Build relationships, add value and reach out

I’ve been privileged to work in nine countries over two decades before I came to Australia with ANZ.

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I found cultural differences and nuances in each of the nine countries, and Australia was no different.

"The leading for change report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, showed only 1.6 per cent of CEOs and 3.3 per cent of C-suite executives have an Asian cultural background.”

Speaking recently to the Asian Leadership Project, I was reminded of the challenges many people like me, from an Asian cultural background face when moving to different cultural environments as they seek to progress their careers.

The so-called ‘bamboo ceiling’ can contribute to the challenges many Asians face in their careers, according to the Asian Leadership Project’s Chief Executive Officer and founder, Julie Chai. A term coined by Jane Hyun in 2005, the bamboo ceiling is defined as a combination of individual, cultural and organisational factors that impede Asians career progress inside organisations.

“While Asian stereotypes and assumptions, eastern vs westernised leadership styles and cultural accents remain as barriers to leadership, as the trusted specialist Cultural Diversity partner to nearly 20 organisations, I am encouraged to see this sophisticated understanding and increased commitment to addressing the bamboo ceiling grow over the last seven years,” Julie says.

Asian Leadership Project

Founded by Julie Chai in 2017, the Asian Leadership Project aims to fast-track Asian talent into leadership positions through building a strong networking community where Asian talent can belong, are connected and supported via ongoing professional and career development opportunities.

The leading for change report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, showed only 1.6 per cent of CEOs and 3.3 per cent of C-suite executives have an Asian cultural background.

“This is despite those with an Asian cultural background making up about 17 per cent of the nation’s population, according to the latest census,” Julie says.

While I am in the minority holding the role of Chief Financial Officer for one of Australia’s big four banks, these figures are alarming and I believe organisations have a great opportunity to achieve business growth through culturally sensitive inclusion and diversity practices.

Add value

I have been fortunate to have worked the bulk of my career in organisations that value cultural diversity. Each place I have worked, I always felt a strong and evolving commitment to diversity and inclusion.

This is particularly true of ANZ. I’ve always felt at an enterprise-level this bank ascribes significant value to having a diverse range of voices around the table. I personally believe it’s a big part of why it’s such a positive place to work.

Working globally has provided me more breadth in leadership and understanding on how to build relationships and interact with people.

There is absolutely no question that growing up in an Asian culture – and it doesn't matter whether you're from East Asia or South Asia or North Asia – there’s an inherent cultural bias towards respecting hierarchy. This can mean taking a back seat and not sharing your thoughts freely to more senior members of the workplace.

When I reflect on my own experience, I realise working in many different cultures has helped me develop the confidence to speak up and has given me license to be challenging, to be more open about my thoughts and opinions. But I recognise this is not everyone’s experience.

Julie agrees: “Quite often Asian talent are modest and humble about their achievements. So the importance of ally colleagues to acknowledge and celebrate this can be critical to their careers, for example to secure a promotion.”

Asking the question

One of the things I do as a leader is use forums and meetings to encourage people to contribute. In particular those who remain quiet or refrain from sharing their thoughts for whatever reason. When people share their views, you see real value from the diversity around the table.

Leaders have an important role to play in helping bring out differing perspectives and diversity of thought - and they should make a real effort to do so.

Julie believes where leaders and team members observe Asian talent displaying cultural respect for authority, for example being less likely to push back or speak up about issues, leaders can help create a safe space and supportive team environment before, during and after meetings.

“The full participation of diverse voices at every decision-making table results in better business outcomes through improved employee well-being, problem solving, performance and innovation,” she says.

Reach out

How should organisations strive for change?

Some things can be formalised, like having a dedicated mentor program for young aspiring Asian Australians. Such programs are important in helping provide a structured approach for Asians looking to develop their careers.

While some companies do that, it’s not common practice. That shouldn’t stop people from being proactive and seeking out career support.

Regardless of the approach an employer might take, there are many things people can do themselves to make a positive change in their career. You must be adaptable to your environment.

This will be different from place to place – you may have to adapt to different situations if you are in New Zealand compared to somewhere in Europe.

But some qualities transcend different environments. Namely:

  • Be curious – always be learning and accept you may not be the smartest person in the room
  • Become comfortable dealing with complexity and ambiguity – you will find this everywhere and navigating it successfully will become a valuable skill
  • Don’t fixate on money and titles – focus on learning and the challenge of a new role. Identify what invigorates you and seek that out
  • Don't be afraid to walk away from situations you think are toxic and, if you need help, seek it out. You know better than anyone the particular support or advice you need

If you want a mentor, reach out to people in your organisation or network who you believe think like you and can give you the support or guidance you are looking for. Even better if it’s someone who understands your strengths and weaknesses and can help you identify how to make an impact in your role and for your organisation.

If you’ve been approached to be a mentor, remember proactive sponsorship through backing talent, clearing the path forward and being available for support is critical in helping someone set up for success.

Many people who reach out to me look like me. Maybe they feel it’s a safe space because we have a common background.

So if you are considering working with a mentor, reach out to whoever you feel is a safe space and have a conversation with them. Ask for their support, their mentorship and their guidance. Explain why you are asking them and what you need from them.

Julie agrees, being proactive in your career development and networking is fundamental to your personal and professional growth.

Farhan Faruqui is Chief Financial Officer at ANZ

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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