Advance Australia's Culture

Advance Australian Culture Influencing a shift in assumptions and attitudes about the need for greater diversity and how it can improve growth opportunities within Australia and across Asian nations

Cisco Executive sees greater leadership diversity in Asian nations than Australia

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Karen McFadzen is Vice President, Cisco Technical Services for Asia-Pacific, Japan and Greater China. She is also responsible for diversity in her region and we recently discussed what she observes as she travels from place to place. I asked her what ideas we could take from other nations and her thoughts are shared below.

Karen has been with Cisco since 2000 and, prior to this, held leadership and management roles in the public and private sectors – first as an Army officer in Australia and later as a corporate leader in global companies. One of her key strengths is leading transformational change in complex organisations and building diverse talent for the future. 

Karen was a finalist in Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence Awards 2013, recognised in the Global category for her dedication to achieving greater workforce diversity at Cisco, driving innovation within the company and making a difference to the wider community.

Karen explains how diversity helped her build a thriving business

Pamela Young: As the Head of Diversity for Asia-Pacific, Greater China and Japan (including Australia), how have you shaped your team to meet your diversity ambitions?

Karen McFadzen:
In 2000 when I joined Cisco, the engineering team was primarily male and lacked overall diversity. Since then, I have built a more diverse group that now includes people from various backgrounds, skills, countries, cultures, education levels, industries, ages and genders. The team now better reflects the customers we support across the region and harnesses the experience and thought-leadership for the business. 

This diversity is essential for the business I’m responsible for as it helps to ensure there is depth and breadth of ideas and perspectives in the team. When you manage over USD$1 billion in annual revenue, 1200 people and $1 billion in assets across 14 countries throughout Asia-Pacific, it’s important to have the best mix of people to help solve problems, make decisions and generate a creative work environment. 

The diversity of roles within the business include engineering, logistics, business development, project management, business intelligence, strategy and planning, contract management, deal negotiation and customer-relationship management. My main sites are Tokyo, Beijing, Sydney, Singapore, Seoul and Bangalore, so having a broad mix of cultures, and country and industry experiences, is vital to effective regional management.

Increasing diversity of thought in the team over the past 13 years has been essential to our growth and to the success of the business and operations. Diversity and inclusion have enabled broader thinking and constructive dialogue as we have expanded into different markets, provided innovative ways to improve productivity, and have led to better and faster decisions. The outcome has been improved business, financial, customer and employee results.

PY: During these 13 years in the region, has anything surprised you?

KMcF: In my work across Asia–Pacific I engage with executives from different sectors (public, private, corporate, government, and not-for-profit). A key observation is that I engage with a wider panel of diverse leaders (multicultural, generational and gender) in the Asian countries than I do in Australia.

For example, in Singapore, China and Hong Kong, I consistently meet women in senior executive roles as well as in senior line-management, business and operational roles. In ASEAN I also find myself frequently sitting across the table from a group of leaders who are diverse in age and ethnicity and I have met dynamic Gen X leaders at board, CEO and equivalently influential positions.

PY: Why is that, do you think?

Many of the Asia–Pacific countries realised long ago that they need to attract and harness the best talent they can to compete in the global market. Within many of these countries I have seen active policies in place to nurture diversity internally as well as to attract international talent.

The main drive is to increase agility and innovation.  For example, in Chongqing, China they designed the city for over 7 million people (30 million within the municipality) and the master plan included balancing work (employment, transportation, services, energy), life (housing, parks, shopping centers, amenities), environmental, social and economic factors into a rolling 5-year plan. 

For the environmental side, one advisor was an Australian who had a company on the northern beaches. When I asked him if he had the same level of conversations and influence within Australia he said ‘No, but the Chinese stakeholders were embracing his ideas and acting upon them in their city master plans’. 

In addition, many Asian nations make a concerted effort to lure back internationally educated and experienced citizens to contribute to their country’s and companies’ success. They recognise that the overseas experience they have gained enriches the teams they work in when they come back home.

PY: How willing do you think Australian leaders and managers are to lead change to drive greater diversity?

Many leaders have unconscious biases and, as a result, their actions can contribute to the closed culture I have seen in some cases in Australia. It can also have a negative impact on productivity, growth and competitiveness – it’s risk-adverse behaviour.

A common, but not necessarily accurate, perception of Australian culture held across Asia–Pacific is one of drinking, lazy, loud, laddish behaviour, and one that is insensitive to foreign culture. On the other hand, most Australians would typically describe our culture as accepting, fair and friendly. The disconnection may suggest or reflect underlying problems in our society. However, the point here is that Australian leaders need to be aware of perceptions like this and approach the question with an open mind: this means being willing to change, adapt and learn from the experience of others.

PY: What do you want to see done differently?

Diversity has been topical in Australia recently (e.g. number of women on boards, quotas for executive roles, paid maternity leave) and in the past few years many different tactics have been tried. Some have been successful but most have not, as they tend to address the issue in point form and only from a gender perspective.

Diversity and inclusive conversations need to be much broader to encapsulate all facets of diversity – including generational, multicultural, age, sexual preference – as the end-goal is to tap into and harness ‘diversity of thought’.
The discussion also has to be pervasive across all sectors (business, government, sporting, education) as well as socially. We need to allow it to occur without defensiveness and acrimony.

PY: How would it help society?

KMcF: There have been three key attributes of Australian culture that were vital during the formative stages of Australia: classlessness (fairness of society or egalitarianism), mateship (loyalty and assisting each other through adversity), and “having a go” (taking a chance and betting on yourself). These traits remain just as relevant today – they just need to be expanded to encompass all Australians rather than being limited to those belonging to a narrow stratum. This would yield great ideas, higher engagement of all people (age, culture, gender), greater productivity, growth, and would ensure Australia is not isolated or left behind in the 21st Century.

Interview by Pamela Young, MD growthcurv and author of Stepping Up

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