In 2001 Tifphani White-King was a newly minted tax associate at Arthur Andersen, working out of New York City in the firm’s international tax practice. Her path to Andersen was mostly traditional — she’d studied economics at Columbia University as an undergraduate and went on to receive her law degree from St. John’s University in nearby Queens. But her reason for landing at Andersen was a little less buttoned-up. White-King, who had also majored in dance at Columbia, wanted to continue her dance career on the side and had been advised that consulting and professional services firms could give her a little flexibility to do that. The job, she was told, would not be all-consuming. She quickly learned that was untrue.
But just as she was settling in at Andersen, the firm abruptly fell apart in 2002 when its second-largest client, Enron, collapsed in bankruptcy. Andersen’s auditing of the company came under fire, sparking a mass exodus from the firm. It was an inauspicious start for a recent law school graduate, but the turmoil and loss surrounding the Andersen shutdown ultimately gave White-King an important lesson in partnership and collegiality that has stuck with her throughout her career.
At the time, her hiring partner and mentor, Robert Stricof, was fielding multiple offers from competitor firms. Given the unfortunate situation, Stricof picked the firm that would allow him to bring the most people with him. That firm was Deloitte. White-King was hired and from there, she quickly established herself in the firm’s New York international tax practice. When she reached the manager level, leadership started talking to her about the steps it would take to become a partner. She said they discussed what it meant to carry a portfolio, a book of business; what it meant to attain an executive presence, be authentic, and develop a personal leadership style.
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Those conversations materialized in part because White-King strove to be intentional about her career from the first day she walked through the doors at Andersen and every day thereafter. This intention linked back to a conversation she’d had with her father on her first day at Andersen. He’d asked her about the highest level she could achieve at the firm, and she had told him it was partner. He told her to remember the partnership, or as he called it, “remember the P.”
“My whole career, every step of the way, my dad would occasionally reiterate those words, and he would share them in different ways,” she said. “Sometimes my dad would just send me emails, or text messages and he would use that quote. ‘Remember the P. How’s the P doing today?’
“It was his own unique way of just reminding me of what my goal was and why I entered the doors on day 1. So I knew that it was somehow in my stars and it was very important to my family for me to achieve this level of accomplishment,” White-King said.
When White-King came up for partnership at Deloitte in 2014 and made her presentation to the firm, she decided to weave her personal story into the presentation and talked all about the P, explaining how it fit into two other Ps important to the firm — people and profit.
“It’s really about people first, building our teams, working through our clients and teams in a way where you’re developing this second P, which is the profit and really contributing to the bottom line in building that portfolio, which ultimately leads you to that partnership,” White-King said. “That was my tribute, my homage to my dad, and my way of sharing my dream and my journey with those three Ps.”
Stepping Out of Line
In 2017 White-King got a call that really opened her eyes. It was an unexpected call from Mazars, which had come courting because it was looking for someone to lead the international tax practice for the United States. She was approaching four years in her partnership at Deloitte but didn’t anticipate this kind of leadership opportunity opening to her as such a young line partner. She knew that she was successful at Deloitte, had a strong portfolio, and had a bright future there. But she couldn’t ignore an international firm giving her the opportunity to own a profit and loss statement right then and there.
“You know it’s funny people talk a lot now about the generational divides and the concept of time . . . the perception that a lot of the later generations want things now and do not want to wait, do not want to pay their dues,” White-King said.
“I’m right on the cusp of the millennial/Gen X divide. So I do have a little bit of that ‘I want it now’ and that hustle and that grit . . . so I said, ‘You know what? Let me look into this. Let me research this a little bit more.’”
When White-King joined Mazars, she spent roughly a year growing the firm’s U.S. international tax practice before Mazars leadership returned to her with another, larger request — to grow the firm’s entire U.S. tax practice and serve as its national tax line leader. That’s the role she occupies today.
“Being able again to be a part of a family and a firm that believed in me, and said that I could do this now, that meant a lot from a leadership perspective,” White-King said. “And I realized in this world that in order to move from one thing to the next, you have to take some risks. You just have to be confident in yourself and know yourself and believe that you can do it and you can succeed. And I just kept that in my mind the entire time.”
Do I See Myself Here?
The latest numbers from trend trackers like the American Institute of CPAs and industry recruiter TaxTalent indicate that diversity in the profession is steadily increasing in some ways more than others. The talent pipeline is widening at the beginning stages — classrooms are becoming more diverse as is the talent pool flowing into the Big 4 firms and government.
But as has historically been the case, the stream is narrowing at the top levels of the profession, for example, at the partner and director levels.
“Many people say, if I can’t see myself, if I can’t see someone that looks like me at this firm at a level where I think I want to be, then maybe this isn’t the place for me,” White-King said. “You almost psych yourself out and you leave because you’ve already made a determination that because you don’t see yourself, maybe it’s not possible.”
But White-King emphasized that low visibility does not have to be a deal-breaker. Over the course of her career, she did not see colleagues who physically looked like her every single day. But this did not stop her in 2014 from becoming Deloitte’s first African-American female tax partner, she said.
“Even though [someone like me] wasn’t visible, I still had my own vision. And I think it’s important that we teach, especially underrepresented populations, how to have that vision, even when someone that looks like you just isn’t visible to you,” White-King said. “Because you can make a difference and make that change.”
Now that she is on the other side of the hiring table, White-King makes sure that she drills down into the granular aspects of her firm’s recruiting and hiring activities when she is meeting with her tax service line leaders to discuss talent and resources.
“I actually ask: ‘How many women have you recruited into your tax service line? If you’re not recruiting women, why not? How many candidate profile forms, CVs, or resumés do you get that are actually from women versus men? How many of the CVs, the resumés, the candidate profile forms that you’re getting can you identify as being part of an underrepresented population?’ Are we looking at that as we are presenting candidates for entry to hire, and then are we hiring them?”
Movement within the organization is the next important issue, according to White-King. It is critical to track how professionals from underrepresented populations are moving through a firm, from the staff level and the senior associate level, up through the partnership level, and into the C-suite. Once a firm has those statistics and can break down retention and turnover, the next issue is whether the firm is asking the right questions during exit interviews to understand the real reasons professionals leave.
“Sometimes people are comfortable sharing, sometimes they are not, but it’s all in how you craft a question in terms of you know how you can get an answer,” she said.
Beyond movement, visibility matters — whether it is giving people an opportunity to work with the most highly visible clients, to go on the most competitive bids, or to build strong portfolios that will take those people to the levels they wish to attain, White-King said. At Mazars, the firm ensures that its client teams are diverse not just because a client demands it or because there is a business case for diversity, she said. The firm emphasizes diversity because it is core to its values and the firm wants to make sure that its teams have the best fit and the right people. When teams fall short on that metric, leadership questions why, from whether people really feel supported in the organization to whether they have sufficient coaching, mentoring, and sponsorship, she said.
“Do you have someone that’s by your side, sharing with you the written versus unwritten rules of the road in terms of how to get promoted and how you accelerate your career, because there’s no book right now that you could read today that tells you these things,” White-King said. “You have to rely on people that have been there, done that, that can set you up in the right position.”
At Arthur Andersen, it was said that the hallmark of a great partner wasn’t the number of clients or portfolio size, but rather the number of new partners that the partner was able to make across a career, White-King added. After all, good partners beget other good partners.
“I mean, imagine the effort you’re pouring into your mentees and proteges. You’re probably likely also doing that with your clients as well because you’re a people person. You care, you’re committed, you’re focused on service and development and growth. So I think it’s just a natural sort of step if you have someone that’s focused on that and committed to that, that the other things just follow.” This has been a poignant lesson for White-King, partially because her mentor, Stricof, retired from Deloitte the year she made partner.
“I always say, he finished what he started,” she laughed.
Similarly, over the years, White-King has come to see some of her most defining career moments as the moments in which she was able to support and help grow someone else’s career. Those are the moments, she said, where she truly feels she is having an impact on the industry.
“Not because I saved someone a few million dollars because of a tax transaction or tax play. But because you’re really making a difference in someone’s life that you can’t quantify by currency or dollar value,” White-King said.
Learning at the Top
When White-King was rising in her career, she wanted to be known as a brilliant tax technician and learn everything she could within international tax; to digest it, absorb it, and deliver wonderful results based on her clients’ facts and circumstances. Once she became management, she had to figure out if she would pivot and become 100 percent dedicated to management or still function in some respects like a line partner.
“I’m one of those leaders that likes to do both,” White-King said. “My mentor shared with me that you should always have a connection to your client and you should always serve clients. You don’t know that you will always be in a management role. And if you are 100 percent in a management role, you start to really lose your profession and your identity in the field that you’re practicing.”
White-King heard Stricof when he shared this, but didn’t fully absorb the advice until now, in her current role. It turns out that maintaining a portfolio, reading the tax code, reading the regulations, and working through various case studies and client
facts and circumstances has become even more important for her as she sets strategy and manages profit and loss for Mazars’s U.S. tax practice. This is because tax makes up the largest part of the firm’s revenue in the United States, she said.
“While I’m driving that profit and growth, I still carry my own personal book of business and I made a commitment to myself that no matter how far I may move within management, I will always carry a client portfolio. I believe it gives me credibility in the marketplace that when I am talking about tax, I’m not just parroting what I’m hearing in the news or in the media, but I’m actually living and breathing it,” White-King said.
“So I’m not away from the technical side of international tax. That’s still my identity and who I am. It’s what I relate to.”
In 2020, White-King’s role at Mazars expanded again when the firm’s global head of tax, Anita de Casparis, asked White-King to sit on the firm’s global tax leadership team. It’s a continued time of growth for White-King, who said she really sees continued opportunity for her in the world of international tax.
“This is something my mentor, Bob, shared with me,” White-King said. “When you become a partner, it’s like you’re starting over again. So many times when people attain the partnership, they think: ‘I’ve made it. I’m done. There’s nothing else for me to do.’ But in essence there’s a lot more for you to do. And there’s many places you can go.”