Business Brain: Leadership and cultural diversity

Business Brain is a think tank we’ve been running for the past two years where we discuss and explore topics on leadership, diversity, performance and neuroscience. Roundtable events take place regularly in London and New York but last month saw the inaugural Business Brain event in Sydney, Australia.

Attended by those in financial services, our guest speaker Dai Le, a well-known former ABC journalist, filmmaker and aspiring politician, explored challenges people from culturally diverse backgrounds face in progressing their leadership positions in public and private organisations in Australia.

Dai is the founder of DAWN, a boutique agency that advocates and partners with organisations who are committed to building “diverse and inclusive leadership” and who recognise the social and economic benefits of diversity of thought, perspective and experiences.

With their first-hand experience of working and navigating organisations by progressing their leadership aspirations, the team at DAWN have personal insights into the nuances, issues, and challenges faced by both the individuals and the businesses in implementing effective initiatives to eliminate barriers – personal and systematic.

Through its series of leadership workshops, DAWN aims to provide a nurturing environment for those in both the public and private sector to reflect, discuss and debate diversity and leadership.

“Our culturally diverse population is drawn from more than 300 ancestries and is visible in everyday life. Yet this is not reflected in the leadership circles of many major institutions in our nation,” Dai explained.

Diverse workforce makes for better decision-making

Dai is a firm believer in the huge pool of untapped talent waiting to be harnessed and the positive contributions a diverse workforce can bring to companies.

This is echoed in the remarks made by Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, during his speech at the University of Sydney Business School in 2016 when he stated that “a diverse workforce makes for better decision-making”.

His analysis is based on work by the Diversity Council Australia and a study led by him which included PwC Australia, Telstra, University of Sydney Business School, The Working Group on Cultural Diversity and Inclusive Leadership and the Australian Human Rights Commission.

What they found among the 201 chief executives of ASX 200 companies:

  • 77% of CEOs have Anglo-Celtic and European backgrounds
  • 18% have a European background
  • Only 5% have non-European background
  • 0% have indigenous backgrounds

Dr Soutphommasane also referred to a study by McKinsey of 366 companies in the UK, Canada, US and Latin America which found that “companies in the top quartile of cultural diversity were 35% more likely to have financial returns above the national industry median”.

“Research work by the Human Rights Commission and McKinsey Research give an indication of the lack of visible diversity in leadership across Australia’s mainstream institutions. We need to look at why we have this lack of diversity in leadership – is it an individual’s choice, or is it system-based, or both?” Dai added.

Dr Soutphommasane also explained the importance of companies putting effort into cultural diversity. “In the first place, leaders must communicate that cultural diversity isn’t a matter of second-order importance. This is an obstacle I’ve observed a number of ways. For example, it is sometimes assumed that action on cultural diversity may need to wait until organizations complete their gender equality efforts.”

From DAWN’s perspective, demographics is just one factor to consider when identifying the lack of diversity in leadership. While it’s a good starting point to have a discussion and explore the issues around diversity and inclusion, what they are trying to achieve via DAWN Conversations, is to get a genuine conversation started between the talent within the organisation and the senior leadership team.

Dai explains: “The conversation is about bringing the ‘uncomfortableness’ of diversity and inclusion to the table, and allowing people to share their personal stories, experiences, and what, in their opinion, are the reasons for the barriers to progression. The conversations also provide opportunities for the leadership team to critically examine how they have set the organisational culture and whether they have made the workplace safe enough for people to speak up and feel a sense of belonging.”

DAWN is aspiring to help individuals and organisations achieve true diversity and inclusion through empowering individuals to realise their potential and implementing system changes to harness such potential.

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