To engage with Asia, we must be multicultural in more than name

White, monolingual, male: the make up of many of Australia’s ASX companies fail to reflect our cultural and gender diversity. AAP

The recent Ethnic Business Awards were a celebration of entrepreneurship, pioneering and determination and above all the immense contribution that our migrant population has made to a better Australia.

But they also emphasise the dissonance between the rhetoric of diversity and the reality. While Australia has been changed inexorably by the migrant experience, leadership of some of our key institutions remain mono-cultural, representing Australia from an Anglo Saxon perspective only.

Nowhere is this more palpable than in Australian corporations. Australia’s leadership profile in the ASX, in particular, remains homogenous unable to open up its ranks to create a more heterogeneous leadership presence that reflects Australia’s cultural and gender diversity.

Monolingual, masculine and white - this culture reproduces itself through arrogance, fear and an inherent but deeply flawed belief system that the world of tomorrow is the world of yesterday.

Asia’s prominence as an economic force is yet to sink in as business adapts to a post–American era that has seen power become more distributed, particularly in the direction of Asia and Brazil.

The Asian agenda is not a recent phenomenon. The recognition that Australia’s destiny is linked to that of Asia’s has been a perennial agenda item. As far back as 1995, David Karpin highlighted the rise of Asia in his report, Enterprise Nation.

The report recognised Australia was in the unique trade position of being a stable, English-speaking neighbour. It also pointed to barriers in tapping this potential due to a lack of diversity and poor skills in languages other than English, limitations in understanding foreign business cultures and the management of ethical dilemmas in other cultural contexts.

The Karpin report made a number of wide-ranging recommendations that included addressing the lack of diversity and developing leadership capability particularly in the area of soft skills and capacity for cultural engagement.

Now many of the concerns raised by Karpin are being echoed in the federal Government’s Asian Century White Paper. Australian business is yet to develop the appropriate cultural understandings to deal with the Asian region and it lacks the language skills to negotiate and develop personal relationships. The learning of Asian languages in universities is on the decline.

Business has had more than enough time to become conversant with the rules of engagement and the cultures of it’s trading partners. Its failure in this regard speaks to a combination of short sightedness and parochialism. An example is the tacit collusion of some businesses willing to advertise with media outlets that regularly resort to regressive race politics to serve narrow short-term agendas. These companies are likely to extol the virtues of diversity and integrity to equal opportunity in their policies and procedures. Yet they remain wilfully blind to the message they are sending to customers in Australia and internationally.

Australia is a diverse nation with an equally diverse talent pool. It has an abundance of the very capacities required to engage with the opportunities that globalisation and the Asian Century afford. It is unfortunate that Asia-literate graduates are underutilised; It is unfortunate that leadership at the highest level remains white and male; and it is unfortunate that the much needed soft skills and capacity to wield soft power (often held by women) are relegated as secondary to the muscularity of tough negotiation and the arrogance of a transactional view of relationships that speaks to the privileging of the short term over the longer term.

Professor Fons Trompenaars, consultant to Fortune 500 companies and author of “21 Leaders for the 21st Century”, regards the capacity to reconcile differences created by cultures of diversity as the stand out leadership competency for the future, above all others.

To be Asia-ready and Asia-literate, Australian business needs to transcend rhetoric to embrace the diversity in its midst. This requires some soul searching to acknowledge deeply entrenched systemic bias combined with a stultifying inertia that sees the status quo maintained- patently evident in a narrow leadership presence that does not reflect the cultural and gender diversity present in Australian society.

Modern capitalism is geared to an era of close engagements and requires the skill of rapport. Business leaders need to expand their repertoire of skills and recruit and develop for a new and diverse leadership presence adept at the exercise of soft power and gentle persuasion. It requires a capacity to traverse both Western cultures with its emphasis on individualism and Asian cultures in which communitarianism and family are defining metaphors for business.

Developing Asian literacy is a journey that involves new levels of engagement and understanding. It requires the honing of skills of rapport, cross cultural understanding, language skills and curiosity to learn about our neighbours and invite them to learn about us.

It takes a new prism of engagement with our diversity here at home to tap into the incredible cultural and business opportunities further afield in our region. Only then will we become the multicultural, gender-diverse, dynamic and globally interconnected diverse society we aspire to be.