Australian corporate leadership continues to be encumbered by a bamboo ceiling, according to the Asian Leadership Project.
With the Asian-Australian talent pool amounting to 17% of the population - but less than 2% of those in C-suite or Board roles on ASX-listed companies - it’s easy to see why Australia is seen as being at the “back of the pack”.
But the 2023 AsLP National Conference, which saw more than a dozen influential leaders from across financial services speak up about their own experiences, shows there are at least a few positive signs of progress.
Advocacy, mentoring and sponsorship are crucial components that will drive change, according to those speakers who have made significant strides up the career ladder.
One of the recurring themes at the conference was a lack of Asian role models in business, including those on the “C-Suite Experience” panel.
Both Yash Sadhi – Medibank Chief Strategy Officer – and John Kim, Chief Data Officer, Zurich Financial Services, told the conference that they did not have such influences growing up.
John, whose career choice was mainly influenced by his conservative father’s advice said the number of Asian leaders to look up to was still sparse.
He suggested that the number of senior executives in leadership and board roles of Shemara Wikramanayake in becoming CEO at Macquarie Group was a notable exception.
Although his mentors were informal in nature, he did say relationships were a crucial part of progressing through the corporate world.
He said: “Despite how hard you work and how clever you are, it’s about relationships – sponsorships, advocacy and exposure.”
Talking about the importance of mentoring, Yash said it was important to find someone to grow with.
“When I think of my mentors, I think of them as a board of directors,” he said.
“One of the things I have benefitted from my mentors was that they could be honest.”
Using the example of being hesitant around career decisions, he said: “When there might be some fear of change, that’s something a mentor can call out.”
While Westpac’s Business Bank Chief Economist Besa Deda did not have a formal mentor until relatively recently, it is a path she advises others along.
“Now I look for mentors for my staff to help them grow in their careers,” she said.
Agreeing with John’s point about relationship-building, Besa added: “What often sets people apart are the relationships they form and their communication skills.
“People aren’t lucky, they engineer their own luck. Those facets set leaders apart.”
All three agreed that celebrating colleagues’ success was one of the best ways to break through the bamboo ceiling.
Yash summed up: “We are seeing a lot more progress, but there needs to be more championing of colleagues.”
AsLP Founder and CEO Julie Chai - who paid tribute to Host Partner Clayton Utz, exclusive Platinum Sponsor NAB and Event Photos Australia for making this event possible, and to Zara Crichton for facilitating the panel discussion - said: "This annual flagship event in the Project calendar gathers influential thought and practice leaders to inspire, educate, engage and advocate on how to address the Bamboo Ceiling in Australia.
“I am proud to have curated and emceed this unique, high impact and powerful day for my Corporate Members and clients who are deeply committed through action to advance intersectional Cultural Diversity into Leadership.
"Like some of us who grew up without any culturally diverse leaders as role models, I had to forge my own pathway into leadership through developing my identity, voice, personal brand and leadership style.
"I learnt to leverage my Asian value traits and capability as strengths, plus cultural intelligence (CQ) to my career advantage.
"Being an experienced subject matter expert can only get you so far, it's about relationship management, how you engage and influence, visibility and ally sponsorship that will catapult you into leadership ranks. Throughout my career, I lean on my trusted sounding board of senior, peer and junior levels to cover my blind spots in knowledge, expertise and experience."
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