March 19, 2014
Productivity and ‘high performance’ are key buzzwords in today’s economy. Businesses and organisations must extract the optimal output from limited resources and achieve more for less. We also have an aging population, and are entering an era of skills shortage and the global ‘war for talent’.
One of the more underestimated areas of capacity in our economy is the capacity to better leverage the cultural diversity of our population, the upside of migration, and the benefits associated with our location in the fastest growing economic region in the world.
All too often cultural diversity in Australia is perceived to involve ‘being nice to people from different cultures’, ‘chopsticks and manners’ or ‘overcoming barriers such as language’. To define diversity in such terms is to radically misunderstand our place in the world, our population and our economic future. While it is critical to treat people with respect, such paternalistic attitudes demean the contribution of migrants and demonstrate a lack of understanding of the sophistication of skills and global knowledge of many who come to Australia seeking a better life for themselves and their families. As so clearly stated by Frank Lowy, and Rupert Murdoch in their recent lectures, migrants make an economic contribution which far outweighs any costs which may be incurred by the state in their arrival.
We are a diverse nation. 25% of Australians were born overseas. To understand diversity is to understand and service the Australian market.
In our work with ASX 200 listed and multinational companies, we frequently see leaders struggling to negotiate the complexity of operating in emerging markets. We see managers challenged by creating inclusive and functioning team cultures when staff come from enormously diverse cultural backgrounds.
Research by Asialink business shows, less than 40% of Board members and less than 50% of senior executives in leading Australian companies have any experience in Asia. Yet nearly 10% of Australians have Asian cultural heritage, and Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in Australia other than English. Clearly, the diversity of our population is not being reflected at senior leadership levels.
Many organisations initially attempt to achieve ‘the numbers’ of diversity without recognising it’s a process of organisational change. What’s the point of hiring senior talent from Singapore with high-level networks if that individual isn’t taken seriously in the Board room due to their lack of ‘local experience’ or capacity to talk about rugby results?
Going global requires reflection on the supposed universalism of communication processes at leadership levels. The capacity to communicate with people who have different notions of rapport building, and to believe in the validity of anothers’ perspective without a shared sporting code or cultural approach to humour is critical.
Research, and experience tells us, that diverse teams can be more productive, more creative and more innovative than mono-cultural teams. However, such benefits are only realised if teams can tap into the diversity dividend. This means ensuring all team members are able to fully participate, engage and share perspectives, opinions and maintain a sense of their authentic self at work.
The capacity for leaders of diverse teams to create an inclusive and participatory high-performance culture is critical. Key skills include: structuring meetings in such a way that all people feel confident and capable of contributing; creating a shared sense of vision and direction; enabling feedback on what’s working and what’s not; and most importantly, ensuring delivery and performance is not negotiable.
Recently, when I spoke at the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia Conference with Peter Scanlon on a panel session on productive diversity, I was struck by the lack of business participation in the forum. It’s time for our business sector to realise that effective diversity management is effective business management and a strategic investment in productivity outcomes.
Diversity is the key to our economic future and a significant contributor to enable a creative, innovative and growing economy.
It’s time for our leaders to lift their game. Diversity management is about productivity and effectiveness in a globally interdependent economy. It’s about focusing on what matters to build a shared sense of vision to unite rather than divide. It’s about building capability to engage with, understand and negotiate complexity, ambiguity and the cultures of our region.
Our economic and business future depends on it.