Whilst making resolutions for the upcoming year isn’t an activity everyone takes seriously, it is always pertinent for corporate treasurers to reflect on their personal successes to date, and then consider how they can continue on a fulfilling career path. The treasury community is full of ambition and drive, the pinnacle of which was showcased at the Treasury Today Adam Smith Awards Asia 2015 very recently. Amidst such talent, how can the individual stand out? Rising up the career ladder certainly involves increasing visibility at every available opportunity, but for treasury professionals on the starting rungs of the ladder and for those boasting more experience, equally, it is essential to discover ways of maximising potential.
What are you missing?
“It is always a good idea to start enlarging your scope of responsibilities,” advises Maciek Müldner, Financial Director for Skanska Property Poland. In order for candidates to boost their employability, they need not only to make themselves highly visible within the company, but they should also show willingness to engage with aspects that are not directly connected with their day-to-day role. As an example, Müldner explains that employees should be inviting themselves to meetings. In turn, this will expand a worker’s understanding of a broader range of topics as well as serving to distinguish them from the crowd – after all, not everyone is willing to give up their time.
As Mike Richards, Managing Director of treasury recruitment specialists MR Recruitment, explains: “Once you develop excellence within a particular area of finance, why wouldn’t you utilise that to your advantage?” Financial reward is on offer and, in these challenging economic times, he asks who could blame an expert for wanting to be rewarded as such?
But, for those with broader ambitions, “they need to appreciate what experience they are lacking,” says Müldner. This involves deep thought on all achievements (or lack of) throughout what has been a challenging economic period. Richards suggests asking the following questions: Have you achieved what you set out to achieve? Where have you fallen short? What have you done to achieve your aims? “After all, these questions will be asked of you at your next job interview,” he says. “If you are satisfied with the answers then you are on the right track to achieve your next move.”
Specialise or cross-functionalise
When answering these questions, the responses will of course largely depend on an individual treasurer’s background. As Chris Robinson, Director at TransactionBanking.com and Senior Tutor EuroFinance explains: “Where candidates come from tends to have implications on how they move up the career ladder in terms of which skill set gaps they want to fill in.” For instance, an assistant treasurer with a background in accounting will need to broaden their treasury perspective. Someone who is focused on treasury operations would clearly need to learn more front office skills. How high an individual potentially wants to rise in the treasury world is also a factor, he comments.
It is worth reinforcing Richards’ belief that diversification of skills isn’t the only way to the top. Indeed, many argue that having a specialised set of skills is more beneficial to the treasury function. In short, it depends on personal circumstances, and opinion remains divided on which path is the best to take in light of current economic difficulties.
Direction does seem to be intrinsically linked to seniority. Given that the world’s various and ongoing economic crises have expanded the scope of the treasury function considerably, it is often desirable to have a cross-functional skillset. But for Müldner, this is more applicable for the more senior roles. For instance, he explains that to be a CFO, you need “to harness a combination of skills, including – but not limited to – accounting rules and processes, financial controlling and operational understanding.”
For junior positions it can be more beneficial to have a specific skillset – whether that’s technology, project financing or another niche area – from which the incumbent can build on as they assume more responsibility. Ultimately, for the hiring company, it is about commerciality and what value the employee can bring to the role; a broad range of low-value and poorly executed skills has never been in demand. This is increasingly the case as corporate treasurers now occupy a prominent strategic position. So what historically was seen as a supporting role was turned by the onset of the financial crisis into a more prominent and proactive position to the extent that senior management pay much closer attention to the skills the treasurer brings to the table. Indeed, Martha Pierce, Senior Consultant at Hays explains: “Employers can be quite demanding when it comes to finding the right candidates that fit all the requirements of the role.”
Add to your skills
The need for corporate treasurers to be well-prepared for every eventuality is clear, but this gives rise to the perennial argument about whether experience or education prevails as the preferred route to a successful application. A good treasurer, of course, needs to have a solid understanding of the fundamentals and this can come through study. “Businesses are increasingly risk adverse and now use qualifications as a standard to identify people suitable for the job,” says Pierce. “Those individuals that are both accounting qualified and ACT qualified – before later moving to the MCT qualification – are now faring best when it comes to progressing in their career.”
But classroom-based learning holds little credibility if a candidate cannot then apply it effectively in the real world. “It is about a balance,” states Robinson. “On one level, qualifications demonstrate academic capability but a lot of treasury is not necessarily learnt, it’s gained from experience.” It is without a doubt that professional qualifications are necessary to secure certain roles but vocational study is generally best kept part time if balance is to be achieved. Indeed, whilst additional qualifications do go a long way towards developing a career (it demonstrates commitment, sending a strong signal to employers about future ambitions), exiting the labour force, however temporarily, can be ill-advised, particularly when the economic climate is depressed or changing quickly. There is also the thorny issue of age. “For younger employees, taking one or two years out to study for an MBA might not be a problem,” notes Robinson. For those of more mature years, and likely having taken on more commitments, “going off to get those qualifications is going to be a challenge.” This does not mean further education beyond a certain age is inevitably problematic. Robinson suggests that training courses running over a few days, or one working week, can offer corporates a workable option. Continuing Professional Development accreditation can be given for training courses and attendance at certain events, conferences and webinars add to the overall experience.
What’s more, such courses are often used to avoid treasury departments becoming siloed. “When you do the day job, treasury can be quite isolated,” he explains. “It is easy to end up specialised in one area of treasury and not be exposed to others. Training can get you up to speed relatively quickly.” The goal for a treasurer, he argues, is to be sufficiently well-educated to know the right questions to ask the experts, “but they should also be experts in a few things themselves.” In this way, the inquisitive treasurer will secure a broader – and well-developed – treasury experience for him or herself.
One way of matching mature experience with enthusiasm is to consider mentoring. Mentorship is a personal developmental relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable colleague. The mentor may be older or younger, but will have expertise that the mentee seeks. Some firms have a formal approach to this, setting up schemes for introductions and progress monitoring, whilst others may sanction an ad hoc approach. However it is approached, its value as a career-booster is acknowledged. Pui Yee Lee, Vice President and Treasurer of Singapore-headquartered Kulicke & Soffa Industries, is a case in point. She was mentored by Marie-Astrid Dubois, Assistant Treasurer, EMEA and Asia for Honeywell and was happy to endorse her experience when Dubois was recipient of the 2013 Treasury Today Woman of the Year Highly Commended Award. “I worked for Marie-Astrid for over eight years as a Treasury Director in Brussels, Shanghai, and Singapore. She was my greatest advocate and continuously provided me with the encouragement, experience and responsibility necessary to succeed and to develop. Marie-Astrid’s mentorship has been invaluable to my current success.”
Contrary to common belief, the most successful corporate treasurers aren’t necessarily the ones who appear to dedicate all the hours in the day to their job, taking little time for anything other than career progression. In fact, coping with a tough day at work is made a lot easier with a balanced lifestyle. Working longer hours when needed but going home on time (or early) when it is appropriate shows confidence in the individual’s own abilities. Good employers seek professionals who manage a sustainable work/life balance, enabling them to think and function efficiently.
A key part of that process for treasurers is to be able to function socially. “Businesses are always looking for candidates that are personable and able to develop relationships within the business and with the banks,” notes Pierce. This is a skill which can to an extent be learned by individuals immersing themselves in such situations (even public speaking, which many would view with horror). But there are certain traits which are even more desirable, and which can be honed to optimise the suitability of a candidate for a role. This includes the ability to bring solutions instead of just problems to managers (showing this type of foresight and commitment to a collaborative working environment is likely to be rewarded). Also, a tendency to avoid finger-pointing or blame-shifting is appreciated. It gives colleagues confidence that they will not be attacked when their backs are turned. According to Pierce, “at the treasury analyst level, personality and cultural fit can often be the difference between whether or not you get the job.”
However, recent research from Robert Half in the UK reveals that accounting and finance professionals increasingly need to fine-tune the so-called soft skills. Reflective that finance operations can no longer work in isolation, learning to interact with and manage a variety of personalities and conveying financial information in non-financial terms were identified among the most common cross-departmental challenges. But the skills that contribute to the success of professionals most were: leadership skills (60% of 200 CFO and FD respondents agreed), strong technical skills (47%), effective communication (33%), a competitive nature (32%), futuristic outlook (30%), strong interpersonal skills (17%) and risk taking (16%).
In order to succeed, corporate treasurers can’t rest on their laurels – instead, they must demonstrate a range of skills that contribute to treasury’s position as a strategic partner to the business.
A case in point
For Jiameng Teah (JT to her friends and colleagues), Assistant Treasurer at Vodafone, “having an open mind and being resourceful and innovative” is essential when building a life in treasury. Speaking at this year’s ACT conference in the UK, JT told how when she moved to England from China several years ago, she had to overcome certain immigration and work permit complexities to forge a successful career. By making several intelligent tactical moves away from her intended law career, she was able to ease herself into the right place at the right time in order to start climbing the treasury career ladder.
With an initial move into accountancy with Deloitte, she progressively undertook professional studies for ACA, CTA and MCT. “The MCT qualification came about by chance,” she reports. Having been co-opted onto a tax audit project for a US-listed company, she found herself being introduced to the world of derivatives. With her interest in the treasury space piqued, she moved out of tax into a corporate finance and treasury advisory role, joining her firm’s transaction services team. “But at my level, I was no more than a spreadsheet monkey,” she recalls. “I was working 11 hours a day and had no life.” With four hour commute on top of this, it was time for a major change.
“With the help of a few recruitment agencies, I discovered the world of corporate treasury,” says JT. She moved to her first position at Tate & Lyle where she had “the time of my life.” The role was “very broad” allowing her to take on every aspect of treasury. Unlike the “static profession” of tax, bound as it is by rules in books, treasury was more in line with her outlook and personality, being essentially fast-paced and “forward looking.”
Her next move came quite by chance, JT finding herself sitting next to the Group Treasurer of Vodafone during the conversation-heavy lunch break of an S&P presentation on ratings. Six months later the call came through to talk more and in another three months the always opportunistic JT was on the move once more. Her new role gave her the broad sweep of treasury experience she craves, but with the added attraction of a truly global scope, travelling right around the world in a treasury day, but always tackling something different. It sounds full-on, especially when giving the treasury view to the business units, “but the way to deal with this and not completely lose my life is to develop the skill of picking what’s relevant.” By deciding what is applicable to each situation, and often with just a few minutes to give a response, she states the important skill is not to give “the War & Peace version of everything.”
JT also speaks passionately about career development for women in treasury, commenting on certain challenges, including the often “confrontational” nature of male financial professionals. “It’s important for women to develop a thick skin; but just by digging your heels in and being firm at the negotiation table it does not mean you are aggressive,” she says. Although she feels the industry is making significant inroads (Treasury Today champions and organises a successful series of international events around this theme, for example) she stresses the importance of mentoring and making connections to strengthen the career opportunities for aspirant women in treasury.
Move on up
With economic volatility now the new normal, it is important for all treasury professionals to stay ahead of the curve, and rather than hoping for the best, making the best for themselves. Proactivity is essential, keeping a record of accomplishments and communicating them where appropriate. In order for candidates to fill in the gap in their experience, Pierce advocates asking the line manager for more responsibility or the opportunity to get involved in other areas. “Most managers are more than happy to say ‘yes’ if employees demonstrate eagerness to learn,” she notes. “But when organisations cannot offer opportunities, we are seeing candidates looking for new roles that allow them to fill in the gaps in their experience.”
This is advice treasurers with high aspirations can ill-avoid to ignore. Job opportunities at the higher echelons of corporate treasury have always been few and far between but there are numerous ways to improve career prospects, and being proactive should be seen as compulsory for progression right to the top.