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bluenotes debate: leadership, diversity & change

Australia’s boards do not accurately reflect the diversity of the country.

It’s an alarming and discomforting statement but according to a recent report from the University of Sydney Business School and Human Rights Commission, it’s true.

So what can businesses do to address the issue – and what makes a good leader, anyway? We put these questions to a panel of respected experts including ANZ CEO Shayne Elliott, Australian Human Rights Commission & Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Asian Leadership Project CEO Julie Chai and Associate Director Diversity & Inclusion at the University of Melbourne, Alisha Fernando.

We started by asking them about the ingredients of good leadership. Below are audio excerpts and an edited transcript of the discussion. 

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L-R: Elliott, Chai, Soutphommasane and Fernando. Photo: Jun Sawa

TS: Leadership for me is about a relationship. You can't be a leader unless there are followers. So that needs to be the starting point.

Leadership is about getting people to do things for common purpose and motivating people to get results.

"We look to seniority as an indicator of leadership but that is not necessarily a very good indicator in the modern workplace.” - Elliott

The key I believe to leadership is twofold: it’s about motivating people's interests, so transacting with people; and elevating people's values and transforming the way they see the world.

To me, a complete leader is one who can engage both interests and values, deal in transactions as well as deal in transformations.

JC: For me leadership is completely selfless. I draw inspiration from my team. I do my absolute best every day to get the best out of every member of my team.

It’s being quick to observe when they’re having a slightly off day and knowing how to help them get back on track.

SE: I agree with both those points. The definition of leadership is changing a lot.

I mean obviously we look to seniority as an indicator of leadership but that is not necessarily a very good indicator in the modern workplace.

In the future, leadership is going to be much more of a virtual centre with virtual teams. What we found at ANZ is when we get our most-senior people together they are not necessarily the leaders of the company.

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L-R: Elliott, Chai, Soutphommasane and Fernando. Photo: Jun Sawa

The leaders of the company are the people staff see every day and look to for, for example, how to behave, which values to showcase and so on.

So I think that definition of leadership is going change it in a business sense.

AF: I think there’s a saying, you don’t need to be a leader to lead. I think that’s really important; many of us may not have leader in our official title or job mandate but we can still lead.

Why do you think it’s so important to have diversity in leaders, particular in companies operating in Asia?

SE: I think diversity any way you look at it really has a couple of arguments for the case. One is just, really simply, the importance of reflecting your customer base.

If you want to be in a really competitive environment with fast-changing customer needs you need to be able to reflect and understand your customers.

That's a really powerful part of reflecting the community within which you operate. 

For ANZ, our customer base isn't just here in Australia – although the face of Australia has changed enormously in just one or two generations. 

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Photo: Jun Sawa

From a business perspective, another big customer base of ours is interested in Asia. Maybe they don’t operate there, but they’re importing, exporting and dealing there. That’s why having Asian leaders in our company makes us a better place.

JC: Asia makes up 50 per cent of the global population. The region itself is about the equivalent of the US in size, which is an economy of about 10 trillion. We’re in the Asian Century, it's just where we need to be.

SE: Yes.

JC: If you want that competitive advantage in the future it’s time to start now because otherwise you’ll just be left behind.

TS: It’s very simple. It’s about looking outside and seeing our place in the world – which is Asia. In the past we may have sought security from Asia but today we see security and prosperity.

But if we're looking at ourselves and looking in the mirror, Asia is already in Australia. We don't need to think of Asia as being ‘out there’. So much of Asia is already here.

That is what's so essential that we do more to unleash the talents of Asian Australians because we should consider Australian workplaces as a laboratory. If we get it right here we should have no challenge getting it right outside our borders in Asia. 

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Photo: Jun Sawa

Too often we are thinking of going outside to Asia and succeeding that way without understanding if we focus inwards as well and succeed here first that will make success in Asia all the more easier.

For Asian leaders in Australia, there are clearly ‘blockages’ – if you can call them that.

If you look at the kinds of graduates we are pumping out from our universities, the high-achieving students, there’s no issue with diversity being represented. The question here is what's happening to those high achievers when they get into the workforce after five years? Or seven? Or 10, or 15?

Because you would think after 15 years in the workforce they would be coming through in roughly proportionate numbers - at least if we think the kind of technical ability and skills developed through university is any proxy for talent. And clearly it is.

What that says to me is a number of things. One, you might have structures within organisations which aren’t yet genuinely open to diversity. So you might have assumptions about who is fit to lead and who is fit to do certain types of work.

Perhaps here what you'll see is culturally diverse talent being seen as the technicians rather than dealers or managers.

And then on top of this there might be some cultural defects on the part of diverse talent which militates against them being rewarded in a commensurate manner.

This idea that ‘well, I let my work speak for itself. I don't need to sell my wares’. That’s a very classical Asian assumption to have. But in an Anglo-Australian context that's a sure recipe for failure.

There’s a saying ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’. The Chinese counterpart is ‘the loudest duck gets shot’.

SE: It’s interesting you say that as those exact words would be fitting if we were sitting here on a panel talking about gender diversity. 

TS: Yes, I think there are clear parallels, as you rightly say. It’s important for us to apply some of the lessons learned there.

I think it’s important for senior leaders in business to recognise this is a priority. If those at the top of the tree don’t signal this is important it’s not going to be treated as such. That’s perhaps where we've fallen behind a little on cultural diversity more generally.

I have it said to me all the time, ‘well, it's not that we don't care about your issue but we already set targets for gender and Indigenous employment. But once we get those things bedded down we can deal with cultural diversity’.

That to me is a deferral into infinity and it doesn't allow for organisations to get on the front foot.

JC: For me there are three key barriers locking out Asian Australian leaders today: the lack of relationship capital - the ‘networking capital’; the non-stop stereotypes and biases that are placed on us; and the fact people feel the need to conform to the Westernised leadership model.

Shane White is senior production editor at bluenotes

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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