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Leading with clarity: the role of communication in a Chief Tax Officer’s success

Former C-suite executive Stephen De May shares his unique leadership model with an EY Chief Tax Executive program cohort.

In brief
  • For leadership imperatives to make a difference with your team, the message must be clear and the culture must be one of continuous understanding.
  • Setting unambiguous expectations provides the guidance that your leadership team needs to navigate their roles more efficiently.

Communicating your leadership imperatives within complex organizations 

In the realm of leadership within complex organizations, the spotlight often shines on the intricacies of managing people and teams. It is a task filled with challenges, but, when executed effectively, it can be one of the most rewarding leadership endeavors. Our EY Chief Tax Executive program cohort recently had the opportunity to hear what Stephen De May, a former C-suite executive in the energy sector, had to say about leading people. Stephen is now a business advisor with the EY Center for Executive Leadership.

In this article, we delve into Stephen’s insights on creating and communicating leadership imperatives that promote effective leadership, foster transparency and drive organizational alignment.

“Leadership isn’t about titles and authority, it’s about people and teams,” he said. “Transparency, clear communication and accountability form the bedrock of effective leadership. These principles might seem deceptively simple, but they are a beacon in the leadership journey.”

Stephen emphasized the value of creating leadership imperatives for your teams and sharing them in written form. He said this approach proved effective throughout his 35 years as a leader. He recalled that, with every team he led, he shared a core set of principles that would set the stage for how to work together most effectively. Such an approach can offer a clear roadmap for members of your leadership team, guiding them on how to navigate their roles effectively.

Sharing leadership imperatives serves to achieve specific goals:

  • Accentuate common ground: Highlight mutual goals between leaders and leadership teams.
  • Promote transparency: Encourage clear communication and accountability within the organization.
  • Set clear expectations: Seemingly simple guidelines can remove any mystery surrounding leadership style.
  • Cascade principles: By conveying and implementing imperatives at the leadership level, the principles will naturally flow through the rest of the organization, advancing alignment.

As Stephen described the importance of delivering leadership imperatives in written form, he shared a few specific imperatives of his own that have stood the test of time:

  • One of the most crucial questions that a leader should ask is, “Have I communicated my expectations to my team as clearly as possible?” Often, when things are moving quickly and don’t go as planned, it turns out that the expectations were never expressly conveyed. Deadlines are a prime example. Teams tend to focus only on the final deadline, he said. And sometimes team members will have varying interpretations. For instance, some may not have taken into account the advance time needed to adequately review. Stephen recommended implementing interim deadlines to allow for review, especially when C-suite approval will be required. 
  • Managing relationships is another imperative on his list. “Silos tend to form,” he said, “and often the result is a breakdown in communication.” He emphasized two key points:

    1. Tax should always work toward creating a partnership with other departments.
    2. Internal and external relationships should be managed based on equal levels of respect. Placing an expectation on another department or an external vendor that you would not consider placing on your team is not likely to yield favorable long-term results.
  • The power of written communication is often underestimated. Short, concise emails can be more challenging to craft than long ones, but brevity is essential for effective communication. “Conciseness, simplicity and clarity are not only my preferences but also good workplace protocols,” he said.
  • The importance of being prepared for meetings is another critical imperative. Meeting leaders should be clear about the objectives of a meeting, and participants should come prepared. Even routine staff meetings benefit from advance preparation, focused discussion and concise contributions. Preparation shows, and it leads to higher levels of interaction and a greater focus on specific outcomes. 


Leadership imperatives: a foundation for success and growth.

Not only did Stephen introduce his leadership imperatives to new leaders and leadership teams, but he also reintroduced them when needed, fostering a culture of continuous understanding and improvement. Throughout his long career, many others have sought his permission to use this model as they moved on to lead their own teams.


While not everyone will choose to create a formal document outlining their personal imperatives, it is essential for leaders to reflect on what is important to them and ensure that their leadership teams understand their imperatives. Effective leadership is not only about making decisions, but also about inspiring and guiding people toward a shared vision. By implementing leadership imperatives, it’s possible to create a thriving and transparent work environment that promotes growth and success for individual contributors, as well as the organization as a whole.


It’s important for leaders to clearly and concisely communicate their imperatives so there is no ambiguity. Ultimately, they must ensure that their team fully understands and is aligned with these principles. 

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