The Cultural Ceiling

lanternsI wanted to bring to your attention this month a recently released report that I had the good fortune of contributing to by way of a focus group.  The study was conducted by the Diversity Council Australia in partnership with Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu and IBM Australia, amongst others.  The research report ‘Cracking the Cultural Ceiling’ was based on a survey of more than 300 leaders and emerging leaders from Asian cultural backgrounds who were working within Australia.  My apologies to the international readers for this ‘parochial’ topic but I think you will be able to see some applications for this in your own countries.

There is a lot of focus currently in Australia about ‘Embracing the Asian Century’ and providing goods and services to the fastest growing region in the world.  The study looked at why, despite large numbers of entry level and middle level Asian managers, there are so few Asian leaders reaching the top in Australian organisations; and further how Australian organisations could realise the promise and potential of Asian talent.

Some of the key barriers that were identified as locking out Asian talent in Australia were:

  • Cultural bias and stereotyping
  • Westernised leadership models
  • Lack of relationship capital
  • The case for culture is misunderstood

This report highlights the under-representation of Asian leadership that is fundamentally hurting Australian organisations.  Given that 46% of Australian consumers are born overseas or have at least 1 parent born overseas, that over ¾ of Australia’s exports go to Asia and that by 2030 Asia will account for 60% of the global middle-class consumption, studies such as this deserve attention.

When I read statistics such as 30% of Asian talent are likely to leave their employer within the next year and that only 17% strongly agree that their organisations usilise their Asia capabilities well, indicates that Asian talent is being seriously undervalued and under-leveraged. The impact that this has on organisations, not just in terms of talent, but also innovation potential and the impact on existing and possible international markets, demonstrates wasted opportunities within the Australian landscape.  While ‘Cracking the Cultural Ceiling’ was an Australian based study, barriers such as those identified here continue to exist in a similar vein in other Western countries. You can also extrapolate this to other categories such as gender, generational, LGBT, the disabled and others.

Leadership needs to be re-defined, it isn’t a singular stationary model. Cultural intelligence needs to be built into the organisational DNA, it needs to be a business as usual process.  Cultural intelligence can assist organisations to navigate themselves successfully through the ambiguity and ever changing business and talent landscapes that exist even in local/domestic markets let alone cross-border markets.

While I support recommendations from this report such as improved leadership models, unconscious bias training, improved mentoring and professional networks of workers with Asian backgrounds, we need to take one-step back.  Before any of these can be implemented one of the key challenges I see is around supporting organisations to realise that the cultural ceiling does in fact exist within their organisations.  There needs to be a level of candidness that exposes organisational deficiencies, such as the under-valuing and under-representation of workforces and the cultural biases and stereotypes that continue to persist. This can be a confronting and intimidating exercise to say the least; hence it needs to be conducted in a supportive and well-planned manner that is deemed as the next step in the organisational growth structure.

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