The Diversity Dividend – Getting with the Program!

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’.

Screen shot 2014-03-19 at 11.11.40 AMOne 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.

Getting Diversity Right – It’s not just about the numbers

So often, the focus of ‘getting diversity right’ is about the numbers. Yet, we often forget that it’s not just the numbers which matter – it’s the interaction, collaboration and capacity to engage and achieve results among people from diverse backgrounds which matters.

Ian Dalton, Kirrilee Hughes and I at our session

I presented a session yesterday at the Australian International Education Conference, and was fortunate to attend another session on ‘Internationalising the Curriculum’. The conversation was vibrant, and highlighted the risk of just focusing on ‘the numbers’ to demonstrate internationalisation. It’s all too common to have huge numbers of international students from all over the world attending Australian universities, who can complete an entire degree with little or no interaction with fellow local students. The challenge with an internationally diverse group is to ensure we don’t end up with a ‘classroom of tribes’ where the Indian students sit together, the locals from the private school who know each other sit together, the Chinese from Hong Kong are at another table and also separate from the Mainland Chinese, with little or no interaction between groups. In such an ‘international’ classroom, global mobility does little to expand intercultural engagement or understanding, and can actually reinforce stereotypes of other groups.

One of the key challenges of getting diversity right, is to enable and facilitate the expansion of interactions beyond one’s own comfort zone and in-group. It’s not enough to simply reach ‘the numbers’ and assume internationalisation has therefore occurred. Intercultural learning, collaboration and engagement is a process of learning, reflection and challenging of stereotypes and assumptions. Intercultural capability requires the capacity to engage with others, to understand their world-view and perspective, and to demonstrate the behavioural flexibility to negotiate differences and find common-ground. These skills are the ones which make the difference whether working in international business, or with people from diverse backgrounds at home.

Hosting events for HE Yingluck Shinawatra Prime Minister of Thailand

What a week! As National President of the Australia Thailand Business Council, I was involved in many of the events regarding the visit of HE Yingluck Shinawatra, Prime Minister of Thailand. It all kicked off with a media interview with ABC and progressed to lunch at Parliament House.  Julia Gillard was hosting, it was great to see two women leaders for a change, and equally great to see so many friends in the Australia-Thailand relationship in one place.

Next stop was Canberra airport – nearly didn’t make it back to co-host the dinner with Jennie Lang from the Asia Society.  Our plane had a broken propeller and we were all disembarked.  A highly surreal moment on the tarmac, calling the Thai delegation to see if we could get a ride on the PM’s plane, only to discover we wouldn’t make it, and chatting to the US Ambassador and other business and government reps about plan B.  Fortunately Qantas came through and the next flight was ok, a dear client provided an express lift straight to the hotel and made it with 5 mins to spare.


The dinner was a whirlwind, HE Yingluck is a dynamo, and was keen to meet lots of representatives of the Thai -Australia Business relationship.  The PM was accompanied by 70 leading Thai business people and four senior ministers, and it was a delight to meet so many strong advocates of collaboration.

On Tuesday,  I was MC for the BOI ‘Unbeatable Thailand Seminar’ with the Thai Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Secretary General of the Thailand Board of Investment and some great speakers from business and the National Economic and Social Development Board.  Some fabulous case studies on the restructuring of Australian businesses to make the most of the ‘Asian Century’ and better position themselves to thrive in the changing economic context.  The study of the Australian Business experience in Thailand presented by John Andersen, President of AustCham Thailand was also striking for its positive outlook.

Thailand invests nearly $5 bn in Australia and we invest only $1.9 billion in reverse.  Thailand and Australia have two of the more resilient economies in the world, and it makes sense to further develop opportunities in a Southeast Asian region destined for significant future growth.  The economic turmoil and declining markets of the past day heighten the importance of focusing on our own region and the opportunities provided there.  I am looking forward to hosting a Boardroom lunch tomorrow with Asialink in Melbourne at Baker & Mackenzie to hear from Australian Ambassador James Wise regarding his insights and reflections on the visit.

The delicate art of the Aussie insult

Australians…we have a way with words:

behaving like a complete … sl*t or a sanctimonious …nerd”

” like a bunch of (metaphorical) girls – refuses to hold it’s ground”

“…they…do not give a rats”

But where you ask would you find such language?

Why, in an op-ed article in yesterday’s Australian Financial Review, written by Laura Tingle, the AFR Political Editor.  When describing the behaviour of the Rudd Government and their backflip on the Emissions Trading Scheme, Tingle says:

The current government…swings violently between behaving like a complete political sl*t or a sanctimonious policy nerd”

”Labor still panics  like an opposition and like a bunch of (metaphorical) girls – refuses to hold it’s ground”

“the voters, they say, do not give a rats”

As the granddaughter of a publican from Birchip in the Western District of Victoria, I have fond memories of the way Grandpa had a unique way with language.

Favourites of mine were:

Useless as a hat full of a**holes”

with apologies to Esendon supporters, the Bombers were also always known as

“Sheedy’s mongrels”

Insults, creative insults, and the ability to both give and receive them graciously and with humour are an important element of Australian business and political culture. They are also deeply confusing, somewhat shocking to newcomers, and not an art in which one can dabble or be supported in developing skills through trial and error.  It is a delicate and complex process, the appropriate usage of insult, and the nuancing of sarcasm.

I’ll never forget providing cross-cultural coaching for a CEO from the States who had recently relocated to Sydney.  His culture shock was significant, and his responses to this shock, from an Australian perspective equally shocking.  When describing to me his first impressions of the rather large company of which he was to lead, he looked around, closed the door and with a conspiratorial lowering of the voice shared with me that “the women…they even cuss in the office. They even use…(with a pause for impact)…the ‘f’ word”.  He was, admittedly, from the deep South and a committed Christian so the shock was rather more extreme.  The interesting thing was what he did with this information.  His interpretation of the informality and language used in the office was as follows: 1. There was a distinct lack of respect and discipline in the office, 2. This explained some recent poor performance in profitability, and 3. He needed to take responsibility for getting things back on track fast and this would positively impact on business performance. This was not, I suggested, an ideal response to these observations of language usage.  Another client from the UK I was working with this week told me it had taken him more than a year to work out what “Good on ya” meant.   The key challenge being to differentiate between “Good on ya” when delivered with a flat tone, meaning ‘you loser’, from “Good on ya” delivered with a rising inflection, meaning ‘good on you’ or ‘well done’.

So…anyway…’better go now.  ‘Av a good one. Cheers.

Australia’s future in Asia – understanding cross-cultural complexity

Participating in a diverse or global workplace is no longer a choice.  Australia is connected and culturally diverse now, and our economic future is in the Asian region.  Forty five percent of Australians were born overseas or at least one or their parents were.  The fastest growing languages in Australia are Mandarin, Arabic and Hindi.  Our children are growing up in an interconnected world where Asian economies are having increasing influence.

In my business, a large part of our role is educating our clients about the realities of Asia. When we were engaged by Austrade to research Australian perceptions of Asian markets, we found Asia was often seen ‘a traditional yet poverty stricken region which needs Australian ‘help’’, rather than a business destination.  It’s interesting to look at where these perceptions originate. Due to prolific tourism campaigns, Asian cultures are widely seen as ‘traditional’ with highly evolved local crafts and ‘cultural activities’ such as vegetable carving and local dancing.  Another key source of information about Asia is the news which features footage of frequent natural disasters and a risk of terrorism.  The perspectives of Australia one would receive through similar channels may feature the dangers of sharks, spiders, fires and floods, and oversimplified, or images of swagmen, convicts and aboriginal people throwing boomerangs.  Such imagery does not reflect the daily experience of life in Australia, nor in Asian cultures.  The images of Asia we less frequently see are those of people like you and me living their lives, travelling to work on the train (which in many Asian cities is a far more pleasant and reliable experience than in Sydney) and working in a globally connected environment with high speed internet (far higher speeds than we have in Australia). Asia is a key business destination, and many Asian economies are the fastest growing in the world.

Cultural literacy is not only about recognising the surface symbols and visual cues of cultural difference.  Such symbols can readily lead us astray, and we often hear cultural difference being minimised due to the appearance of sameness “Culture is becoming the same everywhere, people drink Starbucks and wear Levi’s”.  To understand cultural difference, one needs to explore: the difference of values, beliefs and world-views; their origins; and the implications for how people act and interact in the world.  For example, for an Australian engineer to be effective when working on an infrastructure project in China, technical skills are not enough.  Cultural literacy will often make the difference between a bridge being built or significant delays being encountered. To enable a bridge to be built, it’s important to be able to lead a cross-cultural team, to negotiate with senior bureaucrats, and to communicate clearly with key project team members.  Such skills are developed through an understanding of the world-view of counterparts, their cultural origins and ideally, local language capabilities.

Cross-cultural collaboration is increasingly complex.  We are being called upon to assist global teams collaborate in a virtual, online environment.  Last year we worked with the leadership team of a large multinational company which involved key team members from more than ten Asian cultures and one Australian office.  When the team came together, we worked with the team to discuss and agree upon shared process, common goals, and behavioural norms. Behavioural flexibility, an awareness of one’s own cultural preferences, and the ability to develop close working relationships with others are essential skills. The Australian team members committed to listen more than they speak, Japanese colleagues committed to share their opinions when asked, Thais committed to share constructive feedback. Cultural ‘awareness’ is not enough. If someone needs to be a good leader, we don’t invest in ‘leadership awareness’ training. Awareness is essential and the first step, skills development follows.  Extensive research shows, individuals who are most effective across cultures have highly developed people skills, empathy, self awareness and a tolerance for ambiguity.  Such skills make us better citizens and fully contributing members of society.  The ability to recognise the strength and validity of diverse perspectives, to negotiate difference and achieve mutually beneficial outcomes are essential skills for a rapidly changing world.  Deep learning about other cultures is a primary avenue of developing such skills.

The issues we face as Australians can not be solved by technical knowledge, or by ourselves.  Global challenges confront us:  the global economic crisis, global warming, and resource scarcity are just a few examples. Australia’s ability to thrive and prosper as a nation is dependent on our ability to collaborate with our neighbours to work toward solutions on shared issues.  Particularly in post-colonial settings, there is a resistance to outsiders ‘telling’ what should be done, or alternatively a passive acceptance of the aid revenue stream.  As has been so strongly proven through the ineffectiveness of so much international aid, technical ‘skills transfer’ and dollars alone do not effectively enable communities. Multilateral agencies such as APEC are rethinking their models of capacity building.  In 2008, we designed a framework for capacity building in APEC, commissioned by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade which focuses on ‘Twinning’.  Twinning is a way of developing partnerships for capacity building.  The most effective capacity building, and development happens through incremental approaches which are tailored to the local context and involve partnerships for mutual benefit.  A good example of such partnerships in the education space is the Asia Education Foundation’s School BRIDGE project.  The project will involve 90 Australian and 90 Indonesian educators from 40 Australian and 40 Indonesian schools.  These educators will work together to develop intercultural understanding, improve professional capacity to support implementation of Internet-based collaborative learning and actively support language learning.

Education in Asian cultures is highly valued, and cross-cultural learning and language skills are recognised as the key to guarantee future employability and economic security.  Hundreds of thousands of Asian students are highly literate in the cultures, and languages of the west and also of their home countries and regions, and will be competing in a global workplace with our children. 543 000 international students were studying in Australia in 2008 (Gillard, cited in The Australian, Guy Healey, Feb 26, 2009).  There are over 300 000 Australian alumni in Malaysia, and over 95 000 Indian students currently studying in Australia.  These students become competent at traversing intercultural spaces, expect to have career paths which involve global mobility, and will be able to draw on their international networks to achieve results.

As mother of two children under four years old, I have a vested interest in contributing to the conversation about our future national curriculum.  I don’t envy the National Curriculum Board their task in such a rapidly changing context.  One thing we can be certain of in these times of change is that the world will be radically different by the time our children graduate.  The ability to navigate difference, to find common ground with people from diverse backgrounds, and to deepen our knowledge of our cultural starting point will stand us in good stead.  I truly hope the Australian education system provides my children with the opportunities to develop key Asia skills and language abilities.  I honestly believe these are the skills which they will need for the future.

By Tamerlaine Beasley
Managing Director of Beasley Intercultural