Made in Australia

Sunday, April 1, 2007 - 15:09

Australian managerial talent is making its presence felt in the world market in a wide variety of sectors and at all levels of business. Darren Baguley investigates the reasons why Aussies are sought after in the world of management.

Since emerging from the "recession that we had to have", Australia has enjoyed a long period of economic growth that shows little sign of abating. While much of this growth has been driven by an insatiable requirement for various commodities on the part of major trading partners such as China and Japan, there seems to be an equally voracious demand for Australian executive and professional talent. Between 800,000 and one million Australians are living and working overseas at any one time; a huge number considering our population of 20 million.

It is true that a significant proportion of the number of Australians living and working overseas are students on "gap" years, but the majority are highly educated and skilled managers and professionals. And while, for example, Australian mining, oil and gas specialists can be found all over the world, it remains largely the case that the majority of Australian expatriates are based in the UK , the US and increasingly in the Asia region, especially China.

Quite simply, this trend is being driven by globalisation. Business consultancy Zaffyre International's Chairman and author Margot Cairnes says, "Large global corporations are scouring the world for talent, people with world class skills, and moving that talent around the globe." So just what is it about Australians that has made us a desirable and successful commodity overseas?

New York-headquartered expatriate organisation Advance's CEO Elena Douglas believes emphatically that Australian talent punches above its weight in the global economy. "Because we're a smaller market, Australians get much better general management experience, much earlier in their careers. In an enormous marketplace like America, people specialise and don't get to become general managers until late in their careers. In Australia, as soon as you're showing some promise you're made a general manager and you're in charge of marketing, purchasing, financial management, [which means having to master] a whole array of skills."

The typical journey

Boston-based Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation (DTCC) Managing Director for Customer Satisfaction and Service Adam Bryan's experience is typical of many expatriates.

Bryan joined global chartered accountancy firm Coopers and Lybrand as a cadet just out of high school and, after completing his chartered accounting professional year, went to work in Coopers's London office. Bryan then left Coopers to take up the Sydney-based position of CFO with Thomson Financial Asia. "I did that for five years and it was obvious that if I wanted to go anywhere in that company it was not going to be in Australia. I got transferred to Hong Kong, and after a couple of years ended up as regional managing director of another Thomson Financial business, the software company Omgeo.

"Again it was obvious that my career could only go to the United States, so when I was offered a job in Boston as Omgeo's global COO I took it." Bryan eventually became CEO of Omgeo before moving into his current position with DTCC.

By contrast, Dimension Data's Scott Petty took a more direct route. Formerly the company's Australian office CIO and COO, Petty was approached by the London-based head office to head up its global services business. He believes that one of the reasons why Australians succeed overseas is our competitive domestic business environment. "The speed with which deregulation happened in Australia drove a lot of change. It is rare to work in a market as competitive as Australia, and because of that you learn skills that are very useful everywhere else." Petty also believes that Australia's multicultural society stands us in good stead.

The flat management structure adopted by most Australian companies and our egalitarian society also tend to be advantages, says Petty. "UK companies have very hierarchical management structures. That creates inertia and bureaucracy within a business and managers can struggle to create virtual teams, particularly where they have to work with people many rungs above or below them."

Petty believes that Australians don't have that problem, and as a result are better at motivating teams and groups of people. "For an English senior manager it's almost unheard of for someone who runs a global services business to have a beer with a networking engineer; but for an Australian it's unheard of not to."

Emotional talent

Recruitment consultant Drake International's Executive General Manager, Dominic Toledo, describes this as emotionally talented leadership, and believes it is a valuable skill that Australians excel at. "Staff retention is becoming a key theme across modern economies, so a manager who is emotionally talented has the ability to be liked by staff, and engaging in staff development helps ensure good levels of staff retention throughout the organisation," he says.

"Australians have a natural no-nonsense approach, a desire to succeed coupled with a strong work ethic and the ability to roll up the sleeves and get involved." Toledo believes underlying environmental factors shape our society and engender these abilities. "[Activities] early in life, such as our engagement with sport, shape that likeability, competitiveness and ability to be a team player. Those qualities are engendered at a very early age socially and it's underpinned by excellent secondary and tertiary schooling."

Question and challenge

One aspect of the Australian education system unanimously considered a positive is its encouragement of students to question and challenge.

According to executive recruitment firm Laughlin Executive's Chairman, Sally Laughlin, this translates to innovative managers. "Australian-based managers in large corporations are too far away from headquarters to threaten the corporate culture," she says, "Therefore they [managers] often get to experiment more and can propose that head office use Australia [as a base] to pilot programs."

Westray Engineering Chairman, Wendy Simpson, noticed a sort of rigidity in overseas managers while working for the French Telecommunications giant Alcatel for seven years, when based in Shanghai. "My colleagues had all come through the French polytechnique system; they were the elite of the elite and they were incredibly good at processing large amounts of data, but when it came to what to do with that data, they weren't so great."

Simpson's own problem-solving attitude led to Alcatel being based in Shanghai in the first place.

"Since the early 1980s, Alcatel had been involved in a joint venture with a state-owned enterprise in China, but problems emerged over issues of technology and control," says Simpson. "The company had three choices: exit the market, go it alone or try to rekindle the joint venture - which was the least popular option within the company."

Simpson and her Asia-based colleagues believed that China might be the best future the company had, so they hijacked the annual budget planning meeting. "Instead of feeding the CEO with accounting history, we won him over with the future promise of China. I then became part of a team that moved the company's regional headquarters to Shanghai and restructured the relationship with the partner. Today, China is one of the most profitable divisions and a powerhouse of intellectual capital for the entire company."

Cultural dimensions

Zinifex CEO Greig Gailey spent 34 years working for British Petroleum both in Australia and overseas, including a stint as Managing Director of the company's European Refining business. He believes that there's a cultural dimension to the success of Australians overseas, but also believes it's important not to take similarities for granted.

"The world's largest companies tend to be American or British, and there's a fit for Australians in both cultures. Nevertheless, sometimes the most challenging places were where you did speak the language because you risk presuming they were the same as Australia . I found that most starkly in New Zealand; as you start with the premise that it's a lot like Australia and they'll operate the same way - and they don't."

Managers, not leaders?

However, among all the positive reasons and examples given for why Australians are successful and desirable as managers overseas, that's not to say there aren't more cautious voices to be found. For one, Gartner Research Managing Vice President Ian Bertram isn't quite so sure that Australian managers punch above their weight globally.

"I would say that we're commensurate with other countries: punching above our weight may be a bit of an exaggeration. From a business perspective we are now taken very seriously. However, if you go back 20 years the idea of an Australian as the CEO or senior executive of a global company was laughable. Nowadays we've really shown the world what we can do in these types of roles and you are finding more Australians in senior executive positions."

Similarly, New South Wales General Manager of Lee Hecht Harrison and AGSM lecturer Geoff Aigner argues that perhaps expatriates are not quite representative of Australian managers as a whole. "They are selecting themselves to move up a level and tackle something more challenging. Australian managers who are overseas are people who are already very capable, doing well, have a capacity to adapt and take their experiences into different contexts."

Wrecking balls

Aigner adds the further rider that although we do excel in operational roles, there does seem to be a tendency for companies to use us as wrecking balls. "Australians are seen as doers, and I wonder if we're seen as too operational, too 'doing' focused. Does that preclude us from being in charge of larger organisations and systems? Anecdotally speaking, you meet so many Australians in management roles overseas and, while there are exceptions, you don't see many in senior roles.

"It might have something to do with the specificity of our training. In the US and Europe, almost all countries require some liberal arts education for a person to progress through to graduate and postgraduate level. In Australia someone can do a business degree, followed by an MBA [after relevant work experience] without having to understand Australian history."

Natural globalists

If there was one thing that all the current and past expatriates that Management Today spoke to had in common, it was their reasons for working overseas.

While overseas salaries can be much higher, and many countries have attractive tax regimes for expatriates, no one gave their reason for heading overseas as money. "We're natural globalists for a lot of cultural and historical reasons," says Advance's Elena Douglas. "Australia is a transplanted culture, and Australians often find themselves travelling back to the source of that culture."

This attitude was echoed by Dimension Data's Petty. "It was the opportunity to travel and experience a different culture," he says. "There is career opportunity, the markets are so much bigger and the opportunities are so much larger; that's the exciting thing.

"The money for me really wasn't that important, because I had a longer term view. And also, the standard of living in Australia is so good that I'd have to earn four times, even 10 times my salary to approximate in London the same standard of living I had in Sydney."

Further reading

Brain drain: negative or positive?

Does the outflow of hundreds of thousands of our best and brightest represent a new brain drain? Or, ultimately, do these people return to Australia bringing new skills with them?

Everyone Management Today spoke to for this article believes it is the latter. Drake International's Dominic Toledo says, "When Australian workers leave [to work overseas] they gain substantial international experience, insight, ideas and perspectives, which ultimately can be applied to local organisations when they return."

On the downside, according to Advance's Elena Douglas, at any one time about 25 per cent of Advance's membership is looking for a job in Australia, yet many expatriates wanting to return home struggle to find suitable positions.

For GE Commercial Finance Vice President Marketing ANZ, Anna Learmonth, this was certainly the case. "My US experience was disregarded to the point that it actually quite surprised me, people considered that I would be out of touch with the market because I'd been away for five years. I now run marketing for GE's Commercial Finance Division, and as part of my job is understanding markets fairly intimately, that attitude really surprised me."

Zaffyre's Margot Cairnes says the attitude is widespread. "There are some great Australians, magnificent people who are top performers overseas, and they can't get jobs back in Australia. Our boards seem to have the attitude that no one's done anything unless the board members have seen it for themselves. Unless you're American or British, that is, in which case reputation is enough."

Laughlin Executive's Sally Laughlin is more upbeat. "The view that expatriates are out of touch with the present Australian business climate is an isolating and backward-looking view that has cost many organisations. Most companies now realise that to remain competitive, its talent must have the skill and experience to play in the global marketplace."