Caught in the Middle?

Exec and non-exec boards can be great places for learning, sharing and building something together with peers. Often the Treasurer is presenting to these groups, but sometimes it can be challenging in terms of dynamics. If caught up in that ‘traditional’, aggressive corporate boardroom, what can you do?

The days of aggression in the boardroom are not over and particularly, in some business sectors, the tone of the conversation can be ‘deeply unpleasant’, as someone reflected to me recently. The situation and challenges may be accurate and reasonable in themselves, but the delivery of the message at times is not only inappropriate, but can be counter-productive. Research shows that many people do not perform at their best as a result, feeling as if they are on trial, and therefore experiencing fear and confusion, which undermines them. Alternatively, very much related to fear again, due to self-preservation they consciously act to please in future and therefore do not ever really exercise their full potential.

Research also shows that an aggressive culture at the top cascades through the organisation and people learn the same kinds of behaviours in the belief it will allow them to survive. I remember a time when I headed up the finances for a $23bn global organisation, where the CEO was known to throw people’s phones out the window and such similar nonsense. To be asked to work in the head office, I learnt, was something most people feared.

Treasurers can often be faced with this kind of culture, and it can be very debilitating for some, if they do not have a CFO who has their back. Others ‘learn’ and, as per the research, start to adopt the same kinds of behaviours with others. It’s an interesting phenomenon, and reminds me a little of the theory that a boss who micromanages demonstrates that their partner probably micromanages them at home. They simply transfer what they cannot control at home, into the workplace.

So what advice can a treasurer take when caught up in this dilemma (assuming they don’t really want to adopt such out-moded and unpleasant attitudes themselves)? I would suggest the following:

  • If you have an understanding boss, speak to them about how you feel, and ask whether they have any thoughts as to how to address poor behaviours in the boardroom when you are in it.
  • Resist the temptation to transfer the same kinds of behaviours towards your own team, or others in contexts where you have a (more) senior status; stay strong on this.
  • Consider talking in confidence to HR, and suggest the Board or Exec team (as applicable) is given some training.
  • If feeling very brave and already looking elsewhere or secured a job, call it out (being aware your voice may fall on stony ground).
  • If there are no prospects of improvement, look for an organisation which has higher standards of behaviour – they do exist!

And as a final word of advice: when looking at a new role in a new organisation, do your due diligence, and really try to find out what the board(s) culture is, and what you might have to deal with. If the best treasurers retain their integrity and only work for those organisations that behave in a respectful and professional manner, then the others will be forced to change over time.

Read the full blog on the ACT website here

Caroline Stockmann, Chief Executive, ACT

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