“Finance and accounting was a natural path for me,” says Shelly Maneth, CFO of Singapore-based employee benefits start-up, ConneXionsAsia (CXA). She may admit to being a “stereotypical accountant” to whom numbers come easy, but she feels her true strength lies with problem-solving and organisational management. Thus it is after more than 20 years working for firms such as Deloitte, Cisco Systems, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Oliver Wyman, AT Kearney and, currently CXA, she proclaims that “I couldn’t be happier with my career choice”. And there is still “immense opportunity” for career progression. Indeed, she notes, as part of a progressive start-up “infinite possibilities will avail themselves”.
Positioning oneself to take advantage of such a broad scope requires a broad outlook. To this effect, Shelly considers some of the best advice she ever received was from an unexpected source. “My husband and I were so focused on the arrival of our first child that during one of our last appointments prior to the birth, our doctor stopped our conversation and said: ‘You know, the birth is a moment in time. Whilst it is important, you should focus on your life as parents because this will last a lifetime.’” At first hearing this sounds far removed from career advice, but it does translate easily to Shelly’s professional life. “When a key decision is being discussed, I look hard at the foundation on which that decision will be supported, because that foundation will need to support that decision for a ‘lifetime’.”
Of course, the doctor’s advice still holds true as a parent; a role which can sometimes be very difficult to balance with professional life. In the Maneth household, Shelly and her husband have agreed both will be ‘involved’ parents, sharing the responsibilities for raising their children and managing the household. Much of the ability to balance life for many working parents, she feels, can be attributed to the adoption of technology. “In today’s world, regardless of your role, there’s more flexibility in terms of where and when we work. Technology, though, has also forced a change within traditional family roles, including our children’s, who are now expected to be a bit more independent and knowledgeable of the world around them than I was at their age.”
In her professional life, perhaps one of the most useful ‘tools’ Shelly would like is access to a simplified, common banking platform (as would most treasurers). Relationships with multiple banks, for example, typically means multiple login tokens. “Often the bank has to spend at least a couple of hours supporting your understanding of how their platform works. Then, as your needs or organisational structure change, you have multiple systems to update. This all seems unnecessarily challenging.”
Of course, challenges are par for the course at the executive end of the corporate finance spectrum. With Shelly currently building the foundation of finance at CXA, having the opportunity to set it all in motion is a lot easier working alongside “incredibly talented and smart team members”. The set-up is not without its challenges, though still “exhilarating”. Having worked in a male-dominated role such as treasury as well as male dominated sectors such as IT and consultancy, Shelly has learnt to “ignore the gender aspect” and instead focus on her own belief that the best qualified, most competent person should fill a role, regardless of factors such as gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. CXA has a diverse management team, led by Founder and CEO, Rosaline Koo, and together they have cultivated “a great working environment, with minimal politics and bureaucracy”.
When everyone is allowed their voice, treasury and finance is heard throughout the organisation. But Shelly knows this is not the case everywhere. “Treasury and finance people need to be able to clearly articulate the value of their role to the wider business, not necessarily by beating it into peoples’ heads, rather making poignant statements subtly.” With the common perception that treasury and finance are ‘cost centres’, she often takes the opportunity, in routine conversations or presentations “to sneak in a finance achievement that would otherwise be unknown to the organisation”. Key to this is the art of establishing and maintaining relationships outside of the finance team, moving out of one’s comfort zone and understanding other departments or facets of the business. “Basically, get out there and talk to people in your organisation!”
This sounds like a motto for Shelly but her guiding principles continue to evolve over the years. “Growing up, my father instilled in my siblings and me that ‘if you’re going to do something, do it right’. In my mid-20s to mid-30s, I lived to ‘never regret’ which is what brought me to Singapore. And whilst I still live by those two principles, I now strive to be ‘respectfully genuine’ in everything that I do.” Inspiration, she adds, comes from living life “with an open heart, open eyes and an open mind, with my husband, children, parents and friends integral to the fabric of my being”.