right now – I can’t help but reflect on the journey. It hasn’t been predictable or straightforward, but I’ve learned so much and had great experiences along the way.
I lead the International Tax department and essentially help clients make smart decisions and in doing so inadvertently become part of their journey in a rather personal way. Whether it’s structuring their assets before they make the big move to the UK; preparing for a sale or an exit after a successful launch of their business; looking to expand their businesses into new markets; building a property portfolio or considering succession planning – these are big milestones for my clients and I feel humbled to be involved in such an impactful way.
I had never set out to do exactly this but I’m thankful that I kept my mind open to the world of international tax as it allowed me to do the things I love the most – meet interesting people and visit interesting places. I relish the international dimension of my role, taking me around the globe (in normal circumstances) and often sharing the floor with prominent figures in the world of tax, constantly challenging me to step up and bring my very best.
Describe a typical day…
There is really no such thing! I work with very different people in entirely different time zones. My day could start speaking to Singapore and end in the US with European and African calls in between. One thing that’s certain is that I am not a morning person. The day starts when my first cup of coffee hits! We’ve recently been making our own fresh brews and the smell is the first thing that puts a smile on my face. I can then shift my focus to looking at emails. My general ethos is never to end the day with unanswered emails- I don’t like leaving anyone waiting.
My day consist of various calls, depending on what is pre-planned and what might have come from emails. I catch up with my team on a daily basis for a general catch up and to ensure we are effectively managing our workload or any changing priorities. Client calls are inevitably a big part of my week whether it’s tapping into potential opportunities with prospective clients or reconnecting with existing clients in my network. I enjoy this and it tends to go a long way gesturally.
I scatter my days with intentional breaks, to avoid meeting overload. I also aim for a hard stop at 6 pm as it’s far too easy to keep tapping away at the keyboard into the night! Given the start to my day is reserved for coffee, I hit the gym in the evenings which helps me unwind. My therapy and the daily highlight is usually cooking something delicious for dinner with my husband. As commutes have disappeared, for the time being, we can dedicate time for more elaborate midweek meals which I have to admit I love.
How important is company culture for GE and how are you maintaining some sense of connection whilst working remotely?
One thing that has been clear from the offset is that GE values people. Happiness is important and we know that it gets the best out of people. Flexible working and empowerment were very much woven into the cultural fabric at GE even at the best of times.
Now that we are all working remotely, there’s an ongoing effort to have check-in calls between individuals and as teams. As a Partner and colleague, I want to make sure, at such testing times, that recognition is in front of mind. Hard work can go more easily unnoticed when we are not physically around each other, so I make sure I call out colleagues who have gone above and beyond. A ‘well done’ always goes a long way and right now, it can really help lift morale.
What are the current challenges for women working in your industry field, and what would you like to see improved?
I think I speak for most industries when I say it’s harder for women as they get nearer the top. There is often a lack of support. I have certainly been in many situations where I was the only female voice in a room full of men and the easy thing to do was nod and agree. But I tapped into my inner strength and believed in myself. That resilience took me where I am today, but I’d really like to start seeing – not only in my own industry but everywhere – clear, structured mentoring and support for women, properly invested in and baked into the culture. I was lucky enough to benefit from a strong and steady mentor who supported me at tough times and celebrated my successes – I will never forget the help this provided me.
But of course, this isn’t always a reality for everyone so my advice for anyone trying to climb the ladder is to be true to yourself – do not think that the seemingly softer traits, such as empathy, need to be buried. Such traits can provide a strategic advantage – never shy away from standing by what you feel. My other tip would be to expect setbacks – view these as positive things that fine-tune you. It’s how we react to challenges that matters so push through and don’t give up!
Nobody could have predicted how 2020 unfolded – what do you miss the most from pre-pandemic life?
I miss people, the human side of the connection and the spontaneity of “water cooler moments”. These casual encounters forced us to make conversation, talking about topics we might not normally discuss and of course learn something! I also miss the sense of camaraderie and togetherness which can never truly be replicated online. But there’s a balance. I don’t miss relentlessly commuting – it has been nice to have a breather, enjoy my home and pick up on some of the simple joys in life.
We all hope next year will bring much more positivity – what are you hoping for in 2021? As a partner, how are you looking to continue expansion at Gerald Edelman and diversify the company portfolio?
As most people do, I hope the economy will bounce back. And with this, I hope the buzz of the city returns, bringing back the soul we know and love. In many respects, the pandemic has been damaging to mental health and has pressed pause on so many things, but I do think this will increase the appetite to come together as one and recreate connections.
My focus lies in three areas. The first is growing my team, continuing to develop them and equipping them with the technical skillset to help them thrive. I’d also like to acknowledge and help to break down the challenges in my industry, doing what I can to promote women in the workplace. I’d lastly like to build on my journey so far, ensuring quality and a sense of ethic is at the heart of everything I do – and of course, enjoy the journey along the way! I truly believe we can re-emerge from this strange time stronger than ever.