July 10, 2019
Source: Australian Financial Review
Author: Su-Lin Tan and Sally Patten
10 July, 2019
Cultural diversity in corporate leadership remains virtually non-existent, despite attempts by industry groups and statutory bodies to lift the bar.
But those fighting against cultural stereotypes and unconscious bias should see it as an opportunity rather than a handicap, according to former Gresham managing director Nick Goh.
“There can be a real mental challenge in being in an environment where you think you are at a disadvantage, but you can play to your strengths, and many strengths come from your cultural background,” said Mr Goh, who is now at private lender Bass Capital.
“Pick a team you really want to be on…do you really want to be on a team that doesn’t accept diversity or unique qualities? Don’t be a whinger, take it on the chin.”
Only 3 per cent of chief executives and 5.1 per cent of overall senior executives have a non-European background or Indigenous background, according to a 2018 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, University of Sydney, Asia Society Australia and Committee for Sydney.
One of Labor’s most respected foreign policy figures Gareth Evans called out the “bamboo ceiling” in two public speeches this year.
Adelaide-born Mr Goh, whose father is Singaporean Chinese, urged employers to “have a go” at introducing and accepting differences, noting that this approach had improved the performance of Bass Capital.
He opted out of large corporates to join boutique investment firms Gresham and Wingate, where he became managing director and head of asset finance respectively.
“I found two terrific Australian organisations, which were both supportive and meritorious,” he said.
He credited the current landscape as being far more culturally inclusive than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, and asked newcomers not to rashly attribute their difficulties to a “ceiling”.
“Some factors may seem exclusionary, but really aren’t. For example, it is human nature, not racism, that people like to surround themselves with people with similar backgrounds or experiences,” Mr Goh said. The key was to persevere, he said.
Chinese-born Lester Liu has run out of perseverance. After calling Newcastle, NSW, home for the past seven years while he completed a PhD in industrial relations, he is returning to China.
Mr Liu said he had been turned down by private companies and universities despite changing his CV many times to accommodate a Western format.
He used his English name instead of his original Chinese name of Liu Ziyuan because he was told many employers discard CVs with traditional Chinese names.
‘You have to learn to have an opinion’
He altered his hobbies from “studying, reading and the internet”, which he thought sounded nerdy, to “sports and socialising”.
“The thing is, the ruling core or the decision makers are not necessarily an Anglo club, but they are an Anglo-like club. To be in this club you don’t need to be Anglo but you need to look and act Anglo, which includes things like over-talking,” he said.
For the softly spoken Mr Liu, “over-talking”, or brash self-promotion, didn’t appeal.
However, Mr Goh believed Mr Liu’s “nerdy” hobbies of “studying, reading and the internet” might be the thing companies needed.
“Being the captain of the university football team may show you are true leadership material, but does being the captain of the chess club mean you are a nerd or loner?” he said.
“It actually means you can think many moves ahead and have a highly strategic way of thinking. What is more important to run a successful organisation?
“Inclusion, taking a risk and having a go is a part of what makes Australia great. What is the rest of corporate Australia waiting for?”
Chief executive of online broking firm Bell Direct, Arnie Selvarajah, whose family emigrated from Malaysia when he was 15, joined the basketball team at school, which helped him assimilate.
But sports alone wouldn’t break the “ceiling” and speaking up and forming an opinion were also important, he added.
“You can’t use [an Asian] background as an excuse. You have got to respond to the environment you find yourself in and to influence the outcome. You have to learn to have an opinion and express it,” he said.
“You can change [your adopted country] little by little and you can expose people to different ways of thinking, but you can’t step into a new country and change it,” he said.