Treasury Talent

Lessons on building a best-in-class team

Published: Nov 2016
Group of young people's hands

Thousands of pages have been written about what makes a good team and how to get there. But perhaps the best examples come from the sporting world. We analyse what made one of the world’s most successful sports teams tick and the lessons that corporate treasury can take from this.

Any football fan could not help but admire FC Barcelona over the past decade. The Catalan giants have won multiple trophies, and did so with flair, ingenuity and togetherness. And there are many lessons that business leaders can learn from the ‘Barcelona way’.

Yes, some may argue that they have the best player to ever play the game in Lionel Messi, but without a stellar supporting cast he would not have reached the heights that he has and neither would Barcelona. As such, there are few better examples of an excellent team in any field, sporting or otherwise. But how does this abstract statement reflect in the treasury department and what comprises the ‘perfect team’?

Building a philosophy

To begin, every successful team has a philosophy, that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour. Barcelona, for instance, under the stewardship of Pep Guardiola had a very simple philosophy based around the three Ps: play, possession and position. This defined everything that they did. The world’s most successful sports side, the New Zealand rugby team’s philosophy, however, is embedded deep in Maori culture, manifesting itself in humbleness and a willingness to do everything for the team to be successful. Their mantra: ‘leave the jersey in a better place,’ sums this up.

In business, a philosophy is equally important. Steve Jobs is a shining example of how having a philosophy, and imprinting this on your team, or business as a whole, can help foster success. Jobs, wasn’t completely motivated by money, or other metrics that traditionally measure success. His thoughts were more abstract: “Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me… going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me”. And it is this idea of “doing something wonderful” that arguably has permeated across the Apple product line, keeping it at the cutting edge of technological innovation.

In treasury circles, philosophy is also important and it enriches the pages of our Adam Smith Awards Asia Yearbook. Flex Group, the 2016 Top Treasury Team, for instance, encourages its people to be curious and explore new ways of doing things in an effort to seek best practice across all areas of its treasury operation. What’s more, its focus is not only on the here and now, but making sure that the treasury is future proof. Together, these two elements define its award winning philosophy.

The first question then on your way to establishing a best-in-class treasury; what is the philosophy of your department? This doesn’t have to be complex and built on anything deep and meaningful. It may simply be based around what the team does and how, perhaps promoting teamwork or the ability to be brave and try new things.

Sometimes this may be decided for you, a company with a strong philosophy, like McDonalds, might infuse this into the treasury team. Paul Pomroy, CFO for the company’s UK and northern Europe division certainly expressed this when he talked to Treasury Today about how the treasury team go into restaurants to experience the business “at the coal face” fostering inclusiveness and an all for one attitude across the business.

But whatever the philosophy of your treasury team, it is vital that it is not treated dogmatically. There is perhaps nothing more demotivating to an energetic young employee, trying to make his or her mark by doing something differently, than being told to stop and hearing the words, “that is the way we do things around here”. This isn’t a workable philosophy; it is a line from the management rulebook of a bygone era. A modern philosophy must be able to evolve and adapt as the forces of the modern marketplace converge, it is doing this that is the first step to success.

Fitting the philosophy

The next step is to recruit people who fit this philosophy, but don’t confuse this with recruiting those best qualified or with the most experience. Of course, where possible, it is preferable to have a team of highly-qualified and motivated individuals with a wealth of experience under their belt. But what would one of these do if they were asked to perform a task that they saw as below them? Contrary to popular belief, a team of superstars is not always the best.

Again, FC Barcelona provide a wonderful example of this. In 2009, they signed the Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimović – one of the best goal scorers in the world – for a reported £59m. It was seen as the finishing touch to what was already a magnificent team. But Ibrahimović, a true modern day maverick, didn’t fit the selfless nature of the Barcelona team and he soon found himself shipped out of the club.

In corporate treasury, getting the right people that fit the ethos of the department and the organisation as a whole is just as critical when looking to build a best-in-class team. This point is summed up by Rikke Koblauch, a designer in the London studio of digital development firm, Ustwo, who said “good teams start with good people who trust each other to work toward a common purpose”. Gary Slawther, Financing Advisor to the CEO at Octal in Oman echoes this sentiment, stating “I’ve learnt throughout my career that if you get the right people with you, you can do almost anything. Get the wrong people and you can do nothing.”

Finding this in Asia Pacific is not necessarily the easiest task though, given the relatively small talent pool that both large corporations and domestic firms have at their disposal. A generic approach to talent management in the region could therefore prove futile. Employees need to see that the organisation they migrate to, and stay with, has a transparent plan in place that allows them to develop as individuals with the potential to fill important roles within the organisation. The employee, however, must also show a willingness to grow within the company.

Another source of potential exists within your own organisation. Indeed, at Treasury Today Asia’s pioneering Women in Treasury Forum, panellists have outlined how some of the best talent they have in their team came from within their own organisation. What’s more, these people were often originally from roles unrelated to treasury, but they had shown certain qualities to the treasury team that made them a good fit.

If managers want their best people to stay, they need to think carefully about how they treat them. While good employees are as tough as nails, their talent gives them an abundance of options. Managers need to make people want to work for them.

Dr Travis Bradberry, President, TalentSmart

Finally, it is proven that the most effective teams combine significant diversity – of personality, background, outlook and skills – but with a shared set of values. This is important: diversity without common values will lead to fragmentation, just as shared values without diversity leads to group-think which is an even greater threat to progress.

Tools of the trade

Of course, it is very unlikely that any new hire, internal or external, will tick all the boxes. Indeed, they have more than likely been hired because of the potential they show – only a senior treasurer should be close to the ‘finished article’. It is therefore incumbent on the senior treasurer to arm the team with the skills it needs, both core treasury and soft.

Starting with core treasury skills, there is a lot that can be learnt on the job. This is especially true if the treasury team is of size, enabling the younger members to work with those more experienced getting a taste for different aspects of the function without having direct responsibility. Even in smaller teams this is possible if the senior treasurer acts as a mentor.

Another channel to learn core treasury skills is through allowing staff to obtain qualifications from professional bodies such as the ACT and AFP. Senior treasurers should also encourage their junior members of staff to attend treasury events and network so that they can learn best practice and skills from their industry peers.

Soft skills can be harder to obtain. These include the ability to build relationships and to manage people and expectations, and are becoming increasingly important for treasurers as the role pivots to become more strategic within the business. For OCTAL’s Slawther, companies that overlook the value of soft skills do so at great cost. Treasury leaders should show the way here, again acting as mentors and demonstrating what it means to be a treasurer in this day and age.

Keeping the team happy

If the treasury team has a philosophy in place and a team of well-trained people who believe in it, it may seem that the hard work is done. Unfortunately, this is not the case and all of that work can be quickly undone if treasury leaders do not have sufficient management skills to keep employees happy.

Dr Travis Bradberry, President at training and coaching services provider, TalentSmart and co-author of the work performance guide, ‘Emotional Intelligence 2.0’ has published widely on this matter. His headline argument is that spending time on people management, a role which although considered somewhat negatively as ‘soft’ is actually vital to the success of any team.

Indeed, low staff morale can be common in roles such as treasury, which are high-pressure. This can cause issues for staff such as exhaustion, poor sleep, anxiety and depression. Aside from potentially contravening the duty of care companies have to their employees, the result is often a lowering of productivity and an increase in staff turnover.

“All that’s required is a new perspective and some extra effort on the manager’s part to give employees autonomy and make their work feel less demanding,” suggests Bradberry. The key to this change lies in understanding what may be lowering staff morale. For Bradberry some key culprits include:

  • Overworking staff.
  • Holding people back.
  • Playing the blame game.
  • Not letting people pursue their passions.
  • Withholding praise.

“If managers want their best people to stay, they need to think carefully about how they treat them,” notes Bradberry. “While good employees are as tough as nails, their talent gives them an abundance of options. Managers need to make people want to work for them.”

An eye on the future

All good things must however come to an end at some point. At Barcelona, for instance, Pep Guardiola’s trophy laden reign came to an end in 2012 and some thought that the team would fall into disarray as a result. This did not happen, and today, under the stewardship of Luis Enrique who managed the Barcelona B team during Guardiola’s reign, the team continues to excel.

In business the same is true; nothing is static and things change such as the economy, business and people. In fact, by creating a best-in-class team it is likely that individuals will naturally grow and develop their capabilities and will eventually want to move up or out. The key is to not fear this evolution and embrace periods of disruption, and see it as an opportunity to reconstitute the team in an even better form.

This is perhaps the final lesson that can be taken from successful sports teams: they always have an eye on the future. Because no team of people, no matter how good at their jobs, will last forever, but the philosophy that makes them successful, if passed on correctly, can.

Why teams fail

As well as knowing what makes a successful team, it can also be useful to know why teams fail.

The most common leadership model amongst senior executives is a ‘hub and spoke’ team model. This is in action where “a kind of uneasy truce” exists between participants, notes Mark Loftus, a Chartered Clinical Psychologist, an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society and Managing Director of The Thinking Partnership. “Each will accept direction from their own boss but can be reluctant to accept influence from each other across the team.”

The reason why some executives choose to isolate themselves may simply be down to the performance management structure imposed upon them, where accountabilities are made very specific and personal. This builds incentives around those accountabilities, tending to drive individualistic behaviour.

But, notes Loftus, the typical psychology of individuals who rise to senior positions must also be taken into account. “Often they have got there because they are strong solo operators; they are very competent and are not used to relying on someone else,” he explains. Motivated by taking on major challenges, these are the people who always step up to the plate but then find it difficult to let the reins slip too far from their control.

Intellectually, these individuals may be well-acquainted with the stories of great leaders throughout history who, having failed to place sufficient trust in their generals, faced their own gradual undoing. But it becomes quite another thing to apply this understanding to their own professional endeavours; it is perhaps a stubborn belief that it will not happen to them. In his ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team’, management consultant, Patrick Lencioni describes how teams often struggle to “row together”, citing absence of trust as a key issue.

Lencioni’s approach – a commonly used framework for building a tighter functioning team – further warns of the damage caused by the fear of conflict where teams avoid engagement by sidestepping the ‘difficult conversation’.

His list of dysfunctions also includes individual lack of commitment. This often manifests itself through what psychologists call ‘social loafing’, where the individual is part of the team yet somehow is never there when the small jobs need doing (the commercial equivalent of always managing to avoid emptying the dishwasher, seemingly insignificant in itself but a cumulative irritant for those that are attentive).

Inattention to results is another Lencioni dysfunction. This, explains Loftus, can be the negative consequence of teams that have overdosed on team-building exercises and end up in “a bit of a love-in”, where the realisation that the team exists to perform is lost amidst the thrill of connection. This, he hastens to add, has never been his experience when working with treasury teams. Most frequently teams fail because they do not have a clear enough sense of the common purpose that defines their very existence.

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