Insight & Analysis

Bring Your True Self to Work: Peter Lay

Peter Lay

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

In 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 voice their opinions.

We speak to Peter Lay, a seasoned treasurer who has championed diversity across the industry throughout his career. Born in Zimbabwe, his postings have included Deputy Treasurer for Eurotunnel, Treasurer for MTV International, Head of Treasury and Banking at British Council, a brief stint as Director for Transaction Banking for Standard Chartered looking after INGOs and the charitable sector.

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

It is vital for corporates to enable the celebration of diversity because by doing so you release creative possibilities for people. Bringing your true self to work is in everyone’s interest, it encourages everyone to shine. It took me ages to appreciate that fully. It’s not about getting into or causing trouble, even though that has happened in my case simply because I dared to speak up and suffered the consequences. At the end of the day I want to look back at my career and say: ‘I stood up for myself and others less able to speak up for themselves, helped them to be bold.’ It is vital to be true to yourself, to be able to express yourself as an individual.

Corporates that allow employees the creative space to be individuals naturally end up with much happier, more fulfilled people. They will feel more valued, stay longer, remain loyal and give greater commitment. They will also be prepared to share their ideas because they know they’re not going to be shot down in flames. These are the kind of organisations I think generation Z wants to work for.

Corporates need to understand that it really is okay to let people have their own ideas and be a grown up about employee feedback. I have lost count of the number of annual staff feedback surveys where senior management dumb down results and pay lip service to staff feedback. In the end the pretence that your employer is listening becomes as corrosive as the wasteful performance standards and objectives that HR departments have been trotting out for years. Such HR activities are often only justification vehicles for subjugating and controlling employees, ensuring individuals subscribe to group value systems and management compliance. Effective employees and managers communicate and celebrate the individuality of their colleagues and teams every day.

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

There is now a lot more attention to what employees really think and what they have to say. There’s now a greater emphasis on staff surveys, for instance, even though most people can’t be bothered to do them as they don't trust the corporate pitch about caring about the individual. Corporates often appear to be interested in understanding staff and individual needs in the workplace. But the lack of real follow through action by management to ensure employees can feel safe in seeking to fulfill their potential, expressing their views and opinions without retribution, means most of us are not convinced it’s safe to be fully oneself at work.

Sometimes diversity policies can feel like an awful lot of lip service. They don’t necessarily translate to people management on the floor or indeed to actions on behalf of employees, especially where dinosaur management views prevail. And that often correlates with managers who have low emotional empathy scores.

I think the challenge for corporates is to make good on their promises and weed out dangerous management psychopaths who need to be consigned strictly to non-management roles. There are more progressive companies, especially in new technologies sectors, who appear more forward thinking and enlightened.

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

Probably in every job I’ve had there has been a moment where I have had to stay calm and steady in the face of sometimes overt prejudice and discrimination.

I have seen so many talented women overlooked for displaying the attributes a male dominated board might look for, all just to maintain the status quo. Whilst some headway has been made for women in the workplace, some of the worst examples of colleagues having their wings clipped has been by women managers feeling the need to wield a blunt man-management approach.

One incident involved a woman who did a degree to advance her career and asked for help with developing her position within the organisation. She was blocked by one of her line managers who deliberately denied her further training access and promotion. At the same time training was being allocated to staff more predisposed to the manager. I ensured that a development recommendation for the woman reached senior management above the manager – she had clearly been running her own personal fiefdom, dispensing training opportunities only when her staff were deemed to be deserving or used to curry favour.

It is imperative if you get the chance to champion colleagues or staff whose promise is being stifled by the personal prejudices of an individual manager.

I was heartened when as a fresh employee at Standard Chartered there was a serious discussion at a diversity and inclusion event as to the absence of any LGBT+ representation on the board. The mature forum meant I was able discuss that whilst I was a white, middle class guy from Zimbabwe, and happened to be gay, it would be very difficult for a black Zimbabwean to dare to declare they were out.

Having only been at the bank for several weeks it felt somewhat risky being so open, but it felt safe enough and the right moment to out myself. It was more about knowing it is still so difficult for others to be themselves because of cultural, family and often religious prejudices. There is a need for a great deal more diversity and we need to speak up about it and anticipate the road blocks for others to feel safe at work in order to be more creatively invested in their jobs.

It seems we are some way away from corporates fully protecting the individual with regards to sexuality, race and gender. Why do you think progress is so slow despite all the calls for change?

It’s all to do with bullying and it’s the major problem in our working society today. Whilst the equality act has some reach, bullying is insidious and can occur in ways where it is difficult to show it is happening as a result of your specific race, sex etc. There is no legislation to protect individuals from bullying or harassment at work, and it can come in many forms. If you happen to be of a different disposition, the undermining can be very insidious, and it can’t always be proved. If a person at work in a position of power doesn’t happen to like me and my skill set, he or she can make it damn hard for me to be able to flourish in the area. And that happens a lot!

I have had a few incidents throughout my career where people senior to me have resented some aspects of my skill set or felt threatened. There are a lot of people who are very insecure in their jobs and will try and stop anyone coming up the line. Is it any wonder that the extent of depression and mental health issues in the workplace is so enormous? I have come across a lot of people who spend years at work miserable because of an intolerant, bullying boss or colleague unable to flourish.

Why is diversity and inclusion important for you?

It’s about fairness. I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth and had a great education in Zimbabwe. My early friends were all the African children of domestic servants and we parted ways aged about eight as I went on to a more formal education. They had been my companions in the first years of my life. And in the back of my mind there’s always been a sort of ‘whatever happened to them?’ They just didn’t have the same opportunities and that has had a huge impact on me and I believe there is responsibility that goes with having had the privileges afforded to me to somehow make a small difference where possible.

What advice do you have for those of the generation Z as they embark on their journey in the workplace?

A lot of focus with careers is about whether you’re going to be an accountant or whether you’re going to be a treasurer or an architect – very specific. But actually, it’s going to be much more helpful to the young people of today if somebody helps them understand the kind of person they are, to enable them to recognise that there are certain industries that will not suit the nature of their personality. As it is, generation Z is looking to a future where they will likely have three or four careers, so that will demand a change in the way they think about work entirely and with whom they are most comfortable working.

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