Treasury Today Country Profiles in association with Citi

Softly, softly: the new treasury skillset

Soft toy teddy bear sitting next to old fashioned telephone

As the role of treasury department has moved away from a siloed back office function to a strategic business partner to the board, the skills of the treasurer have had to evolve. In many cases, being an excellent (technical) treasurer is not enough; soft skills are increasingly required in order to stand out from the crowd.

Despite near-constant development in the field itself, the principles with which treasurers work have broadly remained the same over the years, noted David Dunkerley, former Group Treasurer of Cable & Wireless Communications in the UK, a speaker at the 2014 EuroFinance Budapest conference. The industry’s best exponents have always possessed a mix of business skills, people skills and technical knowledge. But where in the past the emphasis was on the technical, in recent times, particularly since the financial crisis, he feels treasurers have had to be “more front of house”, becoming “a little more outgoing” in their approach.

This focus on people skills and having a strong personality is echoed by Paul Pomroy Senior Vice President and UK Chief Financial Officer, North West Division Financial Controller for McDonalds. “Of course, the core competencies of a finance person are expected,” says Pomroy. “But for those working in finance to be promoted, they also need to have a strong personality and a variety of business experience.”

The ‘soft skills’ of building relationships, managing people and expectations are therefore, it seems, increasingly in demand in the treasury space. Jan-Martin Nufer, Director Treasury and Funding for multinational petrochemicals firm, Borealis Group, another speaker at the Budapest conference, referred to the nurturing of these relationships as being part of a “business partnering” exercise where the expansion of treasury can be explored.

Nufer also highlighted that soft skills, are “extremely important”, especially when working in a culturally diverse operation. Borealis’ centralised treasury operation deals with people from many cultures and countries across the world. There needs to be “sensitivity” to those differences but the company’s leadership supports the notion of inclusivity and is keen to develop its staff. It has invested a lot of time and effort in personal development and has a programme that primarily encourages leadership skills and the raising of individual profiles within the organisation.

People from across the business meet to exchange ideas and get to know each other, developing the all-important softer skills. “It’s one of the ways in which we can come out of our Ivory Tower,” acknowledges Nufer.

At a glance: a treasurer’s guide to soft skills

While soft skills might sound like a poor relation of the technical skills required by treasury staff, they are becoming a key component of an employee’s skillset. Here’s a snapshot of what recruiters are increasingly looking for, and what treasury leaders should strive to encourage:

Teamwork

Companies rely on the ability of their staff to get on with each other and work together to complete projects or react to deadlines. Team building exercises are used by some companies as a way to counter the rise of isolated working patterns, exacerbated by the use of computers. An inclusive approach to teamwork will help employees develop a network of relationships, encouraging a sense of loyalty and mutual respect.

When working as part of a team, it is important to consider the nature of the task at hand and the problems that might be involved in completing it successfully. Attention should also be given to the process of teamwork itself and the procedures that will allow the team to work effectively together. This may involve delegating responsibility and tasks, making sure that each member of the team is clear about what needs to be done.

Key components of teamwork include the ability to accept feedback constructively, adopting a leading or supporting role as appropriate and listening to the contributions and suggestions made by others.

Time management

Demonstrating time management skills means controlling and making effective use of your time. This will usually involve prioritising your tasks and understanding your responsibilities. Time management can have an effect on stress levels, so it is important to be aware of upcoming deadlines and meetings and to be prepared for them.

It is also worth remembering that using time efficiently does not mean working long hours without taking a lunch break. In fact, productivity can often be increased by taking regular breaks.

Communication

The ability to communicate effectively is essential in most areas of the business, including treasury. In fact, communication skills could be the deciding factor in determining a promotion or whether a candidate is successful in an interview.

The purpose of communication is to get your message across to others clearly and unambiguously in a variety of contexts, including written messages. Communication must be carried out effectively in order to delegate tasks and distribute responsibility throughout a team of staff.

Listening

It is also important to remember that communication is a two-way process, so listening is essential. Effective listening encourages others to listen to you and respond to what you say, allowing for a more constructive conversation.

Current psychological theory identifies three main modes of listening:

  1. Combative listening

    The listener is waiting for an opportunity to convey their own point of view. They may be focusing on opportunities to challenge the speaker or assert their own views, rather than understanding the speaker’s viewpoint – consequently misunderstandings may arise.

  2. Passive listening

    The listener is interested in the speaker’s viewpoint and accepts it without engaging or challenging the speaker.

  3. Active/reflective listening

    The listener is interested in what the speaker has to say and takes time to give feedback and check that they have understood the message correctly.

In cases of disagreement it may be tempting to adopt a combative listening stance but a reflective approach can be more productive, leading to a clearer understanding of the speaker’s position. It is also important to avoid jumping to conclusions or being distracted by external interruptions.

Public speaking

Another important aspect of communication is public speaking. The ability to give a presentation has become an unavoidable part of working life for many people, so it is important to understand why some are successful and others are not. The message, rather than the speech itself, is often the factor which determines whether a speech is successful. The message is what an audience will remember and convey to others.

When giving a presentation, the delivery is also critical. In particular, it is important to speak slowly and clearly – and to come across as sincere.

Putting theory into action

Of this list of soft skills, “communication is the key to success,” states Karen van den Driessche, Director Treasury EMEA at Avnet Financial Services in Belgium. “A computer can crunch the numbers better than most people, but as treasurers we can build relationships – with the CFO, with the business, with the team – and I don’t think anything can replace human contact and communication.”

Van den Driessche adds, however, regardless of the industry or company setting, people need to feel “at home” with the communication process because if there is any discomfort, the communication quickly breaks down into ‘noise’. “Being open and transparent is vital, not just in treasury, but in any function.”

Reaping the benefits

Communicating in an open and honest fashion can bring together a wider view and appreciation of the finance agenda. A critical mass can be attained within a larger operation where this approach becomes the norm. It may be that treasurers feel they do not have the time to reflect on the context and position of their function within a business; the demands of consistently delivering a high quality service are surely many. But, says Dunkerley, “if we are blessed with that time, then we should step back and look at the development of our role and that of our treasury team because doing so can yield some worthwhile results.”

In short, to dismiss soft skills as simply ‘relating to people management’ is common but in fact soft skills go far beyond this to incorporate staff behaviour in the workplace on many different levels, impacting on the effectiveness of the individual, the team, the department and ultimately the company as a whole.

We will be taking a more in-depth look at the treasurers’ soft skills and how these can be developed in the February edition of Treasury Today.