Would-be pharmacist turned IRS lawyer honored for her leadership skills

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Growing up in a family of pharmacists, there was no question Frances Regan would end up working in health care, but as fate would have it, law school was the right prescription for Regan.

Three decades after graduating from St. John’s University School of Law, Regan works as the area counsel for the Internal Revenue Service’s Small Business Self Employed Division for Office of Chief Counsel, and her work hasn’t gone unnoticed.

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Regan was one of two federal employees honored with the Roger W. Jones Award from the American University School of Public Affairs, for her leadership and “commitment to effective continuity of government.”

“My real passion — and I think the reason why I got this award — is my activity in the management and leadership training in the Office of Chief Counsel,” Regan said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “The number one reason that people leave a job is that they weren’t happy with their manager and that there are failures in management, so I began to focus on the fact that we really needed to make an effort to train our managers. The counsel always had management training for new mangers, so I got involved with that training. I just felt there was so much there to improve on and to just train people to learn how to empower their employees, how to encourage them, how to develop them.”

Regan’s co-honoree is Patricia Dalton, chief operating officer for the Government Accountability Office.

“I’m terribly honored by American University, that they would give me this award,” Regan said. “I’ve looked at past awardees, and my co-awardee. I’m pretty bowled over that they would give me this award.”

In a statement from Drita Tonuzi, deputy chief counsel for operations with the IRS’ Office of Chief Counsel, Tonuzi said Regan has been instrumental in developing and mentoring the next generation of executives.

“We have great public servants and leaders at the IRS and chief counsel, and Fran exemplifies the best of both,” said Tonuzi, who also nominated Regan for the award.

According to a university announcement, the annual award is given to two senior executives “for their exceptional public service and dedication to the work and goals of government.”

AU has recognized more than 70 federal employees since the first awards in 1978.

Finding the right piece to the puzzle

Though her management skills at the tax agency earned her honors, Regan’s initial career plans were more left-brain.

“My whole family was in health care, the idea was that I was going to be a doctor,” Regan said. “There was never any question that I was going to become a doctor. I went to the college of pharmacy [at St. John’s] because my father was pretty old fashioned. He said he wasn’t going to pay for any degree that I couldn’t get a job at the end of it.”

While doing clinical work in school, Regan realized she didn’t want to be a doctor. She’d also gotten involved in litigation work with some of the pharmaceutical associations during school, and realized she was interested in law.

“And my dean said to me ‘Fran, you like to talk, one place they pay you to talk is law school; go to law school.'” Regan said with a laugh. “[In] pharmacy school everything was science and math, so going to law school was a completely different experience. All the writing and logical thinking, but I just enjoyed it so much. And I ended up getting involved in tax and loving tax. I did an internship with the IRS Office of Chief Counsel and they offered me a full-time job upon graduation. That’s pretty much how I got into law.”

Regan said tax law did still have some aspects of her original major. Tax law is very formulaic, which appeals “to my scientific mind.”

There’s a set of rules, you learn them, and then you apply them.

“It was just very orderly and logical,” Regan said. “I can’t really explain it. I’m not really good at math, everyone always says you must be good at math you do tax. No, that’s why I didn’t become an accountant. I became a lawyer. I just love the puzzles of tax law.”

Know when to step back

Regan lives in the same town where she grew up, in Bergen County, New Jersey.

After graduating from law school in 1981, she started in IRS’ district counsel office in Manhattan, which handled cases in the New York City area.

“I started as a general attorney doing litigation in tax court, collection work, assisting the client in trying to collect liability,” Regan said. “I interned in Long Island, and I said to myself I want to be in Manhattan, that’s where all the action is. I ended up being able to be in the Manhattan office. Since then I’ve gained a little perspective and I think there are some pretty exciting things going on through the county.”

Today Regan supervises about 70 lawyers, paralegals and managers in the northeast, and is responsible for six offices that do a majority of the tax litigation in the region. The work involves small business self-employed taxpayers, as well as wage and investment taxpayers.

Though modest about her award, Regan is quick to tip her hat to her staff.

“Our standard employee is very highly engaged, very highly interested in their work, they don’t need a lot,” Regan said. “I’ve heard [the IRS commissioner] say sometimes he just had to know when to get out of the way. I think that’s a talent for managers to know when it’s time to get out of the way and let their people work. We have a tremendous workforce that does not need much, mostly we need to make sure we get the resources to them that they need, that we get the right cases to them, get the right cases to the right people, and then let them do their job.”

Where managers can contribute is through giving good, accurate and constant feedback. And being able to communicate difficult things is just as important as giving positive comments, Regan said.

Take time to listen

Regan said even with the award, she continues to look at how she can improve her work, which right now includes a focus on taking more opportunities to listen to employees.

While things like the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey are good, you need to get behind the numbers, she said.

“I’m not a big fan of the surveys, because I really don’t think you’re really understanding what people are trying to say with the surveys,” Regan said. “I think it’s very important that we sit down and listen to our employees. As I mature in my job, although I’ve been in this job now 10 years, that’s one thing I think I’ve learned recently that I want to do better at.”