Treasury Talent

Companies focus on inclusion as COVID-19 threatens progress

Published: Jan 2021

Diversity remains a challenge across the finance industry, but everyone understands the scale of the problem and in some quarters the tide is starting to turn. Treasury teams report real progress in recruitment and mentorship and argue that inclusion is now the big issue.

Crochet mural for black lives matter

The moral imperative for greater diversity and inclusion in treasury along with its direct link to corporate performance may be well known but it has still been a mixed year regarding progress in the area. On one hand, remote working en-masse has ushered in a new raft of challenges around nurturing inclusion including helping treasury professionals build their brand and network through the wider company. A report by Lean In and McKinsey & Co that finds one in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce due to the impact of COVID-19 is another cause for alarm.

Elsewhere, the death of George Floyd in May pushed social injustice centre stage and grabbed attention inside the workplace but also exposed a lack of diversity within many companies’ own ranks, caught in statistics like the Fortune 500 still only having three black CEOs. Add in recent criticism from the UK’s Financial Reporting Council, lambasting listed companies for failing to live up to their diversity promises, plus the UK government launching a new task force to increase the number of people from poorer backgrounds in senior positions in financial and professional services, and it is clear diversity remains a challenge. That said, growing investor pressure on companies, more diverse role models and new recruitment practices show there is more cause for hope than despair.

Role models

One source of celebration is the growing number of leaders and role models within treasury, serving up proof to others that women and people of colour can reach leadership roles. “I never imagined that I would do this,” said Rosanna Summerville, Manager Global Transaction Banking & Processes at Unilever, speaking during Treasury Today’s Inclusion in Action event last November. It is diverse leaders like Summerville who play a crucial role in showing and encouraging others that a career in finance is possible.

Simone Coultress, Treasury Manager at global science and chemicals group Johnson Matthey, credits the black female CFO in her first job in finance for imbuing her with a conviction that she could also succeed. “It made me feel that if I worked hard enough and I was good enough, it was possible,” said Coultress, who keen to encourage others herself, contributes to Johnson Matthey’s employee research group, an initiative focused on recruitment and development of black employees. Similarly, Alison Livesey, Managing Director, Wholesale Payments, EMEA at J.P. Morgan, has been inspired to push on diversity and inclusion after often finding herself the “only woman in the room,” and struggling to find role models herself. “Sponsorship has been key to my career progression, and I want to give back.”

Corporate change

Other encouraging signs of progress include treasury testimonies of corporate change. Summerville says that when she joined Unilever 25 years ago, diversity and inclusion weren’t even on the radar. “There was no awareness of this topic,” she said, recalling how men dominated the stage, particularly in bank meetings. Today, diversity is enshrined as a strategic objective and Unilever has achieved gender parity in all management posts, most recently turning the focus on closing the gap at senior executive level.

Elsewhere, Aviva, Microsoft, Deloitte and Linklaters are among the companies to sign up to a new campaign spearheaded by employers’ group CBI calling on businesses to set and publish clear targets for greater racial and ethnic diversity at board, executive committee and senior management levels.

Targets have become an increasingly important tool for change. Amongst asset managers, focus committees, initiatives and goals with hard targets driven by rigorous data collection, alongside developing junior talent and providing coaching, are becoming the norm. Moreover, asset managers are increasingly demanding the same kind of diversity efforts from their investee companies, said Kim Hochfeld, Senior Managing Director, Global Head of Cash at State Street Global Advisors, who offers fresh insight on SSGA’s recruitment practices. “We insist on having a diverse slate of candidates when we are hiring for a new role. It’s not happening naturally, and prospective candidates can’t just all be white male,” she said, stressing the importance of employers to focus on prospective candidates’ ability to adapt their skills into the role rather than be a perfect match on experience or a conventional stereotype.

In another encouraging sign of the shift in recruitment practices, banks like Citi and J.P. Morgan have launched apprenticeship schemes for young people who haven’t gone to university. Tech firms have been offering apprenticeship schemes for a while, and Dino Zannetos, COO Treasury and Trade Solutions, EMEA at Citi, explained that a dual aim of the bank’s recent initiative alongside boosting diversity is to tap the talent needed to drive the digital transformation. “The generation we are recruiting through the scheme was born in the digital era. We are hoping they will bring a different way of looking at things to the table as we promote digitalisation across the bank. Junior talent brings a lot of energy and is hungry to learn,” he said.

Inclusion

But diversity is no good unless it comes alongside inclusion, the new battleground for progress. “I am Chinese and female, but this won’t really tell you how I think or what my values are,” said Geraldine Yip, Regional Head, Asia Pacific, Sales Practice and Content Management, Global Liquidity and Cash Management, HSBC, in a reminder that employees need to feel comfortable sharing their views and speaking up to truly counter group think. It involves tackling unconscious bias and nurturing psychological safety whereby people feel safe to share their views.

One area this could manifest is a thoughtful reappraisal of the conventional corporate gathering or networking forum. Deepa Palamuttam, Director of Global Tax and Treasury Technology and Controls at Intel Corporation, still recalls early career pressure to attend happy hours and drinking sessions that conflicted with her culture and home life – the embodiment of the diversity companies seek. “I made it clear I didn’t enjoy these sessions and I have empathy with people who don’t want to network this way: while travelling and at conferences things can be different, at home it’s a different situation.” That said, she noted that the environment has changed today compared to the late 90’s and early 2000’s due to an increased focus on diversity and inclusion. Inclusion also involves consideration for those for whom English isn’t a first language, reminded Yip.

Measuring progress and ensuring accountability around inclusion has become a key focus at J.P. Morgan. The bank is currently exploring different ways to best assess and measure inclusive leadership that includes making managers accountable for reaching inclusion targets and tying those targets to regular managerial performance appraisals. “Inclusion is difficult to measure but we must think about what inclusive leadership looks like, find a rigour to assessing it and build accountability for inclusion. We used to talk about diversity; now we talk about diversity and inclusion,” said Livesey.

It made me feel that if I worked hard enough and I was good enough, it was possible.

Simone Coultress, Treasury Manager, Johnson Matthey

There is no doubt that the pandemic has also set inclusion back. It is more difficult for juniors to develop their brand, get in front of senior managers and progress their careers when everyone is working from home. Career progression depends on taking on tasks, presenting in front of senior management and meaningfully contributing, said Christine Dirringer, Head of Energy and Asset Based Structured Debt at BNP Paribas. “It is not easy to get to the top. You must differentiate yourself, build your brand and demonstrate leadership which is difficult in a COVID-distanced world,” she said.

Comments echoed by seasoned treasury executive Hochfeld who started a new role at State Street Global Advisors on the eve of the pandemic. “I had eight days in the office and then we were all sent home,” she said, describing the experience as not for the faint hearted. With frequent travel between London and the majority of her team in Boston on hold because of the pandemic, she has had to build relationships digitally, bereft of casual office interactions or the creativity of in-person meetings. Treasury experts cite the challenges of managing teams and reading emotional cues on Zoom, as well as the difficulty of motivating colleagues who are not self-starters as well as imbuing a diverse and inclusive corporate culture digitally.

Solutions to preserve inclusion include managers ensuring staff have equitable exposure to senior management. They in turn should reach out to different people and ensure it is not always the usual faces who get an opportunity to shine within treasury and the wider business. “We must ensure that juniors can get visibility with senior managers, and this sometimes requires forcing situations. For example, asking a senior leader to talk to one of the juniors on a call – it’s not an organic situation,” says BNP Paribas’s Dirringer.

Mentorship

Treasury experts also note how internal mentoring and sponsorship programmes offering encouragement, support and confidence building can help boost inclusion. Important given the reality of the cut and thrust of corporate life often involves breaking cultural taboos and speaking up over tricky issues like salary levels. “Career success has involved breaking free from the way I was raised,” explains Johnson Matthey’s Coultress. “It was only after a number of years I realised you have to be loud and confident to be seen as able to lead.”

Intel’s Palamuttam broke social taboos by studying engineering in the late 80’s, unusual for women in India at the time. Next, she had to learn to voice her opinion in the workplace. “It took some time to get used to speaking up,” she said, recalling how in many meetings she didn’t think it was her place to speak up. “Now I am told I am too direct,” she joked. Similarly, she has only grown comfortable networking since she began viewing it like building her own social circle. “I tell this to the people I mentor, and I hope it becomes a tool to help,” she says.

Treasury is more multicultural than other finance professions and attracts more women than other sectors of the industry like the trading floor. As the diversity gap gradually closes with recruitment schemes, mentorship and real corporate change, the focus has switched to inclusion. It’s all very well hitting the diversity stats, but it is meaningless if diverse employees don’t feel part of the team.

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