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 individual’s 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.
This is the second part of our conversation with Michael Aragona, a global treasury and finance professional who is currently working as Head of Sales – Americas, Global Transaction Banking at Mizuho. Michael’s personal experiences over 30 years in the industry showcase how approaches to LGBTQ+ members of staff have changed over that time and are indicative of his personal passion for diversity and inclusion in all its forms.
How have you inspired a diverse and inclusive work space in your roles?
I think that inspiring a diverse and inclusive work space stems from a very simple concept, which I’ve learned is highly subjective. For me, it was about having a very clear sense of what is right and wrong in terms of equality among all people. I would say my parents and grandparents instilled those values in me. This was my starting point.
The starting point was never a specific LGBTQ+ agenda. Rather, it was an agenda about just posing the question, ‘how do we ensure that what we are doing is right?’ Unfortunately, such a point of view can meet fierce resistance, and management buy-in is critical to ensure the success of such an agenda. In bringing this to the workplace, one of the things that I always thought was, ‘well how do I make sure that I have the best team possible? How do I make sure that I have the best people in the right jobs? And how do I foster an environment where the members of my team are respectful and collaborative?’
On this last point, things seem to be improving in the market, in general. I have been fortunate enough to have had wonderful working experiences on very diverse teams with very talented people, both men and women, of different sexual orientations, some married, some not, some with children, some without, and so on. That said, there are still a lot of inequalities within teams that exist in the corporate setting.
For many, these are things that are hard to talk about. For instance, pay equality. There can be significant differentials in salary for people of the same title or grading. How do you deal with that? What do you do if you come into a role, take a look at the salaries and say ‘why are all of the women in the team being paid less than the men in the team?’
In a past role, I discovered all the highest earners were men. It didn’t necessarily translate to who the best performers were. At bonus time, I could give a male and female employee the same rating, but why is there a significant differential between them in terms of compensation? Neither of them had taken time off from their careers and they both performed exactly the same. I asked, ‘how did we end up in a situation where there was such a marked differential?’
It is always more complicated than it seems on the surface, and it’s almost trite to say ‘you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate,’ but I had always hoped a sense of fairness would prevail. When I became a manager, I worked to ensure that I had teams compensated on equality principles that paid for performance as opposed to whatever else might pop into somebody’s mind, such as marital, parental, or situational status such as ‘we’ve got to pay this guy more because he has got two kids to put through college.’ How do you strip all that extraneous, subjective stuff out and really start looking at pay for performance?
We need to take bold steps to overcome cultural or organisational bias regarding compensation.
In short, diverse teams that function well and where there is equality help my bottom line. And that’s where you get into that whole conversation around employee resource groups, what they need to accomplish, how can employers attract a younger generation which is looking for different things? There is a growing focus on that today.
What would you like to see happen in the coming years in terms of inclusion and of embracing LGBTQ+ members of staff?
I would like to see more out and proud people in senior management positions. I believe that’s going to help create more diverse workplaces. We aren’t just the worker bees.
To be honest with you, I’d really just like it to not be an issue. I’d like it not to be an issue from a gender perspective, and I’d like it not to be an issue from a sexual orientation perspective. I would really like us just to embrace who the best people are for different jobs and for everybody to have these opportunities - because we don’t have that now.
We have to tackle all of this in different ways. And I think one of the ways to tackle this, from an LGBTQ+ perspective, is through employee resource groups (ERGs). If an organisation doesn’t have an employee resource group already, then the employees have to come together and create it. And organisations have to be very willing to foster it and fund it. I think that is key as it’s the ERGs that can really help drive change. I think these resource groups can really help to get organisations to focus on diversity and the fact that it really can drive results.
If we look to the younger generation who are just beginning to enter the workplace, what advice would you give them as they start their careers and their journeys?
Be yourself from day one. Never be afraid. Stand up for what’s right, in a polite way of course. Know when to back down, and that goes for any issue. Know when to try a different approach when something is not working. Practice your stakeholder management skills – I think that’s really key. Talk to people and do the best job that you can do. It’s really important to recognise that it’s ok to leave an organisation and go somewhere else or do something different. That is not giving up. Those are the things that I would tell the younger generation.
It’s up to us to make a difference. We talk about what’s different between the generations, and one of those things is that we have so much more protection now, or so many more rights than we did in the past. Who would have thought, just ten years ago, that in the US and UK we would have same sex marriage recognised? And it’s not just same sex marriage – it’s the far-reaching consequences of just that. So, never be afraid. We need to be confident and not try to hide any part of ourselves.
Did you always believe that we would get to where we’ve got to in terms of inclusion and equality at a broader level?
I really, really didn’t. Up until only recently, something as seemingly simple as allowing my foreign-born partner to settle with me in my home country, the United States, would have been difficult if not impossible. Let me give an example, my partner and I lived in the UK for many years. Eventually, I was given opportunities to live and work in a number of different countries. Whenever a job offer came up we always had to think about whether we would be able to move together. That’s an issue in terms of international mobility that a lot of couples face. Our move to Vienna was easy as it was within the EU. Both being UK passport holders we could come and go as we wanted. It was much more of an issue when we moved to Hong Kong. There was a job for me but there wasn’t a job for him and the only option for my partner was a tourist visa. Fortunately again for us entering Hong Kong on a UK passport meant that you couldn’t work, but you could stay for six months before you had to leave. That said, there are a lot of places that you just can’t figure out a way to make it work. I never thought that I would move back to the US because there was no legal framework for bringing my partner, but when the US legalised same-sex marriage rights at the Federal level, we were probably within that first wave to actually apply for a spousal visa. It took a couple of years, but we did it and now we are both here and both working here. Did I think that that would ever happen? No, it was never even in the plan and then almost overnight there were several cases that came together before the US Supreme Court and all of a sudden this was made possible on a Federal basis. The upshot is that something so seemingly simple is made very complex.
Did I ever think that I wouldn’t necessarily be hiding at work? Personally, I figured I’d have to do some level of hiding of my sexuality at work forever. Tolerance was so low as recently as 25 years ago, but so much progress has been made. To go back to the title of this article, the more that I brought my true self to work the easier it became. I was able to relate with people better, I think people were able to relate with me better, and that helped spur on some of the change. There is a lot to say about bringing your true self to work. Essentially, it’s extremely important to just be yourself. Sometimes that can make a very, very big difference.