‘How did you get up there?’ is a question many managers with sub-continental backgrounds often ask Dharma Chandran, who migrated to Australia in the 1980s and is now at the top of his game as Chief HR and Corporate Services Officer for Leighton Holdings. In this and his previous executive roles at Ernst & Young and Westpac, Dharma regularly witnesses the business benefits of diversity and the costs of not having enough diversity at senior levels.
Dharma was born in Malaysia and came to Australia when he was 16. After completing high school he studied commerce and law at UNSW before launching into an international career which includes roles in Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
Dharma’s perspectives on diversity are based on his experience living and working across the region. He recently shared with me his observations of the impact of cultural diversity and suggests advice for Australian businesses to consider.
Dharma outlines how 'diversity of experience' adds value
Pamela Young: When you contrast Australia with other countries you travel to regularly how would you describe the cultural diversity of our business leadership?
Dharma Chandran: Relative to leadership teams in large institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, New York and London, there is a gap in the ethnic diversity of our top teams. When you look across corporate Australia there are few people with diverse backgrounds (especially from Asia) at senior levels. Given the number of Asian people living here and our proximity to this continent, you might expect to see a larger proportion of Asian people in top level roles.
PY: What does this mean for our business?
DC: It means our boards and senior management are not reflecting the diverse communities across Australia that they are working to serve. Either people with Asian heritage are still coming up through the ranks, have self-selected out of corporate careers (perhaps pursuing professions such as medicine, law or accounting instead) or we are not developing them in the same way, or considering them fairly.
Some businesses evaluate people from the East using the same criteria as the people from the West, yet they may operate very differently so you need to adapt your approaches to assessing people. For example, many Asian employees can be quieter in meetings, not because they are less intelligent or less skilled, but because in many of Asian cultures it is impolite to speak up when superiors are present. Being aware of cultural traits that are different from Australian traits informs leaders, not only to prevent bias, but also to encourage and coach behaviours that enable staff with Asian backgrounds to adopt more effectively to Australian workplaces.
DC: I believe my success has been partly because I assimilated more completely into Australian culture than many others have done. For example, I socialise the same way as Australians with Anglo-Saxon or European backgrounds do. I do not have a strong Asian accent and I do not have a home country religion that I associate with that is different from the main religions practised in Australia.I came to Australia as I really wanted to live in the West; not because my parents came here and dragged me along with them and not because I was fleeing from a dictatorial regime. I came to be Australian. I like to fit-in wherever I am: I fit-in back in my home country of Malaysia and I fit-in my adopted country of Australia. No matter where I am, I like to experience life as a local. I eat the local cuisine, go to the locally produced shows and talk to local people about what’s happening in their country.
My approach has been to adapt to the surroundings you are in rather than expect the surroundings to adapt to you. I don’t advocate this as the right approach for everyone because we do need to build societies that embrace the differences people bring, however it is a two-way street and newer people to a society also need to embrace their new surroundings.
PY: ‘What business benefits have you seen arise from having greater cultural diversity in leadership?
DC: When you have a group of people with different perspectives, you get more effective idea generation and superior problem solving, which is especially important when faced with tougher challenges.The human resources team I have built at Leighton is a good example. I recruited a number of new people from different industries and places. The reason I did so is to avoid “group-think”. Given they were not known to each other when they joined, they bring different perspectives that add richness to our discussions and result in innovation. In addition to them bringing different industry and employment experience, they also bring different ethnic backgrounds. My team includes a Malaysian, a Singaporean, a Scotsman and an American. They each bring different perspectives and therefore come up with more effective solutions.
People who are not used to working with a diverse group of people might not appreciate the benefits they bring; instead, they could get frustrated with everyone having a different view so it’s important to generate an appreciation for differences and develop the leadership capability to manage this diversity in order to get the most out of it.
PY: What major issue do we have in Australia that we ought to address to boost cultural diversity in the workplace?
DC: We have a culturally diverse population and workforce yet we find a disproportionately fewer people of ethnic origin (especially Asian) in the upper echelons. This suggests that there may be some unconscious cultural bias in our selection and promotion practices. We need to remove these if we are to fully leverage the cultural diversity available in our workforce.I suspect we need more awareness training as the bias is not conscious – many people may not be aware of their bias. Once the bias becomes conscious, it becomes much easier to address it.
A major struggle I think many Australians face is that we have European heritage but close proximity to Asia. Our growth prospects and therefore prosperity depends on ever closer ties with Asia and so our head says we should be part of Asia, but our heart says we should continue to align with our European origins. The reality is we are closest to Asia and our growth opportunities there are greater than elsewhere. We need to begin thinking of ourselves as being part of Asia and encouraging Asians to be part of Australia.
PY: What three things could local leaders do better to prepare their top teams for working across cultures – e.g. what would help local business wanting to be more active in Asia?
DC: It would be good to send employees on shorter ‘work experience’ stints to overseas locations on specific projects before asking them to transfer for longer periods to manage overseas operations. This would help them to acclimatise to the cultures before more permanent posting.Also, it helps to assess the of aptitude of possible ‘transferees’ for their ability to work within different cultures and provide training to address any identified gaps prior to sending people to work abroad. This approach would lead to a more effective experience. It is vital that transferring employees have some awareness of the differences between the norms, behaviours and customs of their home country and that of their destination before taking an overseas post for the first time.
At Leighton we have had people working in Asia for 40 years so we have institutional knowledge of dozens of cultures. Many of our longer serving people have had 2-3 periods overseas in different locations, so it is very much part of our DNA.
PY: What advice would you give local leaders who have not worked aboard?
DC: I would say that ‘diversity of experience’ is critical to more effective problem solving and decision-making. If you want your business to trade or operate globally, or even just regionally, it is hard to understand other markets unless you have worked in them.Working abroad develops flexibility and agility – capabilities that are not so easily obtained by living and working in just one market. Working and living in many different cultural paradigms can help executives to generate a multitude of options for solving business challenges.
PY: Why do you think we have a culture of rejecting returned expats or newly arrived foreign skilled professionals until they have ‘proven themselves in the local market’?
DC: I do not believe that we reject them but I believe that often we do not value their capabilities as much as we should, especially if these experiences were gained in developing rather than developed markets. This is a particularly Australian phenomenon and has not been my experience or observation of how many other countries react to new arrivals or returning expats. It is probably driven by the fact that most Australian business are not global – they are mostly local and there is a lack of knowledge about overseas markets and the value that experience in these markets to Australian businesses. The hiring manager in Australia who has no overseas working experience may not know whether schools and institutions abroad are preparing people to be at the same standards as exist in Australia.
Interview by Pamela Young, October 2013