Armed with an undergraduate economics degree, Sarah Schaus began her career in the mortgage business of a bank. While the work was financially rewarding, Schaus felt she wasn’t challenged by it and decided to pursue an MBA in finance. “That’s when I learned about treasury,” said Schaus. She saw work at a corporation as a real opportunity and took a position with a unit of Cargill, managing the treasury function. It didn’t take long for her bosses to see her aptitude for treasury and she was quickly given with new responsibilities, including accounts payable.
Because Schaus worked in a small unit within a very large organization, she had a chance to get involved in all aspects of treasury early on—whereas at the corporate level there would be more specialization. “I had accountability for lockbox, payments, cash setting and cash positioning, as well as working closely with our securitization team and later accounts payable,” Schaus said.
Schaus had experience managing others early on in her mortgage lending career, but it was at Cargill where she earned most of her management experience, starting with a team of six and quickly growing it a dozen employees as her responsibilities expanded. She currently manages a team of 30 at Allianz Life.
Over Schaus’ career, she’s seen good managers and bad. Shortly out of college, she had one manager who, “walked the walk and talked the talk. She was empowering,” Schaus said. At the time, Schaus didn’t have much to compare her to but the manager “was engaged. She cared about her people both professionally and personally,” she recalled. “When we worked nights and weekends, she made sure to order dinner in. It wasn’t until later than I found that this was not the way everyone did things.”
Schaus admitted she witnessed some good mentors and some that “I knew I didn’t want to emulate.” She recalled one manager who walked in one afternoon and asked for the list of top clients. “A month later it appeared in an executive report. Had I known the audienceand the purpose I would have provided better information,” she said.
She learned from her experiences. Her ability to empower her own teams helped her rise up the ranks first at Cargill and later at Allianz Life. “You have to empower teams to make decisions on their own, to create what works for them,” she said. Some of the teams she was given did have some HR challenges. “I was strong enough to work with those people and manage them through the expectations of the organization,” she said. “Once you do this successfully, you tend to get more teams.”
Developing a managerial style
The development of her management style evolved through trial and error. “It’s when you look back and say, ‘I could have done that differently’ that you learn from your mistakes,” Schaus said. “The key is to reflect back, learn and do it differently next time. I see people repeating their mistakes all the time. People can learn from their mistakes in order to improve their leadership skills.” At Allianz Life, those leadership skills are assessed through employee engagement reviews.
Schaus brings something from each of her previous roles to her current leadership style. “I learned about my own strengths and weaknesses,” she said, adding she’s a big 360-degree review fan (every 3-5 years to allow enough time to change). “Unless you have some fatal flaws, focus on your strengths.”
Schaus joined Allianz Life five years ago and is currently assistant vice president and assistant treasurer. “When looking at new opportunities, I feel there needs to be a blend of tasks and responsibilities that will stretch you and help you grow, as well as some areas where you have experience,” she said.
At Allianz Life, Schaus is responsible for daily cash management and operations, accounts payable, bank reconciliation, suspense account reconciliation, cashiers and unclaimed property. Her broad experience in management and leadership helped prepare her for this larger role and managing a very large team. “It’s important when you have a large group to make sure you have strong leaders the next level down and that you communicate together well. I manage six distinct teams that support Allianz Life Insurance Company and Fireman's Fund Insurance Company, so I need to have people who can work independently and keep me apprised of what's going on daily.
Schaus said her biggest management challenge today is doing more with less, raising the bar and challenging and motivating people who may have been doing the same thing for years to develop best practices and continuously improve.
As for her own career, Schaus doesn’t see a specific path. “Had I had one, I wouldn’t have ended up where I am,” she mused. “None of us graduated from college wanting to be in treasury. But I have a passion for what I’m doing and I’m not bored with it. For me, it’s all about being appreciated and recognized for my efforts, and seeking out new opportunities to develop myself as a leader.”