Women in Treasury

Agents of change: diversity in treasury

Published: Nov 2017
Women in treasury group photo

Diversity is not about hitting targets, it is about building a culture where everyone can thrive. The panel of Treasury Today’s latest Women in Treasury Forum in London sought to address the theme, open up an advanced dialogue and offer our audience some positive strides forward.

“Until we walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, we will never truly understand their professional experience.” It would be hard to disagree with this sentiment, put forward at this year’s Women in Treasury London Forum held in September. Indeed, delivering true diversity and inclusion will only be possible once we all begin to think in entirely new ways, reassessing how we perceive each other.

With over 180 senior treasury professionals from the UK and Europe attending the event and with similar events taking place in Asia and North America – the themes of diversity and inclusion seem now to be becoming embedded in the consciousness of the treasury world.

There needs to be more willingness to step outside of our own experience to avoid behaviour that can make people feel uncomfortable or see them overlooked for promotions. But in the fast-paced world in which we live, it can be all too easy to forget that those around us have their own set of struggles that may impact how they behave.

Organisations have a role to play in encouraging tolerance and helping to promote diverse thinking, especially around hiring practices. All too often, managers hire people who reflect themselves or replicate the profile of previous high-performers. The result is a failure to promote diversity whilst simultaneously encouraging the creative-limiting practice of group-think. Building and implementing policies can go some way to ensuring checks and balances are in place to avoid such counterproductive outcomes. But what are we really aiming for when we talk about ‘diversity’?

Thinking diversity

In seeking a definition, Frances Hinden, VP, Treasury Operations, Shell International, argues that diversity is not about being male or female, your race or your appearance, “it is about how you think”.

A diverse group of people will naturally think differently, based on a whole host of drivers, from nurture to nature. Of course, if diversity is about thought, then it will not be possible to tell simply by looking at that group if it is diverse.

This argument starts to pull away from the traditional views of workplace diversity. Indeed, for Cornelia Hesse, Head of Controlling, BASF Global Finance Shared Services, the traditional topics of gender and race in her company have already been supplanted by “life-balance issues”, where interesting part-time roles are made available to all, and proper parental leave for men and women is the norm. The company has also developed a “competencies-based” approach to hiring into teams, encouraging more soft skills to come to the fore so that leaders are now in effect “orchestrating” the players rather than simply issuing commands.

Having already reached out to more and to varied personalities, the company is transitioning yet again, said Hesse. This time its approach is being forged as a direct response to the digital agenda, where global reach within the business is being stretched to the limit. To succeed here, there is a push for empowering satellite team members so that a truly diverse organisation is created. Technology can then be employed to bring the different skillsets together and to stay connected, helping to drive the overarching goals of the business forward.

Different sectors, same challenges

With her experience across a number of sectors, Sabine McIntosh, Managing Director, Global Head of Account Services, Treasury and Trade Solutions, Citi, is of the impression that the challenges to diversity remain much the same in each of them.

With the vast majority of senior managers and board members being men, regardless of sector, she feels diversity persists as a topic for all major global corporations. Interestingly, McIntosh notes that in her experience, diversity is far less of an issue in smaller businesses where she says it was “easier to demonstrate performance and be recognised for it”. This suggests that it can be harder to be visible in the corporate world. Change calls for a different viewpoint.

“When we talk about diversity, we need to view it from the board and even the shareholder level,” says McIntosh. “It’s about trying to look for and value different behaviours that are going to start balancing out the organisation from the top down.”

In the world of treasury today, the male domination we see stems from a time when banks really were male strongholds, especially in the dealing rooms, explains Peter Lay, Head of Global Treasury, Oxfam. “As a treasurer, if you played golf or went fly fishing, you would fit the mould of corporate entertainment of the time,” he notes. There was little room for thinking otherwise and few women it seemed wanted to join that particular club.

With a diverse working background beginning in South Africa, Lay’s arrival in a UK finance function, where the MD even controlled what women wore at work, was a bemusing experience. “But there didn’t seem to be any anger about the treatment of women,” he recalls. He found it similarly odd that for any male that didn’t play golf, membership of the elite circle was all but barred.

Always remember you have a choice about what you are doing. If you don’t like what you do, try and change it.

Frances Hinden, VP, Treasury Operations, Shell International

As the 90s progressed, Lay notes that whilst more women were taking senior roles, many firms were in fact merely exploiting perceived gender differences. Women were seen as having strength in terms of their relationship skills but were not seen in any other light; it was a direct route to HR management in certain industries but higher executive roles were still seemingly off limits.

Lay’s move to the British Council saw a different approach unveiled. Women were actively making a difference, championing culture and education across the world. And yet even here, very few women ever made it to board level. Notwithstanding, Lay’s current experience with Oxfam, which has been a “revelation” in terms of genuine diversity, he feels that whilst US banking is making enormous headway, its British counterpart “still has a way to go”.

Mobile solution

Different attitudes to diversity prevail on the international circuit. It may be that to move ahead, geographic mobility may provide the best opportunities. This has certainly been the case for Deborah Mur, Head of Global Liquidity and Cash Management, HSBC France. Indeed, she feels that her willingness to be mobile has played a vital role in her progress. But it has not been about “taking any job and moving to any country”.

Instead, Mur has deliberately identified opportunities and actively sought solutions to help the company, an approach that, for example, saw her relocate to Canada for a period. The overseas moves she has made, in this context, have largely been “strategic” measures to drive new openings for herself.

However, these openings don’t have to come from geographic mobility, she says. “You can do the same thing across business lines if you identify an opportunity, transferring best practice as you go.”

Taking the long way around has certainly enabled McIntosh’s career progression. Having taken many “bold decisions” in her career to date, she has moved across sectors, seeking challenges on her journey.

Taking risks

Her trajectory through the typical ‘relationship-based’ female roles saw her emerge the other side into the world of technology. From here she has built a career within Citi “based on my skillset and my ability to bring people together and to deliver”.

However, even with progress to a senior level in the male-dominated technology sector, her determination to find the next big opportunity saw her move into cash management “and the rest is history”, she says. “Being bold, taking risks and thinking how each move can add to my skillset has helped bring me to where I am now.”

To plan or not?

Whether career planning is a good idea or not is debatable. For Hinden, it is a mistake to think too far ahead, setting a goal and ticking off the key elements one by one. “It is far more important to enjoy and learn from the job you are doing today or tomorrow,” she advises. Don’t dismiss an opportunity because it does not fit the traditional path and never get hung up on job titles, “they don’t matter”, she says.

Perhaps most importantly though, make a judgement on whether the job you take is with a group of people with which you will enjoy working. It’s very telling that Hinden says the only job she has had that she didn’t enjoy was where she didn’t get on with her boss. In the final analysis, “it’s all about the people you work with.”

But in saying this, Hinden is not talking about fitting in nicely “and playing golf”. It’s about finding a group of people “you can work with, laugh with and learn from”. The reason to do so is simple: “It’s about what we do now that counts, not what we will do in 15 years’ time.”

Indeed, people change, plans are altered, no one knows what the future holds. “If you’ve spent several years striving towards the end-goal of your perfect career with people you don’t like, you’ve wasted those years when you could have been having fun.”

Be the brand

In forging ahead with a career, the concept of ‘personal brand’ has a role. Mur believes that the individual should “look promotable”. An organisation will have an image it wishes to convey; conveying that image is important for success. “Working for a large corporation is not necessarily about individuality; if you want to be an individual you become an entrepreneur,” she comments.

Another key to success for Mur is visibility. Being able to articulate your contribution to the organisation, in terms that are “meaningful for senior management”, is essential. “Have an ‘elevator pitch’ ready because you only have one opportunity to make a great first impression,” she advises.

To get to the right place, Hesse feels taking bold decisions and risks is vital. “There’s no point in sitting comfortably and complaining all the time. It’s up to you to take a decision to change,” she warns. With a number of diverse roles under her belt, she has taken every opportunity to progress. In fact, she sees progress as “life-long learning”, where the ability to adapt is key and the need to “invest to be successful” is clearly the right mindset.

A helping hand

Having been exposed, through a British Council colleague, to the difficulties that vision problems can create in the workplace, Lay has experience of looking at life differently. Many of us have little appreciation of how our own working environments are serious challenges for those who are partially sighted or blind trying to navigate their working day. The need therefore is to try to “put the shoe on the other foot” for many different scenarios.

By looking at people in the workplace from a “human perspective” and recognising the challenges faced by so many, he believes empathy and greater tolerance are possible.

In career development mode, the capacity to understand what may be difficult circumstances for an individual, and to develop talent, is an essential part of encouraging diversity. Mentoring is one way of ensuring the best people are recognised, regardless of background.

“The key aspect of any successful mentorship is to be genuine and clear about the relationship objectives,” explains McIntosh. Choosing the right mentor is critical. “You have to have someone who is able to empathise with your situation and who is willing and able to listen to your needs.” Equally, the mentee must be ready for the process, she adds. They must recognise the need to invest time and effort and be prepared to listen to the mentor, especially if they hold different viewpoints, if they are to rise to senior levels.

Sponsorship is another form of encouragement of diversity. Hinden has positive experiences to relate, where she has been prepared and coached by a sponsor to take on new roles. “Having someone actively involved in your career can be extraordinarily beneficial,” she says. However, she warns, there is a downside, where it just becomes patronage of those of a similar background, “sidestepping real progression on merit” and potentially limiting the organisation’s diversity. Formal coaching, especially with peers, has proven a valuable career development tool for Hinden too. “It’s a good thing to take part in, from both sides,” she says. The honesty of the coaching environment often reveals clearer pathways to achieving goals, whilst being a great way for the coach to improve succinct thinking. “I don’t think there is any downside,” she opines.

These approaches often benefit from a proactive method, adds Mur. Anyone feeling uncertain about asking should know that managers often feel “flattered” to be asked for their advice and views. Adopting this approach is often the way to “build the best relationships”, allowing them to develop naturally but, Mur adds, “it really is up to you to initiate it”.

Building for self and for all

In building teams for success, Lay believes companies should take time to celebrate the diversity within. Engaging in open discussion in this way lays the foundations for normalising any differences, ultimately making the team environment “a great leveler” in terms of development.

For the individual seeking progress, Hesse suggests using the human connections between teams, between functions, and even between entities, to build stronger ties and to better understand how the organisation works end-to-end. This serves to create a good business partner and, in doing so, will establish demand amongst the other units.

Add value and take responsibility, she further advises. “Get involved with the entire process but don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. You can coach your bosses, helping them to change their set views so that they too can adapt to the new environment of diversity.”

“Always remember you have a choice about what you are doing,” comments Hinden. If you don’t like what you do, try and change it. “It can feel incredibly liberating to understand what has motivated you and what choices you have made to be where you are.” But she also advises people to steer clear of work places where there is no laughter “or where you can’t get a decent cup of tea”. The latter may be a personal requisite…

Believe in change

To set out on any path first means to know what you want to achieve and to be clear about what you are good at, says McIntosh. Above all, she says, believe in and be true to yourself. “Everyone has the feeling sometime that they will be found out. But believe in yourself and, if you want the next job or the mentorship, just ask for it; the worst you can be told is no.”

To be an agent of change, “be the change you wish to see”, counsels Lay, paraphrasing Ghandi. “The only regrets people really have are when they have not been true to themselves.” In seeking diversity, there is an opportunity “for those in positions of responsibility to look out for people who are more vulnerable”. These people, he says, are in the workplace and they may not have the confidence or the capacity to articulate their needs. “We can all help others to flourish and enjoy their working life.”

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