ADAPT AND SURVIVE: BUSINESS IN THE ASIAN CENTURY
In the Asian Century it’s time to look at the make up of our boards and leadership structures writes Pamela Young.
Australia looks like a multicultural nation on paper, with 47% of 1 our population having at least one parent born overseas. But multiculturalism is clearly not evident at the top levels of government and industry. In Tony Abbott’s new Cabinet, for instance, there is not one person of non-Anglo-Saxon descent and in a review of our top-tier ASX100 companies, only 3% of our business leaders were born in Asia2. With a similar paucity of non-Anglo-Saxon people on the executive teams of most Australian businesses, it has to be said that, while Australia has the multicultural numbers, we are a long way from being a truly diverse society.
Going forward, we need to ask ourselves, ‘Why haven’t many more immigrants who have made Australia their home since WWII featured more prominently as leaders in business, society and government?’ and ‘What implications will our lack of cultural diversity at the top of our organisations have for our future?’
How might we have fared if we had more fully utilised the skills and experience of all the people that now call Australia home?
In the 21st century, as the world continues to globalise and workforce mobility increases, we need to consider our global position. If we continue on our present path, not encouraging and nurturing cultural diversity at the top levels of our organisations, the world will notice. The net effect is likely to dampen our prospects for international trade and limit our growth potential with our closest neighbours in Asia.
How we can move forward? We must adapt to survive. The Australian economy is too small and growth of just 2.5-3% annually is too low to sustain the quality of life to which we have become accustomed.
The obvious solution is to close the ‘cultural gap’ between our island home and Asia, our fast-growing neighbours. In doing so, we face a challenge: many European nations have made earlier and greater commitments to working with Asia and now understand their customs, practices and their languages. They
are significantly more experienced at working cross-culturally than us. While we retain the advantage of proximity, operating in the same time zone, being neighbours alone won’t be enough if we fail to build relationships and communicate without shared meanings.
How do we become competitive in the Asian century? Firstly, we can encourage greater cultural diversity in the workplace in Australia at all levels. This would improve our domestic productivity and performance, and allow us to develop greater skills for operating across Asia. By working alongside people of different cultures, our leaders could deepen their understanding – and develop organisational capability – for working with the many cultures that make up the workforce of our Asian neighbours.
Secondly, we could encourage and reward those who have taken the time to learn the languages that will help us forge new relationships with our Asian neighbours. Sharing languages builds social cohesion, improves cultural understanding and builds respect, cooperation and productivity in the workplace. Language is more than words; it helps us to understanding cultural differences, attitudes and behaviours. As we strengthen our language abilities, relationships with trade partners are more likely to improve.
When I interviewed Australian expatriates working in China for my book, ‘Stepping Up’, they told me that the foreigners who were connecting best with Chinese businesspeople were Russians, Germans and Italians because they spoke Mandarin and were culturally sensitive to the Chinese way of doing things. By contrast, I heard that some Australians operating in China who hadn’t taken the time to learn Mandarin, were considered culturally insensitive or arrogant, especially when they presumed ‘their way was better’.
On the international stage, we stand out as being monolingual and monocultural. We can change both these conditions if we are prepared to invest in our development: to advance our society and culture, we must realise that our project of building a true multicultural society is not yet complete. Australia has come a long way in encouraging and embracing diversity and in learning to embrace the cultures and cuisine of many races. Yet the facts remain. The project isn’t complete. In the top jobs in industry, business and government we don’t have true egalitarian leadership with many races – it’s just a few.
How do we go about investing in the future? There is a broad discussion in ‘Stepping Up’ about how to address the challenges of our island culture, but let me share this extract, which illustrates what we are up against as a nation on the world stage:
“Learning foreign languages to advance the nation’s people is a priority elsewhere:
• In China children get one class of
English tuition each weekday
• 21 of the 31 European countries require students to study another language for at least nine years (and the European Parliament is in favour of pupils learning two foreign languages citing multilingualism as ‘a nations great potential’);
• In Switzerland it is compulsory to learn two foreign languages from age eight: generally three hours per week;
• In Norway, Malta and Luxembourg language learning starts at age six;
• In German-speaking parts of Belgium and Spain they start at the age of three.’
Extract from Stepping Up:
Lead culture change for diversity and growth in the Asian century. The culturally savvy heads of state of these nations have invested in language learning that reflects their local population as it helps to build social cohesion, plus they are investing in languages that will equip them to be internationally competitive.
In contrast, the primary school curriculum in Australian provides only one hour of language learning each week. In Great Britain students only come into contact with another language at the age of 11. And in the USA, students are aged 14 years before they start learning a language!
What are the business costs of not making the change? Countries, cities, industries and businesses that resist building cultural diversity will continue to block growth and opportunity for themselves and their people. The world is moving and if you don’t move ahead of it or with it, you get left behind.
Those who fail to build culturally diverse work groups and embrace Asians and other people who live in Australia are less equipped to recognise the diverse needs of their customers and shareholders. Our culture must be freed to evolve: it is an economic imperative that we allow other cultures to blend into the prevailing national culture and reflect all of Australia.
12011 Census – Australia Bureau of Statistics Generations in Australia. First generation Australians are people living in Australia who were born overseas. This is a diverse group of people including Australian citizens, permanent residents and long-term temporary residents. In 2011, there were 5.3 million first generation Australians (27% of the population)(a). Second generation Australians are Australian-born people living in Australia, with at least one overseas-born parent. In 2011, there were 4.1 million second generation Australians (20% of the population)(a). Third-plus generation Australians are Australian-born people whose parents were both born in Australia. One or more of their grandparents may have been born overseas or they may have several generations of ancestors born in Australia. This group also includes most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In 2011, there were 10.6 million third-plus generation Australians (53% of the population). 2http:// www.afr.com/p/national/boards_fail_asia_born_test_ec9rDQEC9Y8viIB8walxRL