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Why corporates should take leadership on social issues

One of the top international accounting firms hosts a networking event to facilitate a graduate mentoring program that supports aspiring LGBTI business professionals. The world’s strongest global law firm brand facilitates a panel discussion on how to progress marriage equality in Australia. A big four bank runs a major advertising campaign to address the gender salary gap and advocates equal pay for women. A major telco (along with another two major banks) introduces a hijab in company colours as part of their corporate uniform.

Why should the likes of EY, Baker & McKenzie, ANZ and Optus care about social issues? Plenty has been written about why a social conscience makes good business sense. You only have to look at the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or Diversity and Inclusion policies of any these leading organisations to see they’ve taken a strong proactive stance. EY, for example, says, “Our focus on diversity and inclusiveness is integral to how we serve our clients, develop our people and play a leadership role in our communities. When we act on our commitment to diversity and inclusiveness, we maximise the power of our differences to achieve better business results, for ourselves and for our clients.”

It’s not just clever marketing. While there’s some risk for brands associating with politically sensitive subjects, the risk is far greater for organisations who shy away from taking the initiative on important issues. It is proven that organisations who show leadership on social issues:

  • Improve their public perception and increase their public profile
  • Attract, engage and retain the best employees
  • Appeal to a wider customer base and enjoy better relationships with customers

Professionals in private employment make up a significant proportion of the workforce. Our products and services have the potential to reach customers across the entire population. While arguably our views are represented at various levels of government by those representatives we’ve elected, I firmly believe there is an onus in the corporate sector to lead conversations that will shape the kind of world we’d like to work in, and live in.

What evidence have you seen of the commercial and social benefits of your organisation’s approach to corporate social responsibility? How has your organisation demonstrated leadership on a social issue or positively represented your Point of View?

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Teaching our students, schools and the Universities how to adapt with change

Have we made any progress in understanding the needs of graduates?

A growing development across the University sector has been the search for leaders who have the vision for an improved learning experience for students. From the start of their entry into university, through to graduation and beyond, there is finally a push for a greater understanding and acceptance of the importance of experiential learning within courses, for all students. This might be through effective internships and industry placements; we are now seeing many faculties and whole Universities searching for leaders who can develop and guide such programs.

Schools have recognised the benefits of a transdisciplinary approach, educating students across traditional faculty boundaries with what is known as project-based learning – learning that is based on real-world experiences. This education model encourages curiosity and creativity, while developing communication abilities.

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, wrote an opinion piece in The Australian recently, suggesting that it is time society recognised “it is not a failure to progress to a job that has no obvious link to one’s degree”. Finkel said that it was our “capacity to pivot” that was probably the most reliable predictor of success in career development. Finkel described how he had successfully ‘pivoted’ professionally from one opportunity to the next on several occasions through his career. It was made possible through the mastery of multiple disciplines and drew on experience that went way beyond traditional industry sector boundaries.

Two leading school Principals, Allan Shaw at The Knox School in Melbourne, and Dr Paul Browning of St Paul’s School in Brisbane, have written about programs for entrepreneurial skills and business enterprise developed in their schools. These initiatives, and the practical skills students gain, extend well beyond the boundaries of a traditional discipline or subject area.

As Allan Shaw has reflected, the deep knowledge in a discipline developed through university education remains a significant component for career success. Nevertheless, it is increasingly being understood that there is so much more that is necessary to equip students with the skills for an ever changing future: complex problem-solving ability, critical thinking, communications skills, teamwork, people management and good decision-making are some of the key competencies.

Times are a-changin’ and the ability to pivot (ie. adapt to change) is increasingly important, not only for individuals, but for institutions as well.

Have you pivoted between industries or sector specialisations or adapted your technical skills to a different role during your career? What programs have you been involved with to address change in your world @work?

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A man’s world would be nothing without a woman or a girl

Celebrated journalist and high profile media personality Caroline Wilson says, “Sometimes it’s an asset not being part of the boy’s club.”

Last week I ventured out on a bleak, cold Melbourne night to Deakin Edge at Federation Square to hear Wilson talk about Tackling the Sport of Men. Unsurprisingly, the auditorium was packed. In light of recent comments from those water challenge incident commentators, Collingwood FC President Eddie McGuire, his Triple M co-hosts James Brayshaw and Danny Frawley, and Footy Show presenter Sam Newman, Wilson’s appearance at the David Parkin Oration for Sport and Social Change was highly anticipated…the event was booked out!

Hearing Wilson recall the old days of the AFL in the 1980s (then known as the VFL) when she was the first woman to cover footy full time as a young reporter (now almost 35 years ago), reminded me of my time as a player. Wilson describes the environment at the time as “a bastion of masculinity” – a sport for men, run by men, reported on by men, where what happened on the field stayed on the field. Sounds about right.

Speaking about her career as a sports journalist, Wilson noted she’d covered athletics, golf, even three Olympics, but was unaware her appointment by a maverick editor at The Herald would be controversial. It’s one that paid off, which would see her become Chief Football Writer at The Age, as well as many other newspaper, TV, radio and current affairs gigs and recognition though multiple Walkley Awards.

If sending a young female reporter to cover the footy was, in Wilson’s words, a “social experiment”, she certainly challenged it. Undeterred by being marched out of the players’ change rooms, being mistaken for a waitress back of house or seated with footballer’s wives at events, Wilson not only wrote about the game, but had a hand in changing attitudes. She says she learned more from the women in football who gave her the best stories, sharing their insights and analysis when none of the men were listening.

Wilson has paved the way for other women in the sports media and can now cite many more female colleagues reporting the game: Sam Lane, Chloe Saltau, Emma Quayle and Linda Pearce. She’s seen a slow changing of the guard over her time in football, culminating in the advent of the AFL Women’s League, to premiere next year. Wilson spruiked a genuine possibility that the next AFL Chair could be a woman. In a global context, she highlighted opportunities for women in critical leadership positions – Theresa May post Brexit and I’d wager Clinton over Trump.

As David Parkin reminded us, sport has a unique ability to cross barriers, influence communities and be a positive agent for change. Over the course of its evolution from a part-time localised sporting competition to a national league of full-time elite athletes, the AFL has also helped increase awareness and change attitudes on a range of social issues, such as violence against women, mental illness, same-sex marriage and diversity.

The business landscape in Australia has similarly undergone significant change over the past three decades. It would have been hard for me to imagine what the AFL would look like today as young recruit at Fitzroy in the 1980s. I’ve found being open to awareness, developing an understanding and mindfulness is a great start.

What mechanisms for change have you engaged in your world @work?

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4 ways an Olympic triumph translates into success at work

It’s a simple formula for athletes in elite sports: focus, preparation, practice and teamwork. Recently I attended a lunch with the Victorian Chamber featuring Australian Olympians Michael Klim, Nicole Livingstone, James Tomkins and Craig Mottram. For them, achieving a lifelong dream by representing Australia and competing at the Olympic Games was secondary to their gold medal winning performances. But the most interesting part of their stories was how they had found new passions post retirement outside of the sporting arena.

  1. Preparation and process

It is very important to keep an unwavering attention to detail during a time of high stress and pressure. Klim spoke of the 1998 Olympics in Atlanta, where he was favourite for the 200m freestyle event. He missed the bus on the way to the pool, couldn’t find his coach and was only able to complete a brief warm up swim – he didn’t qualify for the final. In business, it’s critically important during stressful times that we stick to our defined processes, don’t rush hires or deviate from the norm just to fill a gap.

  1. Challenge and stretch

Tomkins mentioned that he and the other members of the Oarsome Foursome constantly challenged each other to come up with new, innovative ideas that could separate them from the challengers. However it wasn’t up to the athletes alone. They challenged their coach, nutritionist and psychologist to always come up with new ideas. Sometimes all it takes is a fresh set of eyes on a project to change the delivery model, reworking a central piece to pull together all the essential elements of a project. Businesses shouldn’t be afraid to hire from outside their sector or industry if a candidate has an open mind. New talent may give your organisation a ‘shakeup’, offering innovative solutions with the potential to benefit all teams.

  1. Don’t settle

So what happens when you’ve realised the dream and the celebrations are over? Since hanging up his togs, Klim has created the men’s skincare range Milk (a clever anagram of his name) with his family company, Milk & Co. Livingstone has enjoyed a media career as a well-known television host and sports commentator. Mottram recently completed the London Marathon (the competitive bug still bites) and has started his own consultancy business, Elite Wellbeing. Tomkins has worked for nearly 30 years in Banking & Finance, a career he maintained alongside rowing.

  1. Conscientiousness beats lucky

We can all relate to thrill of a win or the inherent disappointment when we fail to reach our goals. Livingstone says athletes make good recruits because they are by nature hardworking, dedicated and committed. I think you’d agree those are common leadership traits too. It’s a buoyant time in the Victorian infrastructure market, so I’m championing the lessons of these Olympians in my approach to executive recruitment.

What have you learned from successful people in your industry? Do you have a success story you’d like to share?

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Posted in Slade Executive, The world @work

Tough nut or fair, but firm?

I’m often accused of being a ‘tough nut’. I think I’m firm but fair. I’m frustrated by underperformers, people missing targets and sloppy work practices. Sometimes I feel I’m painted as some sort of ogre, and now finally, I know why. Apparently, nearly 50% of Australian organisations feel that ‘close enough is good enough’.

The Study of Australian Leadership by the Centre for Workplace Leadership at the University of Melbourne and funded by the Commonwealth Department of Employment paints a rather grim picture of our workplaces, particularly the rigour we apply to measuring and meeting performance targets. It reads as though the world @work in Australia could do with a rocket up the interior.

With one in three businesses not giving employees any key performance indicators to do their job, is it any surprise that as a nation we’re slipping in performance outcomes?

Let me pose some of the questions that arose from this study.

Do you have Key Performance Indicators for every person in every role in your organisation? Are those KPIs being measured? And are those people in those roles (remember, they’re our most valuable assets), being managed and developed to meet their KPIs?

Are you providing all the leadership and management training your future senior executives need to become brilliant leaders? Or are you hoping that because they’re good in the job they currently fill, they’ll be great a step or two up?

And can we also find better ways to spend the $56 billion a year, the estimated waste in completing non-essential administrative tasks? How often are conventions retained because ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’?

I’m finally having my day in the sun. Close enough is not good enough.

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Our prized skills in education are an export opportunity

The announcement of the world’s biggest education prize, worth more than $A12 million, offered by a Chinese tech billionaire, is symbolic of the surging wave of education for next gen China.

Working with a group of schools myself in China recently, I have seen firsthand there’s a great desire for change. Support for a broadening of the educational curriculum, processes and pedagogy to embrace such change has been furthered by a serious degree of investment growth in education both from the public and private sectors, parents and students themselves.

The Yidan Prize, named after its initiator, Charles Chen Yidan, will recognise outstanding individuals, such as teachers, or teams of people working in education, providing them with substantial investment to fund their projects. According to the Times Educational Supplement, the award aims to become the Nobel Prize for education. Yidan says one of the aims for the prize is to support “agents of change” in education.

The Chinese desire to bring big ideas to education is obvious. Encouraging creativity and innovation amongst students as well as the teaching profession broadly reflects their desire to be internationally competitive. Too often elsewhere, pressure to maintain high scores in assessments such as PISA tests (the OCED’s international tests in Maths, Science and Reading) are often seen at odds with the pursuit of creativity and imaginative thinking. Interestingly, PISA tests are soon to include “global skills” and cultural awareness for their next round of tests in 2018. Considering that in many parts of China, the results in those PISA scores are 30 per cent higher than those of Australian children in the same age group, there’s much our two countries could learn from each other.

On my recent visit to Beijing, Chongqing and Hong Kong, I saw wonderful opportunities for Australian educators and all others with specialist abilities associated with education. Working overseas for a period of time in any profession is an opportunity to gain experiences that shape and enhance your world view, with flow-on benefits to the development of your industry, both locally and abroad. But it’s not only our teachers who can realise these opportunities. In the education sector in China, associated technical professionals such as the architects who design school buildings and the engineers who construct them are also keenly sought after.

Australian investment in China and other rapidly developing nations in South East Asia means we are well placed to help lead innovation and drive ongoing change. Education is one area where we enjoy a high reputation internationally, with a strong track record in teaching and learning, as well as a growing export market for our skills and experience in the field.

What opportunities have you seen in the domestic or global market for your organisation that could advocate for positive change?

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Posted in Slade Executive, The world @work

What did Ita say? And what’s it got to do with anemones?

I love science, I love sea anemones and I know exactly why I am doing a PhD. I want to make a difference with my work. My beautiful friend Carly has Multiple Sclerosis, as does the irreverent comedian Tim Ferguson. They are my inspiration every day. So when the going gets tough and self-doubt creeps in, I remind myself of what Ita said as I head back into the lab and embrace every obstacle as something I just have to get around.

After nearly 10 years with Slade Group, this is my swan song blog as I leave the corporate world to pursue my PhD. But before I launch into my niche area of research, let me tell you what Ita said.

Back in March, I attended a lunch in Lismore where celebrated publisher Ita Buttrose was the guest speaker. We all know her as a successful businesswoman with an extensive media career and an Australian household name. And if the TV series Paper Giants is anything to go by, she has had a pretty tough fight to get to the top of her game.

Personally, I have never been one for taking the easy path either. In my younger years I was computer programmer, well before the information technology industry became what it is now, when even the word IT was brand new. Males certainly outnumbered females in IT in those days.

But back to Ita. She spoke about a range of achievements for women over the past few decades, including women in science. You can watch a short video of her speech from the event. I was captivated by her talk and I had a very specific question for her, which I was thrilled she took the time to answer.

My question: “I assume you had to fight every day to march to the beat of your own drum. Did you ever want to give up? How did you keep yourself motivated in your moments of self-doubt?”

Buttrose replied, “I asked myself why am I here?

Of course she knew exactly why she was there.  But it was not simply passion and determination that took her to the top, she says she loved every one of her jobs. As Editor in Chief of Cleo magazine, The Australian Women’s Weekly and the Daily Telegraph she constantly told herself, “I deserve to be here and I have every right to be here. I choose to work in this jungle.” As to the numerous obstacles she overcame on her career journey from copy girl to be the first female editor of a major metropolitan newspaper in Australia, Buttrose was emphatic in her approach. “I will just find my way around any obstacles,” she said.

So what has all that got to do with my sea change, studying marine biology? It’s another field, as with the Sciences in general, where a lack of female representation is apparent. On completing a Master of Applied Science by Research, I found my current bent as a taxonomist (specialist biologist, no relation to taxation or economist). I am currently completing a Doctorate in the field of Medicinal Chemistry studying sea anemone venoms for use in pharmaceuticals, with practical applications to treat autoimmune diseases such as MS. If that sounds like a lot of hard work, it is and I love it!

Pharmaceutical research is also highly competitive, as is access to funding. There are only about 15 specialists in my field in the entire world and I’m now one of that exclusive cohort. While it’s not unusual for PhD students to question the value of their pursuits, without a chemistry background, or any prior knowledge genetics, I’ve also had to find my way in a completely new network of people where everyone was an unknown. I certainly know something about the challenges faced when following a less-traditional career path.

That’s why Ita’s talk was exactly what I needed to hear. I thanked Ita Buttrose afterwards for her answer. One-to-one she asked me if I had self-doubts? “Every day!” I said. She reinforced her advice to believe in myself. I have every right to be where I am.

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Breaking good with RJ Mitte, Alan Joyce and Andrew Parker

RJ Mitte and I have a few things in common, but I think he’d say we’re both genetically blessed. While I’m certainly not bold enough to compare looks with someone who has modelled for Vivienne Westwood, like many otherwise ordinary people, we both fit into groups characterised by our diversity. The most obvious one is like RJ, I haven’t seen many episodes of Breaking Bad, the drama series he’s best known for as an actor.

When RJ Mitte shared his experience of Overcoming Adversity for the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas in Melbourne late last year, he credited living with cerebral palsy as a catalyst for his successful career. Speaking confidently about yourself in front of an unknown audience, unscripted, for close to an hour is an achievement for anyone. For someone with mobility and language difficulties, it’s a major accomplishment.

Growing up, RJ had to learn to walk, endure years of physiotherapy, deal with bullying and discrimination, and fight to live independently. He channeled the energy required to do the things most of us take for granted, to do more. While a successful acting career is a pipe dream for many able bodied people, being pigeonholed amongst a minority group of disabled actors only made him more determined. RJ says, “A disability is knowledge and power. It’s an opportunity to see things through a different light.”

Now a powerful voice for equality and diversity in the workplace and broader community, RJ seeks to empower others through his involvement as a union advocate for actors with disabilities in Hollywood and as a celebrity ambassador for United Cerebral Palsy. RJ is also is passionate about raising awareness about bullying and victimisation in schools, a subject close to heart. “You never get out of high school,” he says, “people are always trying to push you in another direction.”

Locally it’s encouraging to see high profile organisations showing leadership on diversity and inclusion. Speaking at a CEO breakfast on marriage equality last year, QANTAS CEO Alan Joyce summed up The Spirit of Australia: “We see ourselves as representing the Australian community. We have over 250 different nationalities working for us, 50 languages spoken. We’ve got a huge, diverse workplace of 28,000 people and we have a huge gay community in our workforce. We want all of our people who come to work every day to feel equal, to feel like they can contribute equally in the organisation and in the country.”

In an article by Human Capital, MI5 head Andrew Parker recently agreed: “Diversity is vital… not just because it’s right that we represent the communities we serve, but because we rely on the skills of the most talented people whoever they are, and wherever they may be.” In the 2015 Australian Workplace Equality Index (AWEI), published by Pride in Diversity, sponsor Goldman Sachs states: “Our greatest asset is what makes us different.” For those of us involved in making hiring decisions that will affect future wins for our businesses or recruiting for others, it should be a core value to strive for.

If you’re wondering what you can do to make your workplace a better place, here are 5 tips based on RJ Mitte’s talk that you can apply within a professional context.

  • Language matters – think about the words you use to describe people, especially those that you may perceive as different, and consider how you would like to be referred to by others
  • Listen to and share the experiences of others – sharing stories with colleagues, rather talking about them, helps break down communication barriers
  • Promote networking opportunities that support diversity – RJ laments few disabled actors have the opportunity to play disabled characters, but workplaces (particularly large organisations) have scope to support employee diversity though professional networks
  • People from diverse groups make up a significant part of the workforce – We did a team building exercise on diversity in our office and there wasn’t one person who didn’t identify with at least one diversity demographic
  • Challenge your perception – Instead of approaching diversity as something other, take the initiative to get involved and be inclusive by showing leadership
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