Treasury Today Country Profiles in association with Citi

Bring Your True Self to Work – Michael Aragona

Michael Aragona

In our new series, Bring Your True Self to Work, Treasury Today highlights exceptional individuals within the corporate treasury and finance professions.

By looking at these individuals’ journeys and their personal experiences, we hope to shine a light on workplace best practice. By allowing talent to truly be themselves and to thrive, companies will see real benefits and returns. The future of work means changes in where we work and how we work and at its heart should be individuals who are free to be themselves.

We speak with Michael Aragona, a global treasury and finance professional who is currently working as Head of Sales – Americas, Global Transaction Banking at Mizuho. Mike’s personal experiences over 30 years in the industry showcase how approaches to LGBT+ members of staff have changed over that time and are indicative of his personal passion for diversity and inclusion in all its forms.

What does bringing your true self to work mean to you?

As a manager, this means creating a safe workplace for all staff that’s also a little bit of fun. A place where individuals and the whole team can focus on the job at hand, rather than having to spend time worrying about potential discrimination for being themselves or worrying what I might think about them. They can focus on their job and what they’re supposed to be doing to be successful at their job. It’s really about allowing people to flourish and do the best they can do in their roles as well.

Over the course of your career, how have attitudes towards being an individual changed?

Societal norms seem to be changing. We are currently in an era where there is a certain value placed on individuality. This isn’t everywhere, but it’s certainly present in many places, and I think that societal acceptance of difference is starting to grow. For example, now we have same-sex marriage. Not everyone may agree with this, but it is widely supported by many, including the mainstream media and across social media. As an aggregate, this shows acceptance and demonstrates societal change toward individuals.

Everything is relative and the context of my comparison is important. I’m comparing today to when I started my career in the 1990s. Some of the change over this time period comes from a growing awareness that diversity brings true benefits to organisations. It allows teams to be built which leverages the many strengths of individuals. I think that this allows people to excel at what they are good at, which is really the main reason why organisations hire individuals in the first place! To drive results. This is a really important point.

We are now, as organisations, allowing individuals to flourish. We’re not necessarily cookie cutter any more and companies are realising that they benefit when they hire people with different views and diverse backgrounds. This takes a lot of unnecessary stress away from people. It allows them to do what they do best instead of focusing on trying to be something that they aren't. Let me be clear. I believe we still need, to an extent, to have corporate identities, and we need to have certain rules, for example, appropriate dress codes for an organisation. But, what we really need to be looking at is how to leverage everyone’s strengths. I think that that’s the biggest change in the workplace that I’ve seen over the last 30 years or so.

Could you share any experiences you’ve had of facing prejudice and/or discrimination and how you dealt with them?

Absolutely, I am very happy to share that because I think hearing about other’s experiences can help people to realise that they aren’t alone. It can also help people cope with the nasty things that can sometimes happen. I have experienced prejudice in the workplace – yes. When I think back to one of my earliest work experiences back in the 90s, it was really terrible as a ‘closeted’ gay employee to see an ‘out’ employee being told that they can’t go on a business trip because their side-burns are too long. It’s even worse for someone who isn’t ‘out’ at work to hear that another colleague is being told by their manager that the boss doesn’t want them to be put in front of clients, really for no other reason than because of their sexual orientation. I think the phrase used was, ‘a little too flamboyant for this meeting.’

This can really put stress on individuals, especially if you’re not ‘out’. All of a sudden, you start to re-focus your energies in trying to figure out how to conform to some norm that is set by a manager, rather than doing the best at your job. That can set an organisation back quite far. You know, for me, I had a young child and at that time having a child was like having a ‘cover.’ That helped because it would detract from too many suspicions or from any negativity that would come from this manager who did not want to put somebody in front of clients who was ‘out’. Today, having a child doesn’t imply a sexual orientation but it often did then.

So,what did I do about this? I was in my twenties, and I eventually moved on from that role. I shouldn’t have had to do that, but for me, it really wasn’t’ where I wanted to be. I couldn’t bring my true self to work there. So, I moved on. That was probably the best career move for me at the time.

I often think back on those times and think about how much time was wasted trying to figure out how I could conform to the norm that this manager was setting. I really didn’t realise until much later how wrong the situation was, and today I don’t want anybody to have to hear they can’t see a client because they’re not quite what the manager wants. You know, ‘you need to take your side burns down half an inch’ because someone may think you’re gay.

I think today that there is less overt prejudice or discrimination because there are different laws, corporate policies and much more societal acceptance. Today it seems to be more hidden, perhaps falling more into the realm of unconscious bias, but it’s still there and overt or unconscious, it’s not right. To give you a more recent example of overt prejudice, I was once told by a manager that I think like a woman and should start thinking more like a man. The narrow-mindedness of this comment was shocking but it made me realise that the conversation about diversity in terms of LGBT+ identity is also about gender, and not only sexual orientation.

In my most recent role (at Mizuho) I haven’t faced, or noticed, any kind of overt or covert discrimination based on sexual orientation, and that’s a really, really nice thing. It’s certainly something to be cherished, when you’re in an organisation where you haven’t had these experiences.

The second part of our interview with Mike Aragona will be featured next week in our Treasury Insights newsletter.