Michael Bencsik

200bwmichaelbencsik.jpgMichael Bencsik has dealt with more stress than most CFOs;
‘As Michael Bencsik CPA prepared for his sixth Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race in December 1998, he was reasonably comfortable with his crew and surroundings. Climbing aboard the AFR Midnight Rambler on Boxing Day, Bencsik, accompanied by six fellow crew members, was excited about the challenge ahead. Within three days, his life had changed forever. On a 35ft yacht, Bencsik – along with most of the fleet – was completely unprepared for the swell and winds that developed in what turned out to be a disastrous race, when only 44 out of the 115 starting yachts finished. Six competitors died.

‘It was terrifying,’ says Bencsik, “There were 60ft seas and 80-knot winds, which sounded like screaming. It was ferocious on top of the boat, but inside was no better, as it felt like you were inside a drum. All you could hear was crashing waves, and you were thrown from side to side. Everything below was damp and wet.’

Battling through the horrendous conditions, the AFR Midnight Rambler sailed through to win the Tattersalls Trophy for finishing first under the international measurement system (IMS) handicap. It is still the smallest yacht to win the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race since 1998. ‘We were excited by the win but that was somewhat tempered by finding out the full extent of what had happened,’ Bencsik recalls. ‘It was a shock.’’

Michael Bencsik is currently Chief Financial Officer of HSBC Bank Australia. He joined HSBC in 1999 as Financial Controller. Prior to this he has worked in various finance roles within Westpac Banking Corporation and TSB Banking Group in the United Kingdom. His interests are still Ocean racing (14 Sydney Hobart Races), Rugby Union and family.

I interviewed him in April 2007

Q. Do you feel there is more or less pressure placed on you as you have progressed in the HSBC?
In my role as CFO HSBC, you tend to have a broad commercial understanding that brings together all the parts of the bank and have the knowledge of the whole value chain. There is an element of increased ‘positive’ stress where you are in a senior position to effect change within the bank. It comes from the increased responsibility place by the Board and shareholders in managing the financial stewardship of the organisation and balancing this with the expectation from staff that they look to you with confidence that you are able to provide the proper leadership, guidance and communication. At more senior levels in the bank, it is perhaps the soft or people skills which emerge as becoming more important than the hard technical ones.

Turnover at the CEO and CFO level is on the rise because more and more Boards and shareholders are enforcing greater accountability over the success or failure of a strategy on the senior management team who have the responsibility for implementing it. This is perhaps where elements of ‘negative’ stress emerge.

Q. Would you agree, in general, that the more control you have over your environment, the less stress you have?
One of the constants in a CFO role is change which is increasing in pace, depth and breadth. Working within a global bank and managing customers and businesses across geographic boundaries produces various risks and opportunities. I tend to have less stress where I am familiar with the cause and effect levers within my immediate local environment. As HSBC is a global organisation, my matrix reporting lines into London, Hong Kong and the US increasingly give rise to changes in the level of stress myself and the team experience particularly where you are dealing with novel, ambiguous or complex information. Being effective in navigating the political landscape of the global business environment and having time to appreciate the cultural subtleties and nuances when working across countries with your internal peers, helps reduce stress. In addition, reporting to the CEO increases a CFO’s control over his environment because we are in direct communication with the ultimate influencer over the company, the CEO.

One of the constants in a CFO role is change which is increasing in pace, depth and breadth. Working within a global bank and managing customers and businesses across geographic boundaries produces various risks and opportunities. I tend to have less stress where I am familiar with the cause and effect levers within my immediate local environment. As HSBC is a global organisation, my matrix reporting lines into London, Hong Kong and the US increasingly give rise to changes in the level of stress myself and the team experience particularly where you are dealing with novel, ambiguous or complex information. Being effective in navigating the political landscape of the global business environment and having time to appreciate the cultural subtleties and nuances when working across countries with your internal peers, helps reduce stress. In addition, reporting to the CEO increases a CFO’s control over his environment because we are in direct communication with the ultimate influencer over the company, the CEO.

Q. In the role as a financial executive how does stress affect you?
It tends to have a positive impact on my work ethic because it encourages me to perhaps work harder to achieve the desired outcome. I believe that to be an effective CFO, stress is an important enabler as it tends to set a performance expectation level to staff to raise the level of their output.

Q. What mechanisms does your Organisation have for dealing with stress?
Employee Assistance Program – confidential external consultant where employees can go to seek independent advice whether on a work related or personal issue;
Staff are able to take 5 days personal or family leave if required outside of the normal annual leave and sick leave entitlement;
Ability to purchase an additional week’s annual leave on top of the minimum annual 4 week entitlement;
Adequate management training programs focused at managing stress;
Mentoring programme – senior staff mentoring up and coming managers
Flexible working hours policy – to assist staff with family requirements e.g. staggered working hours or part time work for certain staff;
Work behaviours manual – defined set of rules on how we expect staff to act;
Creating a culture of a supportive team environment – accessibility to senior management to voice concerns;
Employee attitude survey – independent yearly survey enabling staff to confidentially provide feedback;
Focus groups – facilitated by human resources to give to teams in customer groups time to provide feedback and reflection to each other about what is working, what is not working.

Q. On a personal level how do you deal with stress?
I have a range of outside interests which help me to balance stress and work.
It is easy with my job to be on call 24 hrs a day, so I switch off my blackberry on weekends and spend quality time with my wife and kids and friends.

I undertake a lot of sailing namely ocean racing with a crew of 10 or a 40 ft yacht, and have competed in 14 Sydney Hobart yacht races including winning the tragic 1998 Sydney Hobart on handicap and other divisional wins and placings. I currently race with a crew of ten on a 40 foot racing yacht which given the inherent weather conditions is a different form of stress! Sailing is my passion but has indirect benefits for self development, decision making, goal setting, teamwork and leadership that can be applied to a corporate environment. Our team for example is being used as a case study for a leadership training program being developed in the USA.

I am on the Board of a CFO mentoring company FEI Australia. I am one of a handful of CFOs which mentor rising young financial executives, typically in their mid-30s, who may be potential CFOs of the future. The Mentoring role enables me to give something back to other finance staff in providing a forum for sharing my own experiences including career mistakes etc with up and coming executives
I am on the Board and treasurer of a children’s charity Barnardos Australia. It provides a greater appreciation of my own circumstances. The role also helps expand my management skills as a director of an independent board and furthers my interest in Children welfare in promoting the general level of work and support the organisation provides in the community.

The above helps me with dilute any stress as it gives the ability to appreciate diversity of opinion and look at options from different points of view. By exercising soft and hard skills learned in a professional workplace to a different environment I feel more empowered and motivated as you are doing what you are interested in. It also provides a sense of perspective in work matters to issues outside of work.

Q. Are there any thoughts, insights, examples you could give me that would help me understand stress and your role better?
Generally the stress surrounding my role is balancing the competing needs of the business in my professional capacity and that of my personal life. In particular, I strive to provide a value adding role to assist the business by navigating and managing the areas of the business through the challenges of being part of a global orientated bank whilst at the same time ensuring that my staff have a meaningful and fulfilling career through meeting their development needs.

The CFO role I have is quite diverse and constantly challenging. An element of stress is positive in driving that edge of performance and ensuring that I am able to raise the level of performance of myself and that of my team.

There are three key areas which I generally seek to attain in managing stress:
Time balance between work and non work activities;
Involvement balance of the psychological involvement in, or commitment to work and non work activities;
Satisfaction balance obtained by myself in participating in certain activities.

There is no optimal equilibrium between the above areas as balance needs to be considered from multiple perspectives which are specific only to me. Trade-off between competing priorities is inevitable.

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