Bringing social justice to accounting work: Anna Tantau CPA

Anna Tantau CPA encourages other financial professionals to choose a social justice cause that they are passionate about, and fight for it. Indeed, she thinks it is their public duty.

Parental lessons about the importance of independence, morals and committing to a good cause have helped Anna Tantau CPA succeed as an accountant and social justice advocate.

When Anna Tantau CPA contemplates the platform for her success in life and business, her mind always comes back to her parents: a father who lived in relative poverty in Italy before finding the courage to emigrate to Australia and own and operate a vineyard in Mildura, Victoria; and a hard-working teacher mother, who always had an equal say on family and financial issues.

Independent, tenacious, passionate

Tantau, now a senior manager at SEIVA, an accounting firm born out of the sale last year of her co-owned public practice Page Tantau, credits her father’s emphasis on life’s staples – family, home and food on the table – for her moral compass. It has allowed her to make the tough decisions in life and pursue causes close to her heart.

“My father’s situation left quite an imprint on me,” says Tantau, who left school at 15 before realising that a lack of education and training would limit her career choices. That realisation prompted her to return to school to complete high school, before going on to engage in a lifetime of education, including completing a business and accounting degree and gaining her CPA Australia designation

Tantau’s early jobs in administrative roles convinced her that a career in accounting was the right choice. 

“I must have had an affinity with numbers because I always ended up in the ledger machining pool. I found it interesting to see how the financial data was collected, verified and then used for various financial reporting purposes.”

She later complemented this love of numbers with a commitment to helping the more vulnerable members of society.

Advocate for the elderly

Nowhere has that determination been more evident than in her advocacy work for the protection of senior citizens.

A former member of CPA Australia’s Victorian Public Practice Committee, Tantau helped develop CPA Australia’s member materials for tackling elder financial abuse, while also championing calls for more publicity of the issue.

Her passion for the cause stems from managing the financial affairs of her mother, who battled Alzheimer’s disease for the last decade of her life. Exposure to the aged-care sector alerted her to the fact that many older people do not have proper estate planning arrangements in place. 

“As accounting professionals, our responsibility first and foremost is to the public, not the client.” 

Tantau’s work is making a difference. In 2015, she was appointed as a sessional member on the Guardianship List of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. This list appoints guardians and financial administrators to people who do not have decision-making capacity or a power of attorney. 

Earlier this year, she represented CPA Australia on a panel at the 5th National Elder Abuse Conference in Sydney, where financial services experts discussed ways to combat elder abuse.

Through the work of Tantau and others, CPA Australia has created an Elder Financial Abuse Toolkit for public practitioners and advisers to use as part of their efforts to reduce the incidence of maltreatment. 

Adamant that accountants are in a unique position to assist, Tantau says the toolkit drives home the importance of four key actions financial advisers can take: 
  • Educate yourself to be aware of the problem of elder financial abuse. 
  • Know how to recognise potential incidences of abuse. 
  • Be proactive about how you can incorporate practices to prevent incidences, including through client advice. 
  • Know your role and understand what you can do if you become aware of an instance of elder financial abuse. 

“It’s quite an extensive toolkit,” Tantau says. “I’m personally very proud of the work we did on it and the product. Financial elder abuse is not a glamorous subject and it needs a lot more focus.”

She has no doubt that an affiliation of more than 30 years with CPA Australia has enabled her to sharpen her strategy skills and make an impact with causes such as elder financial abuse, adding that “it opens up your network and the way you think”.

A real problem-solver

After becoming an accountant, Tantau quickly realised she loved client contact and helping people solve problems, courtesy of smart strategic advice. 

They are skills that allowed her to thrive in senior accounting roles and gave her the confidence at the age of 50 – when she returned to work full-time after bringing up three children – to buy a 50 per cent share in what became Page Tantau, at a time when some might be thinking of winding down. Tantau felt she had more to give and wanted to prove herself as a partner in public practice. “I just wanted to get on with it,” she explains. 

After eight years as a partner and having made a smooth transition to SEIVA, Tantau can reflect on her approach to decision-making and how it could help others. Too often, she believes, people procrastinate in the belief that a decision is irreversible. 

“There aren’t many decisions that we make that can’t be changed or adapted to some extent, so I’m fairly efficient at weighing up the pros and cons of a decision and actually making the decision,” she says.

“I’m not a procrastinator. You need to make a decision as a starting point for where to go next. Strategic planning is always a movable feast and it’s always something you should be reviewing. The truth is that the sooner you set a goal, the faster you are likely to achieve it.” 

Professional Development: Leading strategy and innovation – CPA Australia has partnered with Harvard Business School Publishing to curate a collection of leadership development resources specifically for professionals looking to grow as strategic leaders in a world of constant innovation and change.

This capacity to commit to projects, including her work to cut elder financial abuse and improve women’s financial literacy, culminated this year in Tantau winning the Henry Fox Award as Victorian CPA Practitioner of the Year. Apart from being “really shocked” at the honour, it also endorsed her view that people are rewarded if they have a go and really embrace a project. 

“I don’t do anything unless I’m 100 per cent engaged. If it’s something that’s not interesting to me, I wouldn’t just sit through it – I’d resign or leave. If I’m involved, I’m going to give my honest thoughts.

I do love to put forward my opinions and I do love to give them freely!” 

That does not mean ignoring the input of others. A passion for debating in school taught her the importance of listening to opposing views before settling on a final stance. It has helped her advise clients and it has been crucial to her advocacy work. 

“I’m always prepared to question things and raise things that perhaps aren’t popular,” she says. 

Work-life balance

To achieve at a high level, Tantau needs a clear mind. That is why her life is not all about work, with her profile on SEIVA’s website making that clear: “When she’s not running numbers, she’s running a bushwalking club and finance seminars for women. And when she’s not swinging a tennis bat, Anna’s swing dancing. You can probably gather, she’s in a league of her own.”

Given that many accountants have a sedentary job, Tantau recommends being active after hours. 

“It’s important to get outside, to get fresh air, to have physical challenges and to focus your mind on something different. That’s the way I clear my mind of all my work, so it’s a way of refreshing myself.” 

“There aren’t many decisions that we make that can’t be changed or adapted to some extent, so I’m fairly efficient at weighing up the pros and cons of a decision and actually making the decision.” 

Hiking and bushwalking are her current favourite pastimes. She recently started a Sunday hiking club and is not long back from a 10-day walk along part of the South West Coast Path in Cornwall in the UK. 

For those who argue that they do not have time for leisure outside their firm, Tantau responds that it may simply be an excuse, and encourages people to rise to the challenge of delegating properly and taking some small test breaks. 

“You have to be able to solve those challenges as a business owner. If you can’t take a month off, take a week off. If you can’t take a week off, take a day off. You’ve got to think outside a mindset that says, ‘I can’t do that’.” 

Tantau also applies this can-do approach to gender-based causes such as educating women on financial matters through “My Money and Me” seminars and identifying the barriers for women to senior management positions and roles as principal or partner. How can progress be achieved? Tantau says education and mentoring are inevitably the starting point. 

Make a difference

Tantau encourages other financial professionals to choose a social justice cause that they are passionate about, and fight for it. Indeed, she thinks it is their public duty. 

“As accounting professionals, our responsibility first and foremost is to the public, not the client,” she observes. “When advising clients, particularly around financial matters, we need to take a responsible view about what we are recommending, and to also bring to their attention things that they should consider.” 

The goal is to empower people through knowledge and processes. Whatever task or case people take on, however, Tantau says there should always be a period of weighing up what is required and then committing totally to getting the job done. “I make up my mind and I make it work.” 

Just like her parents did so many decades ago. 

What is success? 

“To me, success is about how you feel you’ve conducted yourself throughout your personal and professional life, and whether you’ve done the best you could do and whether you have achieved your goals from the point of view of contributing to society as well. In the end, financial success and accolades and all of those things are fairly shallow unless you have a deeper sense of having made a positive impact on society.” 

Try a little kindness 

In any decision-making process, Anna Tantau believes people must understand their core values. What is really important to you? What won’t you compromise? That evaluation requires a significant degree of honesty and a dose of kindness, she says.

This could result in listening to others with an open mind, or giving them the benefit of the doubt even if you do not agree with them. “Kindness is not necessarily about giving someone a gift – it’s in your attitude to other people, other opinions and other situations. Kindness is a quality that means you assume the best of everyone until there’s reason not to.” 

Tantau has adopted such an approach, and it seems that good actions create good karma. Recently, her colleagues nominated her in the Accountant of the Year category in the Women in Finance Awards 2018. 

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