In November 2013, Ilana Millar achieved a lifelong career goal when she became Senior Tax Counsel at the Australian Taxation Office. Her appointment was the result of years of hard work in the complex field of tax law and tax policy and it was a role Ilana had coveted since joining the Australian Taxation Office’s graduate program after leaving university with an Arts/Law degree.
“My family were in police, fire and the army - public service roles in a sense, so it was assumed I’d go into public service and I was drawn to it,” she says.
“I sat the public service exam in Melbourne, joined the graduate program and worked in the international tax area for a few years. I then spent a couple of years in private practice as a lawyer but I rejoined the tax office as a litigator in 2003. I spent ten years in different litigation roles before I got my dream job as Senior Tax Counsel. That was the role I’d aimed for since joining the public service because you deal with the technical aspects of tax law and it’s a senior role with a lot of influence over tax policy.”
Three years ago, Ilana was tempted away from her dream job by an opportunity that was too good to turn down. She became Assistant Commissioner, Review and Dispute Resolution and is now responsible for managing tax disputes between the Commissioner of Taxation and large and multinational businesses.
It’s a job with a strong focus on leading teams and, not long after moving into her current position, Ilana completed ANZSOG’s two-week Towards Strategic Leadership (TSL) program. The program is designed to help public service leaders develop the qualities needed to thrive in a senior executive role, such as political astuteness, personal resilience and the capacity to reflect and to develop a strategic outlook.
“The TSL program was perfect to help me learn more about what I needed to build on to move into broader leadership roles. I think the program is amazing in that it gives you an opportunity to not only learn the theories, but to put some of those things in to practice via the activities you do as part of the program,” Ilana says.
“It gives you an opportunity to try out roles you may not have taken on before and gives you tools to diagnose elements of the challenge you face and to explore your own role in the problem you are trying to resolve. I took away the confidence to face novel and complex problems and to deal with issues that are not in my usual comfort zone.”
At any time, the nine teams that Ilana manages are working to resolve about 200 disputes between the Commissioner and major businesses. About half of those disputes are audit generated while the rest manage problems with taxpayer assessments.
“My entire career had been in technically focused roles – I’d been the litigator in court and the person responsible for complex tax technical decisions. But I hadn’t focused on leading others and I wanted to expand into a leadership role,” she says.
“I’m responsible for process improvements and the way in which disputes are resolved, I manage the week-to-week relationship between compliance and disputes teams and we influence the design of compliance programs to minimise the number of disputes we get. I also deal with tax managers at multinational businesses and partners at major law and accounting firms to try and settle disputes and deal with any complaints about processes.”
During the TSL program, Ilana and her cohort formed teams and were given live case studies to analyse. Her team examined the issue of ‘gang violence’ in Victoria which at the time was at the forefront of media coverage. Ilana’s cohort met several stakeholders to learn more about the issue.
“You have the opportunity to interview people involved in the problem and you speak to them to try and diagnose what is driving the problem. It was a complex issue and people have different perspectives that you have to bring together to try and resolve the problem. We had to put together a presentation to suggest solutions,” says Ilana.
“We interviewed community leaders, media and the police. You learn to ask questions and really listen to responses and you resist the temptation to move to consensus too quickly.”
A number of learnings from the TSL program remain with Ilana in her current role.
“I learned to wait longer than I normally would before giving my own opinion and I ask questions from a point of curiosity about what is really happening, rather than preconceived notions of what I think is happening,” she says.
“I also notice whose voice hasn’t been heard and what is missing. Resisting the temptation to move to consensus too quickly remains, too and I also see the importance of vulnerability in authentic leadership because the program drew out the importance of bringing your whole self to what you do. I’d highly recommend the program - it’s like no other course I’ve done.”
Like many ANZSOG alumni, Ilana is a committed public servant who sees her long-term future remaining within the public service.
“I have a passion for improving the Australian tax and superannuation system and I do think we make a difference,” she says.
“At some point I’d like to work across other areas to improve the way disputes are handled in other public service organisations. I feel that I can take my skills for minimising and preventing disputes and apply them in another context to help make a positive difference in another system. Public service is a natural place for me to want to work.”
Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA)
A part-time postgraduate qualification developed and delivered by ANZSOG exclusively for high-performing public sector managers.
Executive Fellows Program (EFP)
A three-week program challenging senior public service executives working in the public domain to develop new leadership perspectives in a contemporary and highly interactive setting.
Towards Strategic Leadership (TSL)
A unique two-week program that helps public service leaders develop the qualities needed to thrive in a senior executive role: a strategic outlook, political astuteness, personal resilience and the ability to reflect and learn continuously.