Rema Serafi of KPMG: “Learning to work smart is the key to a long career”

I wish someone had told me that as your career progresses, there is a premium attached to what you know vs. what you do. In other words, learning to work smart is the key to a long career. As a part of our series about cutting-edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rema Serafi. […]

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I wish someone had told me that as your career progresses, there is a premium attached to what you know vs. what you do. In other words, learning to work smart is the key to a long career.

As a part of our series about cutting-edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rema Serafi.

Rema is the National Managing Partner — Tax at KPMG LLP where, in conjunction with the Vice Chair — Tax, she oversees a team of more than 8,000 partners and professionals across all Tax disciplines — federal, international, state and local — as well as specialty practices, such as mergers and acquisitions, transfer pricing and valuation services, and global mobility services. She’s been with KPMG for 25 years. Prior to her role as National Managing Partner — Tax, she led Tax’s Economic and Valuation Services (EVS) practice from 2015–2020 and previously held other leadership positions at KPMG.

In heading the EVS practice, she was driven by innovation, challenging the status quo to better serve her clients and teams. Rema was a change agent to be reckoned with who drove double-digit growth by disrupting and diversifying service offerings, reimagining the way her teams collaborated and always looking for smarter, faster and more efficient ways to reach the end goal.

She is a former participant of the KPMG Chairman’s 25 Leadership Program, as well as a member of both KPMG’s National Women’s Advisory Board and the board of Enactus — an international non-profit organization that works with leaders in business and higher education to mobilize university students to make a difference in their communities and become socially responsible business leaders.

Rema is an outspoken ally for equity who strives to always lead by example and works to create a culture of courage by recognizing those who speak up and take a stance. She has a passion for the impact of D&A, AI and emerging technologies on the tax function, as well as people, talent and DE&I.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve been with KPMG for over two decades. What began as an entry-level position out of graduate school evolved into a rewarding and lifelong career of personal and professional growth.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Within six months of joining KPMG as an associate, I was asked to take on an overseas assignment in London. It was a great opportunity for me to take on this challenge at such an early point in my career. Working with an international team from Germany, the U.K. and the U.S., we worked long hours and most weekends to meet our clients’ deadlines. I was immersed in an on-site client experience, often having to take on client interviews on my own. By taking on that challenge, I was able to differentiate myself from my peers with an industry focus and I’ve never looked back. The last 25 years with KPMG have presented many thrilling challenges, but the experience in London working for a global financial institution truly set the tone for what the next two decades would have in store for me at KPMG. There’s never been a dull moment.

Can you tell us about the cutting-edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think they will help people?

When you think of tax, perhaps you envision an accountant plugging away on her calculator from dusk ’til dawn in a back-corner cubicle…or someone who collects your W-2 tax forms every April. Well, think again. Dare I say that tax is cool? It has totally transformed as a profession. It’s no longer just about math and complex calculations. More than ever, it’s about efficiency and resiliency. It’s about utilizing the cloud to share and store information and implement the latest technologies previously reserved only for traditional tech companies, like machine learning and AI, as well as low-code platforms to develop best-in-class analytical tools. It’s also about developing business strategies to ensure that data is easily collected, timely and accurate. The better the data, the more value can be extracted…significantly benefiting the organization.

So, what changed things? Companies are now expected to make faster financial decisions, simulate tax scenarios in real time and keep current on evolving complex legislation to make the best business decisions — all a result of the digital revolution. To keep pace with this change, we created KPMG Digital Gateway, which is an end-to-end technology platform that helps clients to manage risk, tackle regulatory change, turn data into value, streamline compliance and planning and so much more. Simply put, Digital Gateway is a tax operating system that puts the information into our clients’ hands in a very organized and easy-to-understand way, enabling access to meaningful insights that can help them make quick, well-informed decisions about their business.

How do you think this might change the world?

You’ve likely heard the phrases “every company is a technology company” and “every company is a data company.” Well…these statements are becoming more relevant than they were a decade ago because, today, companies have the ability to get a real-time view of nearly their entire financial landscape in one place through data that is precise — a total game changer. Quick access to accurate data that can be used with proper analytics tools is changing the tax function (and others) as we know it.

The explosion of data analytics as a strategic business imperative is also changing the world for future talent. It has opened a whole new window for a broad talent pool, not just accountants. While tax continues to need talent with tax technical skills, it will increasingly also demand a surge of tech experts and data scientists…those who can code, build technology solutions and read and analyze data. Tax is moving from the back office to the front office, becoming a high-value function where human smarts and execution will always win the day.

For tax executives leading in a digital economy and supporting this shift in talent needs, the opportunity to make a positive impact on the business — and perhaps on the world — has never been greater.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think about more deeply?

As disruptive technologies continue to transform business, we’re working with clients to reimagine their tax departments to adapt to new realities and lean into cloud, AI, data science and machine learning. Though, as is the case for any industry or corporation that’s leveraging these types of emerging technologies, it’s imperative to have a comprehensive, responsible and inclusive strategy. For example, although AI can greatly improve speed and efficiency, the technology is only successful when it’s being operationalized at the highest, most ethical level. This, like anything else, requires routine governance and maintenance.

At KPMG, machine learning, AI, data capture and data analytics are just a few of many emerging technologies that we’re leaning into with tax, and we recognize that starting with a clear strategy from day-one is an important step in safeguarding against the challenges of transformative technology. Additionally, we believe in the practice of “human-in-the-loop,” which focuses on more holistic tax data management. This translates into greater automation of a company’s routine forensic work involving tax data, freeing up teams to focus on more value-add analytics and strategic planning — a win for both our people and our clients.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

In the business world, I’ve found that there isn’t usually just one “tipping point.”

Sometimes, change can arise quickly like a tsunami. Other times, external forces driving change and transformation can be slow moving like lava…you may not know when it’s coming, but you know it is coming. I would categorize the breakthroughs in tax transformation somewhere in between, with periods of both calmness as well as high and low tides. In the wake of the global pandemic, which has undoubtedly expedited the digitalization of business operations, our push to transform tax and finance has comprised the convergence of several internal and external events forcing breakthroughs in how we think and act.

From the Fourth Industrial Revolution to the sweeping U.S. and international tax reform in 2017, related geopolitical and economic trends and, most recently, to the 2020 election season, there have been many critical “tipping points.” While we know that most companies are often late adapters of technology who choose to watch and learn, at KPMG, we quickly realized that companies could no longer afford to view tax retrospectively. Instead, executives needed future-looking insight, a clear understanding of their tax and financial data and world-class technology to help them prepare for the next “tipping point” or unforeseen event around the corner.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you get where you are? Can you share a story about that?

One can learn a great deal by observation. Being astute at reading the room and understanding what works well in client settings can take you far. I learned to put my energy around successful, positive people in our organization. I spent time with them, asked questions and simply absorbed what they did well. Some of those people are still at KPMG while others have retired. I also learned that you need advocates in your career, e.g., people who are going to insist on your advancement. There were a few key people who were my advocates and I’ll never forget them. Now the fun part is to pay it forward!

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. I wish someone had told me that all of those little things that seemed to matter so much really don’t matter.
  2. I wish someone had told me that you need to take control of your career and not let your career control you. I learned that early on, but I didn’t know that before I started.
  3. I wish someone had told me that as your career progresses, there is a premium attached to what you know vs. what you do. In other words, learning to work smart is the key to a long career.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

If I had an ounce of talent, I would have been in show business. Not kidding. I’ve always loved Broadway and live theater. If we could somehow take our more traditional jobs and find a way to bring music into them, people would be a lot happier.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have a few favorites, but here is one: “My mission in life is not merely to survive but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style.” — Maya Angelou

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter — @remaserafi

LinkedIn —

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