Karen Jeffries, Director, Treasury Operations at Brighthouse Financial, discusses her career in treasury, building cross-functional relationships and adapting to hybrid working arrangements.
Karen Jeffries is Director, Treasury Operations at Brighthouse Financial. Based in Charlotte, North Carolina in the United States, it is one of the largest providers of annuities and life insurance in the US with over US$200bn in total assets.
After nearly two decades’ experience across all aspects of the treasury operation, Karen joined Brighthouse in 2017 as Director Cash Management, progressing to her current position as Director Treasury Operations in 2020. With a commitment to building the most efficient and effective treasury operation possible, she sees her role as one that combines the responsibility for the day-to-day running of the operations of the treasury with its longer-term strategy. Karen holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Finance and Business Management from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
As someone who loves numbers and math, treasury is very much second nature to me. When I went to college, I had no idea that treasury departments existed, so I never considered it as a career option.
After graduating from college, I went to work for a credit union, and from there I went on to work in the treasury department of an automotive supplier. I was hired to update signature cards, but on my first day the person responsible for cash quit. My manager asked me if I would be interested in learning their job. I thought ‘why not?’ And that is how my career in cash management and treasury began.
It’s easy to think of progression in treasury as being very linear, but in fact there are tremendous opportunities available. Treasury is not a single discipline. Within treasury and finance, it is possible to learn about a wide variety of subjects and processes. And not only the ones that presently exist, but also the ones on the horizon like cryptocurrencies or blockchain, etc. In addition, the acquisition of specialised knowledge gives the opportunity to carve a niche for yourself in treasury.
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, many companies, including Brighthouse, have shifted to a remote-work environment to keep employees safe and healthy. Of course, that has impacted face-to-face interactions, which help build relationships. As a result, one key challenge that companies have faced is finding ways to assist employees in maintaining strong relationships with one other as they work remotely. Fortunately, Brighthouse has provided, and continues to provide, resources and opportunities to help employees stay connected with one another.
Another big, ongoing challenge for companies is ensuring that they are utilising the many opportunities that new technology presents in terms of making their operations as efficient as possible.
In addition, the acquisition of specialised knowledge gives the opportunity to carve a niche for yourself in treasury.
Looking back, I would have sought out opportunities that would have enhanced my skillset and benefited me professionally, even if they were outside of my comfort zone. It’s easy to stay in positions where you have become comfortable. But after four or five years of doing the same thing, the opportunities for growth may be greatly diminished. I would encourage anyone in that position to become more assertive in pursuing their professional career and consider moving on.
Don’t just survive but thrive.
During her career, Karen has gained experience in every aspect of treasury, from foreign exchange and hedge accounting to cash management and short-term investing. Moving to director level has given her a broader and more strategic role in addition to an operational one. “I like having an impact on how the department is shaped and how the team does things,” she comments.
For those in junior positions wishing to advance their careers in treasury, Karen encourages them to look beyond their immediate organisations. As someone who has been on the board of the local treasury management association, she understands the importance of such forums in terms of gaining access to treasury professionals who may be involved across many disciplines. “You have the chance to network and to gain an understanding of how other individuals work,” she says. “You see what they are doing and how they handle different processes, as well as hearing about all the opportunities that exist.”
In addition, Karen is keen to stress that many treasury management associations are open to college students. “When I was at college, I knew nothing about treasury departments,” she reflects. “Since the subject wasn’t covered, I didn’t know that a career in treasury was an option.”
For treasury professionals seeking to make their voices heard within their own organisations, Karen believes it is vital to build cross-functional relationships with peers. “Sometimes treasury can be a forgotten function within a company, or just an extension of accounting,” she says. “So it’s important to build relationships that will allow you to have a seat at the table and ensure that treasury has a voice within the organisation. If you are vocal as a treasurer, other areas of the business will always remember you.”
For women in treasury wishing to establish and develop a career, Karen’s advice is to be aware of the bias that might exist in their workplace, unintentional or otherwise, and to consider how best to respond to it. “When people say things that you might be angered or upset by – or just don’t agree with – it is important to be aware of your tone of voice,” she cautions. Reminded of a female mentor’s advice on the subject, she adds “your tone should never be any different than if you were at a dinner party and you were asking someone to pass the butter.”
Since the subject wasn’t covered, I didn’t know that a career in treasury was an option.
When the COVID-19 crisis began, companies’ moves to remote working was expected to be a temporary measure. Having judged it to be a success, Brighthouse intends to keep the advantages of this way of working, and transition to a hybrid work environment when it reopens its offices, a process that the company is currently expecting to begin later in the year.
Karen says that alongside benefits to the company, the new arrangements will have immeasurable personal benefits, including reduced travel time and expense, more time with family and increased focus on self-care.
But for Karen, the biggest challenge ahead lies in finding ways to utilise technology in order to create more efficient ways of working. “There is so much in the way of new technology on the treasury horizon – and things like APIs and treasury management systems certainly make our jobs easier,” she concludes. “Broadly speaking, treasury departments in general are often tasked with doing more while using less. It’s constantly about finding ways to work smarter and not harder!”