Last month, Treasury Today brought together our community across Asia for an annual celebration of women in treasury to share stories and advice for success in the industry. Attendees joined Sophie Jackson, Treasury Today’s Publisher & Head of Strategic Content and Meg Coates, Publisher & Head of Operations, alongside expert panellists Stephen Hogan, Vice President Regional Treasury, Deutsche Post DHL, Deborah Ho, Regional Head of the South East Asia Business and Country Head Singapore, BlackRock and Rebekah Wong, Head of Singapore Wholesale Payments and Head of APAC Market Management & Strategic Execution for Wholesale Payments, J.P. Morgan.
Deborah began the conversation, reflecting on her own career progression and stressed the importance of being ready to seize opportunities when they arise. This is only possible, she said, by “knowing what you are looking for.” For her, this came with the sudden realisation that she wanted to be back on the buy-side. After spending her early years in sales and trading at J.P. Morgan, plus stints in asset management and investment banking, she knew she was working in the wrong area of finance. So, when BlackRock came knocking with an opportunity that fitted this new aspiration it was “like a dream come true.” She also counselled women on the importance of being visible within a company and being willing to take risks.
Stephen’s first job was as a civil servant. Later, working in the UK’s NHS, he was responsible for managing the hospitals’ huge cash deposits, piquing his interest in treasury, cash flows and liquidity. Next, he sidestepped into the private sector, joining DHL in London, and working on early projects like hub financing and aircraft acquisition. A life changing opportunity came later when the company asked him to work firstly in Brussels and then after 2 years Singapore. “They asked me if I would go to Singapore for a year; 18 years on I’m still here.”
Rebekah began her career at Citi as a junior cash operations officer. She deliberately opted for operations because of its focus on technology and transformational projects. When J.P. Morgan offered her the chance to work in product management, she saw it as a natural next step. “I took the plunge eight years ago and am now managing wholesale payments in Singapore,” she said.
Her comments led Tricia Ho-Hudson, Group Treasurer, Woolworths Group, to reflect on the fact that treasury is a profession particularly suited to women leaders. “The mix of technical skills and interpersonal skills is right up women’s alleys,” she said, adding. “Women in Treasury helps to emphasise this as a professional option and to create a supportive network amongst female and male colleagues.”
In a revealing insight, Deborah told delegates how she credits much of her resilience and determination in her career to her early childhood in Singapore. Both her parents worked, leaving her and her siblings in the care of an inspiring Cantonese nanny. Saving and earning money to support her own family back home in China, her work ethic and self-reliance without any male support left a long-lasting impression on her young charge. “My nanny made us watch the news because she knew how important it is to grow your greatest asset; and there we learnt about the price of gold, property and stock markets,” Deborah recalled. Later, her all-girls school further embedded the importance of self-reliance and determination to work hard, she said.
Next the conversation turned to moving and settling in new locations.
Drawing on his own experience of living in Brussels and Singapore, Stephen said moving location is both exciting and worrying. Worrying elements for him included leaving a large family network in London, but he said he soon grew comfortable with the long journey home – and found that loved ones would come and stay. He said although DHL’s human resources department offered extensive support around local accommodation and travel, he also had to learn to survive on his own and build a team – his Germany based boss empowering him to take responsibility for all issues and only expected to hear from him “when something was wrong.” Still, it was a life-changing opportunity. “The best thing I ever did was get out of my comfort zone and build a life from scratch. It has given me a more inclusive mind set.”
As for inspiration, Rebekah cited J.P. Morgan boss Jamie Dimon. She said the culture he endorses at the bank cascades right through the business and includes instilling staff with the courage to take chances and innovate. Her early career also taught her the importance of collaboration with colleagues in other departments.
Rebekah added that moving to a new location increases visibility within a firm. Living overseas allows people to get to know colleagues in other parts of the business, gaining exposure outside their own departments and country. Although she countered that people who “wanted to stay in one location” wouldn’t miss out, she said that international exposure allowed people to test their own abilities and risk appetite. Working abroad also offers a window into other cultures. Recalling an attachment to a transformation project in Zurich early in her career, she said the experience still informs her decision making today. “An ability to embrace different working cultures is important,” she said.
Next the conversation turned to progress in gender equality, particularly the impact of the pandemic on female career progression. In what Deborah called “hard numbers” echoed “across regions”, she said the pandemic threatened to set back a whole generation and urged companies to offer more support to working women struggling to balance home life and make themselves visible. A point echoed by our event supporter, BNP Paribas’ Sofia Hammoucha, Head of Transaction Banking, Southeast Asia, who says, “Given how the female gender has been disproportionately hit by this pandemic, we need to come together and be even more focused on ensuring women’s progress in the workplace.”
Stephen stressed the importance of genuine male empathy of the importance of gender equality. He said his proactivity on gender equality, rooted in his childhood growing up with four older sisters, is now driven by his ambition for equality for his nieces, and the success of his all-female team. He noted that although finance attracts women, many of the senior roles are dominated by men. “They’ve taken risks because they can; they have been able to move up,” he said. As for inspiring leaders, one of his heroes is DPDHL’s CFO Melanie Kreis, who heads up a 10,000-strong global finance organisation and is a diversity statement for the group as a whole. “She is inspiring,” he said.
Rebekah also picked up on the importance of male leaders acknowledging a need for equality. Men have a vital role in creating the right kind of culture, she said. Deborah called for men to join the path to equality by putting it in the context of the women in their life. This way it becomes a cause we can all believe and share in, she said. She also stressed the importance of women’s networks with both female and male leaders and said that interview panels needed to be culturally diverse.
Stephen added that diversity involved understanding that the person who shouts loudest is “not the best.” He said leaders needed to understand that some women are reticent about going after job opportunities and cited the importance of encouraging people to explore different ways to get themselves noticed as well as the need for career advice on banking and treasury roles in schools. Stephen said that most men believe in gender equality but need to be empowered to drive and support the agenda. It involves creating awareness and he urged companies to publish diversity statements. As for ensuring diversity in recruitment practices, he said it was important not to look for “experts” but find people with a “good broad grounding” and that people can learn stuff on the job. He seeks to hire people with an ability to engage and come up with solutions to problems. You can go into treasury with broad skills, he said.
Elsewhere the panellists touched on the importance of diversity being viewed through a broad ESG lens, arguing that acting on diversity is part and parcel of companies fulfilling their social license to operate. Tricia added that in her recent experience the Chairs and Directors of the Board have become key treasury supporters. “They recognise the important role that treasury plays in ensuring the strength of the balance sheet. They recognise this not just when there is a liquidity crisis created by COVID but in our everyday activities and they thank us when we do a good job.”
In a last piece of advice, Deborah said she wished she’d been braver in her career and pushed herself out of her comfort zone. Despite moving to New York for five years she said she regretted not exploring more different roles within the firm. “I was selling European bonds to real money managers in the US and when they asked if I wanted to join the emerging market desk, I passed on the opportunity and clung to what I knew,” she recalled.
Rebekah said her regret was being too critical of herself. “Over the years I’ve learnt to be kinder to myself,” she said. “I tell my team that it’s ok to make a decision that doesn’t work out.” For Stephen, a key regret is not taking more risk. “If it fails it fails, you pick up and carry on,” he said.
Panellists concluded that career goals change over time and are always influenced by “where you are at that moment.” They reflected on how we always seek to be comfortable in our own skin, but that it is also good to be a little uncomfortable. Speak up, be international, get involved, ask for help and find allies to help and mentor you, they advised. Furthermore, align yourself with a firm and remember that people will only follow your lead if they understand what is in it for them. Above all, treasury is an industry aligned with the future, they concluded.