One of the most poignant moments of the two-day AFR BOSS Leadership Summit came in the last possible seconds, when Alex Abrahams, founder of listed dental group Pacific Smiles asked the day’s final panel of young leaders whether this new era of purpose-driven, inclusive leadership meant he was destined for the scrap heap.
“As you can see I’m an Anglo-celtic male. I’ll disclose I am 59. What do myself and my cohort do to be part of this business diversity world or should I just check out?”
“Definitely not,” said Natalie Cope without missing a beat. The CEO of the Australia China Business Council (NSW) and recipient of the BOSS Emerging Leaders MBA scholarship in 2015 told Mr Abrahams that while millennials will make up 50 per cent of the workforce in just three years, they want a new style of leadership, not new leaders.
“You have a position of immense influence and with that comes responsibility and the ability to have impact,” Ms Cope said. “Really try to practice inclusive leadership, be conscious of your unconscious biases, review your past employment record to try to understand that. You can therefore alter the way you will then look at future employees, you can talk to your current workers about how they are feeling. Just practising actively inclusive leadership allows you to become a great advocate and champion of change.”
Deloitte CEO Cindy Hook told the Summit on Thursday that most people become increasingly close-minded as they get older but leaders have a responsibility to stay open-minded, especially as the workforce changes to become younger and more gender and culturally diverse.
SSM an opportunity for business
Last decade, charisma, big personalities and deep expertise were the traits expected of leaders. None of those traits were mentioned at our inaugural leadership summit. Instead, trust, purpose and even love dominated the discussions in the wake of the successful same-sex marriage campaign as so-called “soft” skills become “hard” metrics which impact the bottom line.
The sense of revolution was perhaps not surprising given Qantas CEO Alan Joyce opened the Summit as news of the same-sex marriage result broke, telling us that “politicians have let us down on this one”. Later the CEO of the Diversity Council of Australia Lisa Annese said that the “corporate sector has led the way on this [SSM] issue” where politicians had failed.
The good news for old leaders is while Deloitte’s research shows millennials feel relatively powerless to make a difference themselves, 76 per cent believe that business can be a force for positive social change.
Hook explained this new workforce are more purpose-driven than any before it with every individual wanting to feel like their work and business makes a difference. This creates an opportunity for business not just to “stick to our knitting” as Joyce argued but to speak out on other workplace-related issues. There is a sense this can help business re-build its trust with the community and then perhaps it will have a platform to persuade the public on core economic issues like tax and industrial relations.
‘You can’t be a leader if people don’t trust you’
The scandals created by business and subsequent “environment where major parties are being pulled towards populist policies by political extremes and minority government” as CEO of the Australian Bankers’ Association Anna Bligh puts it, means that “if you are not ethical you will not be in business”, CEO of AIA Damien Mu said.
The ABA have launched a new ad campaign to better tell their story but as AGL Energy’s CEO Andy Vesey told the Summit, that has to be backed-up by action too.
“If you want to be trusted, you need to be trustworthy,” he told the Summit. “You can’t be a leader if people don’t trust you”. Business need to “hold themselves accountable and be transparent”, he said.
The always energetic NAB CEO Andrew Thorburn, interviewed by Chanticleer columnist Tony Boyd while standing on stage, openly discussed the importance of love, as well as the need for transparency as they set about cutting net 4,000 jobs. “Our people understand our industry is changing so fast. They want authenticity and respect. And they want to be told the whole picture, so they can deal with it”.
Atlassian’s product manager Sherif Mansour also gave a sneak peak of the radical transparency underway at Australia’s global blockbuster software business. It has opened all but 10 per cent of company information to all and makes sure it “creates a safe place for to have a conversation without feeling they are going to be dumped on for not being the smartest person in the room.”