According to a study by the Australian Human Rights Commission, less than 5% of senior figures in executive positions in Australia have non-European heritage. The numbers are even smaller for Indigenous business people, with only 0.4% of top executives reportedly coming from an Indigenous background.
There is a dearth of Indigenous representation at the top levels of business in Australia—whether that be in ASX 200 companies, local and national government departments, or the management of universities.
The Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) at the University of New South Wales Business School is working to redress this imbalance and drive progress forward.
The school’s Emerging Indigenous Executive Leaders Program (EIELP) was run for the first time last year, operating in partnership with Reconciliation Australia, a national body that works to co-ordinate efforts by large companies to improve outcomes for indigenous Australians.
According to the Nick Wailes, AGSM director and deputy dean of the UNSW Business School, the program allows executives from Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds to use their strong cultural heritage to their advantage in the world of business.
“The program talks about being able to walk effectively in two worlds,” Nick explains. “Being strong in your culture but also being successful in your career.
“Lots of people that have been through the program are getting promoted, or they’re going on to new roles, and for us it’s a small contribution we can make to promoting greater reconciliation between Australia’s Indigenous people [and the rest of the population]—we’re delighted to be a part of it.”
One alumna of the program is Amanda Tootell, a program manager at the Department of Human Services in the Australian federal government.
Amanda enrolled on the EIELP pilot program to hone her leadership skills, but she wasn’t sure what to expect when the course commenced.
“I went in understanding that I’d done a whole range of leadership courses in the past,” Amanda says, “and I wasn’t sure how this might be different.
“Can I say, that was my first pleasant surprise—never before had I taken part in a program in which leadership thinking was [combined] with all the cultural aspects that I thought as a leader I had to set aside.”
Breaking apart this notion are the course’s five modules, offered in various modes and locations around Australia. For example, the first module in ‘Leadership, Culture, and Identity’ takes place in Melbourne, while the second module in ‘Strategic Leadership, Innovation Decision’, takes place online—offering ample flexibility for a career-focused cohort.
Another key aspect of the course is that students get to choose a mentor from their workplace to help guide them through their learning. This is alongside a faculty advisor, who helps them to apply their learning as they discover how to connect elements of Indigenous traditions—a strong emphasis on storytelling, for example—to their leadership style in the workplace.
This invitation to consider her Indigenous heritage as an asset to her leadership style rather than simply her personal life was a huge breakthrough for Amanda, and has given her a confidence she didn’t have before.
“I just couldn’t believe that I hadn’t realised that everything I had done [in my career], all of my decisions as a leader, subconsciously had been tied back to who I was as an Aboriginal woman—in terms of that ancestral mandate of being a storyteller and understanding change because of who we are,” she recalls.
Amanda says that rarely in her career before had she ever thought of the cultural currency that she brought to a room because of her Aboriginal heritage, and the licence to explore that cultural side of her business persona through the EIELP at the Australian Graduate School of Management was a huge learning experience that’s had a big impact on her career.
“It’s not really changed my day-to-day,” she says, “but [rather] my strategic outlook about really applying those things that are innately Aboriginal and mine to my strategic work environment.
“It just opened up a whole new world. That happened over a very short period of time [on the course], and I have been in public service for nearly 30 years.”
Now, she can enter the next phase of her career confident in her ability to explore her full leadership potential.
“I’ve never had an experience like I’ve had [at AGSM],” she says. “They’re leading the way, and I don’t think I’ve seen a program like this—not the type of program, the effort, the planning, the consultation that AGSM go through to deliver [the EIELP], particularly on that Aboriginal aspect. It’s such a credit [to the school].”
In fact, she’s already recommended the program at AGSM @ UNSW Business School to several of her colleagues, and she hopes that the advancement of Indigenous leaders in business will spell good things for the future of Australia.
“With all of these people [on the course], they’re not just interested in their own progress,” according to Nick Wailes. “They’re interested in what they can do for their communities, so anything we can do to enhance their skills we know is going to go directly into creating employment, improving access to services, and all those things.
“It’s always been true that education is transformative, and this is just a great example of how education can really play a positive role [in society].”
Find out more about the EIELP program here.
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Australian Graduate School of Management at UNSW Business School
Sydney - Australia