Attendees from the US, from the West to the East coast joined Sophie Jackson, Treasury Today’s Co-Publisher & Head of Strategic Content and Meg Coates, Co-Publisher & Head of Operations, alongside expert panellists Deepa Palamuttam, Director of Global Tax and Treasury Technology and Controls, Intel Corporation, Melanie Simmons, Treasury Manager, Corporate Finance, Nitel, Geraldine Yip, Regional Head, Asia Pacific, Sales Practice and Content Management, Global Liquidity and Cash Management, HSBC and Kim Hochfeld, Senior Managing Director, Global Head of Cash, State Street Global Advisors.
The Forum began with the panellists recounting their different career journeys. For Melanie, the move to treasury came when she realised she didn’t want to stay in her existing accounting role. Her rapid rise at Nitel began as a treasury assistant; she made supervisor and is now manager. Geraldine recounted how she joined HSBC’s global liquidity and cash management division via a degree in law and a graduate trainee role at Citi. It is a career trajectory that has given her a front-row seat to the global conversation around diversity and inclusion, she said. “Everyone is unique. I am Chinese and female, but this won’t tell you how I think. I also believe the conversation around inclusion and diversity needs to turn to equality,” she said.
Intel’s Deepa has an engineering background, and also holds an MBA. She told delegates how studying engineering was considered unusual for an Indian woman at the time, and that she faced resistance from her family. “Looking back now, everyone was proud of me but at that point in time, I had to fight,” she said. Explaining that her role involves creating a technology-driven road map for Intel’s treasury department, she said the combination of treasury and technology has proved “her path.”
The panellists reflected on how their organisations are driving diversity. They referenced the importance of focus committees, data and diversity goals with targeted initiatives alongside developing junior talent and providing coaching.
“We regularly publish our diversity statistics,” said Kim. “We insist on having a diverse slate of candidates when we are hiring for a new role. It’s not happening naturally, so we are forcing the issue to ensure that prospective candidates aren’t exclusively white males.”
Kim said that although progress around diversity is slow, it is happening. One driver is asset managers like State Street Global Advisors insisting on diversity on the Boards of the companies in which they invest. “We are not just doing this to be politically correct; there is enough evidence to show that a diverse Board makes for a better company.” She also stressed the importance of employers “taking a risk” on prospective candidates who don’t necessarily “fit.”
Geraldine stressed the importance of educating managers, particularly around their role in developing younger talent. She also noted enduring challenges for women in treasury like “difficult conversations” around salary, support for working mothers, learning how to network, and seeking sponsorship. Referencing the multinational nature of treasury, she added: “Women have more challenges in articulating these if English is not their first language.”
Elsewhere Kim noted a new culture at banks, traditionally renowned for not being family-friendly and for testosterone-fuelled trading floors. However, she noted change is slow. “I find it depressing whenever you have a meeting with someone from marketing and HR, they are always a woman.” That said, overall the panellists agreed that banks are “really trying” to ensure women succeed; they’ve acknowledged there is a problem, they are working on fixing it and on measuring progress eg they are publishing statistics around diversity.
Geraldine added that unconscious bias is held by institutions, as well as individuals. “We have to acknowledge that both institutions and ourselves have these biases, and work out how to overcome them. We all struggle with this conversation,” she said.
Panellists also talked about the importance of fighting stereotypes. Melanie reflected on how different experiences, like negotiating her salary, had taught her to “not think about gender.” Geraldine also noted how women are often each other’s harshest critics. “Women call other women aggressive,” she said. “We need to stop worrying about what other people might think.” A point Kim noted when she recalled an anecdote from her own career. “Women are women’s worst critics. Think like a man, put away the self-doubt and the voice in your head that questions your opinions.”
Next the conversation turned to issues around socialising after work. Despite the importance of networking, it can create awkward hurdles for some. “A lot of networking sessions are happy hours,” said Deepa. “I don’t drink, but I was expected to go.” She recalled how despite “some initial comments,” she was able to explain that she didn’t enjoy these events. It has given her empathy with colleagues who struggle to network through the same forums. “If I am travelling and at a conference, of course I will network but at home it is a different situation.” Here, Melanie reflected that successful company networking events should include a meal and be considerate of commutes and home responsibilities. There shouldn’t be a presumed shared set of normal social practices when expecting people to interact out of hours and people should not be penalised for feeling differently or having other responsibilities.
Networking is just one aspect of working life that throws the spotlight on social issues. Deepa told delegates how as her career has evolved she has broken social taboos around, for example, voicing her opinion. “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 talk. “Now I am told I am too direct,” she joked.
She also recounted an enduring early career belief that that she should “just do her job,” rather than embrace a wider working life of networking and leadership roles. “I didn’t understand why I should network; it didn’t click,” she said. Recounting how she became comfortable with the process, she urged delegates to view networking like building their own social circle, but also to do it on their own terms.
Panellists also reflected on the importance of mentors. Although Deepa has never had a mentor she said important conversations have influenced her career. These include advice that her family commitments “would be accommodated” in the job. “Every boss has said something that has made an impact on how I’ve shaped myself,” she said. “I haven’t had a specific female mentor, but every manager has had a lasting impact.”
Geraldine, who has officially only had one mentor through her career, noted the importance of “many people” unofficially helping to guide her career. She spoke about the distinction between mentoring and sponsorship, arguing that sponsorship is more important for career progression. “A mentor is great, but a sponsor is somebody who supports the development of your career and puts themselves on the line for you.” She said a sponsor will often risk their own credibility to give you the opportunity to grow into the job. “I have been fortunate enough to have a few people like this in my life,” she said.
Regarding networking, Deepa advised on the importance of seeking mentorship and sponsorship from outside treasury, in the wider company. Moreover, one of the best ways to facilitate relationship building is to think how to help other parts of the business. “Any meeting is an investment of time,” she said. “Think how they would benefit from listening to you - give them information that would benefit them. I always say create a one-pager for a discussion.”
Melanie added that senior women and black executives were important role models and sources of encouragement for her. “If I work hard enough, I can be a senior leader,” she said. “If you see people of colour in leadership roles it gives you confidence to grow.” Moreover, she agreed that having her boss “in her corner,” and someone who she could talk to about her goals, was paramount. Kim echoed this point when she said success in treasury required “friends on the journey;” a support network that can include a partner at home as much as a mentor.
Working from home
Panellists also noted the challenges the pandemic and working from home have brought as well as the impact that the Black Lives Matter movement has had, particularly on black members of staff. At Nitel, the focus is increasingly on how employees feel at this time, said Melanie, who said it was hard for her to focus at times while the pandemic and injustice unravelled in the world outside. She said her company “was listening” and had provided “the tools” for employees to look after themselves. Deepa agreed, noting that she made an extra effort to check-in with team members and urged each employee to champion inclusion.
Kim reflected on the pressure of starting 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 recalled, describing the experience as “not for the faint hearted.” With frequent travel between London and her team in Boston on hold, she said building relationships digitally is challenging. Moreover, “knowing where to go internally” in a new company without physical interaction is also difficult. “I miss the casual interactions at my desk and the social side of the office; the impromptu interactions and creativity generated in a meeting,” she said.
Panellists also reflected on how the pandemic and the move to digital communication could damage company cultures. “Building a relationship over zoom is challenging, it supports but doesn’t necessary build relationships. We may end up paying a price in our culture,” said Kim. In today’s challenging times – as always – Deepa urged delegates to hold onto their individuality. “You are unique, focus on being yourself and project confidence even if you don’t feel it. Your culture is the way you are brought up. Remember who you are - this is the inclusion and this is the diversity we are all talking about.”
Melanie reflected that she would like to combine working from home with travelling to the office a few days a week to help with networking and “keep in touch.” She noted that zoom conferences do allow checking in and keeping the networking base going but arent the same as face to face.
The discussions also touched on challenges around motivating colleagues who are not self-starters, and derive motivation from those around them. “As leaders and managers, we need to understand them,” said Kim. “Our remote life does require a different skill than being in an office.”
The discussion closed with panellists reflecting on the best advice they’d ever received. For Melanie it was to ask questions, and to not be afraid of not knowing the answer. “I’ve gotten comfortable with being vulnerable; it allows me to grow and learn,” she said. Kim, quoting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, urged delegates to act boldly. “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it,” she said, adding that one of the best pieces of advice she’d received was a reminder that she is paid to voice her opinions. For Deepa it was advice to focus on her next career steps while Geraldine concluded the event with her best piece of learned advice. “Never wonder “what if”; don’t have regrets. I apply this to my day-to-day work, as well as in my big picture career.”