Perspectives

2020: The year that was – learning to expect the unexpected

Published: Jan 2021

You are all no doubt inundated with lists focusing on 2020 and the year that was. You will also, undoubtedly, be surrounded with other articles, lists and notes about 2021, encouraging you to focus on your resolutions and plans.

Beautiful landscape scenery during sunrise

Treasury Today Group pride ourselves on our editorial voice and objective insight. We would rather take time to digest events, assess their relevance and look ahead to the ramifications for you, our community. What we seek to do within this article, therefore, is to offer insight into the most topical pieces of 2020 and what the learning points for practitioners can be as we launch into the first quarter of this year.

Anybody who made predictions at the start of 2020 with any confidence would have spent the majority of the remainder of the year feeling most bewildered indeed. Aside from the events of 2020, much of the last decade has taught us that our ability to predict global events from the political to the financial has been greatly reduced. Black swan events have moved to become the norm in a time where the only certainty is a lack of certainty.

What we can master therefore is resilience and resolve and focus on our purpose and mission within our professions. Many things fall out of our control but a commitment to quality and to progress can remain unshaken.

So – what do we know of 2020 for corporate treasurers?

The global pandemic began at the end of 2019, already spelling trouble for our community across Asia-Pacific. Whilst the world largely assumed that the impact would be limited to China and its SARs, Hong Kong and Taiwan, within the corporate community the previous events around the SARS outbreak in Asia left the APAC community aware of the challenges and trials that a pandemic brings. The year saw the spread of the pandemic across the world as headlines in the US shifted from the Democratic nomination to gaining control of a rapidly accelerating virus.

We want to look at some of the key areas which affected corporate treasurers in 2020 and use these thematics to summarise the year for our industry and keep progress and collaboration on the agenda in 2021. Some of the CSR related topics that were front of mind as we entered 2020 have been affected by the events of last year and there were fears that issues such as sustainability and inclusion agendas would slip down the priority list amidst very sobering concerns around balancing budget sheets and cashflow forecasting.

Sustainability

As companies across the world repositioned their priorities amidst the business challenges posed by the pandemic, there were concerns that sustainability was not the priority that it needs to be in order for the various commitments that the UN and other organisations require of the world’s largest corporations.

Treasury Today Group’s Global Sustainability Study was launched in 2020 as we are firmly committed to documenting our industry’s path to a more sustainable future. Our work around female representation with our annual Women in Treasury Global Study has shown the power of data in fuelling our conversations and we wanted to bring this information to our conversations around sustainability.

The data set from our inaugural study was eye opening but also went some way to showcasing the need for education and engagement with the topic of sustainability amongst our corporate readership. There are varying levels of comprehension and within treasury it remained unclear for many of our community what their precise role should be within treasury and what tools they could implement to promote a sustainability agenda within treasury itself.

We hosted digital roundtables around sustainability with a number of leading voices in the field. Highlights from these conversations can provide some measure of clarity as we focus on 2021. We will also be rolling out our 2021 Global Sustainability Study and mapping the evolution of the issues.

Within our universe the study exposed a number of individuals from a wide range of different corporations who have adopted activities which are making a difference. Through their engagement with their stakeholders – banks, vendors and internal teams – they are amplifying the conversation and encouraging their network to pay attention. However, for many of their peers, regardless of whether their organisation may support a sustainability initiative, there are still frustrations around finding the time to incorporate more sustainability focused activities within their day to day duties and around the lack of conversation and awareness building that their partners have engaged them upon. 2020’s study showed us that the appetite to learn and to adapt is there amongst our community and that if we collectively continue with these conversations fruits will be borne.

Areas for consideration:

  • Broader CSR policy – this affects every individual in an organisation and every decision.

  • Green bonds and green financing.

  • Supply chain finance.

  • Industry collaboration.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

Launched in March 2020 and closing in August, the annual Women in Treasury Global Study supported by State Street Global Advisors, couldnt have been timed to have been more disrupted by the pandemic. The commitment of our community to this topic amidst the most challenging professional year many of us have ever experienced was not lost on us and we are so grateful to the support of all genders who gave their time, energy and experiences to the Women in Treasury initiative in 2020.

The impact of the pandemic in both literal and figurative ways is not equally distributed across populations. The most vulnerable amongst us have felt and are still feeling the heaviest burden of the pandemic and women have been more impacted.

There are grave concerns raised by studies released by the World Health Organisation and the UN amongst others of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic upon women and fears as to the long-term impact on some of the key areas for female progress which have been at the centre of equality campaigns for the last decade. Whilst it may take us some time to see what the real impact of the pandemic has been upon women, and particularly women with intersectional identity, the knowledge of this additional challenge can permit us a renewed focus and increased vigour around our work on inclusion.

Racial equity was also massively impacted by the events of 2020, as black communities across the US and much of the Western world faced the most risk from the pandemic at the same time as broader inequalities were highlighted around the George Floyd murder in May 2020. This shone a light on a huge systemic problem in the US and across much of the world. The events of last summer have positioned racial equity and equality in a way none of us could have predicted, as most large corporations and financial institutions responded with pledges and promises to tackle systemic problems within the whole professional ecosystem that we exist in.

For our corporate community what this meant was the following:

  • Listen and learn – we should be constantly and consistently reaching out to colleagues and co-workers to understand and hear their individual issues and priorities.

  • Advocacy and engagement – get involved in Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), get involved in advocacy for groups within your organisation. Have a voice and make a difference.

  • Data and progress – we need better data on systemic issues in organisations.

  • Transparency and accountability.

Wellbeing

2020 was a trial and tribulation for everyone’s physical and mental wellbeing. Remote working and managing working from home whilst many juggled children that needed home schooling or battled the loneliness that came from a lack of physical interaction with friends, co-workers, family and loved ones. People coped with grief and illness all without the usual professional and personal interactions and relationships which humans so desperately need in order to thrive.

What emerged from our conversations with our partners and readers during 2020 around the subject of personal and employee wellbeing were the following:

  • The power of vulnerability: being open with our co-workers and professional contacts was the mantra of 2020. It is no longer shameful to admit that we are struggling as our personal and professional stressors overlapped in location and time.

  • Honesty, flexibility and adaptability: there is no right way to manage your wellbeing, being flexible and changing things when something isn’t working is critical in all aspects of our lives.

  • Balance, balance, balance: making time for yourself, stepping back and saying no. All of these are a must in an era of multiple burn out points.

Leading and managing teams (remotely during a crisis)

Much of the work that we conducted in 2020 with roundtables and discussion groups focused at least in part on the very particular challenges to leadership that the year created. Keeping teams engaged and galvanised and moving everyone to working from home for an uncertain and potentially endless amount of time was a source of great challenge for the majority of our community.

The advent of technology as the oil behind the wheels of remote working saw great changes to how we work. There were also some constants as the human side of teamwork was felt in its absence. Many of our audience shared their insights on using Zoom to connect their employees through games or classes, with walks in the park being conducted during more sociable calls, all designed to replicate the bonding and problem solving nature of the tea-break and water cooler moments that the office provides.

The unifiers were there for all the leaders that we engaged with and the lessons were as follows:

  • Stay connected personally as well as professionally.

  • Give people space to share how they are really feeling.

  • Trust those who work for you.

  • Be vulnerable and share your own experiences and challenges.

  • Stay learning with reverse mentoring, actively reaching out to junior staff.

  • Take the opportunity to find your own mentors and attend seminars and leadership events.

  • Develop skillsets outside of the ordinary – you never know what they may show you.

Awards

The 2020 Adam Smith Awards and Adam Smith Awards Asia moved to digital delivery across the board. Our usual luncheon events were replaced with a livestream announcement which took place in June for the Adam Smith Awards and in October for the Adam Smith Awards Asia.

The pandemic and its impact on the working priorities of treasurers was evident throughout all the nominations but we felt deserved special recognition with our new category, Best Crisis Management Solution. Alongside our case studies and Yearbook as normal we are telling the stories of our 2020 award winners in our podcast series which began last year and will roll out throughout the first half of 2021, showcasing the resilience, resolve, collaboration and determination to achieve best practice that typified our community in the last year.

  • Collaboration.

  • Teamwork.

  • Future focus.

Community

Starting in March 2020 we launched our COVID-19 Community which focused on leading voices from our industry and beyond sharing their pain points and lessons learnt as we all worked tirelessly to stay connected and communicative amidst challenges of working from home and managing teams at a distance.

This project evolved to later be named Community Voices, as our practitioners shared more than just their advice on surviving the pandemic and our coverage of the impact of COVID moved from reporting on the pandemic to reporting on the day to day dealings of corporate finance leaders across the world.

The project was jointly conceived with the Association of Corporate Treasurers in Singapore (ACTS), long-term partners and collaborators of Treasury Today Group’s and the strongest community resource that exists for the APAC community. The articles were created in response to our conversations with the ACTS and with corporates across the world as our role evolved and we sought to understand the challenges that you were facing and ensure we could share best practice and tips on any and all of the day to day issues arising.

Amongst the phenomenal voices who shared their insights and experiences with us were Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America. Feeding America is the largest hunger relief organisation in the US and through its network of 200 foodbanks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programmes it provides meals to over 46 million people a year. It also champions food waste prevention programmes and aims to improve food security through education and advocacy. Claire comes from our corporate community and has made the graceful leap from working for corporations to leading a fundamentally important organisation like Feeding America. Before starting at Feeding America, Claire held positions at Walmart leading up to her last role as Executive VP of Finance and Treasurer. In between featuring on Trevor Noah’s show and being listed in TIME 100 most influential people of 2020, Claire shared her thoughts with our global readership on her journey, the impact of the pandemic on Feeding America and her advice on best practice in leadership.

Moving forward: together

So that’s what we saw and hopefully what we have learnt together. At the Treasury Today Group we realised the unique position we occupy with a platform that brings together the various powers in our industry. We have a renewed focus to bring you spaces to collaborate and communicate, whether that be physically or virtually. We have a responsibility to listen to your challenges and take the time to come back to you with solutions and connections, using data and dialogue to promote best practice in corporate finance.

If there is anything more that you feel we should be delivering in 2021 please do not hesitate to reach out to editorial@treasurytoday.com with format or topic ideas. We want our digital platforms to be community spaces that evolve according to the needs of you, our readers, so please stay engaged and help us to keep you better informed. Our new Masterclasses and roundtables join our regular roster of activities and we will be further adding to our digital family with our Women in Treasury Within hub in 2021.

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