By Anna Whitlam, Managing Director of Anna Whitlam People and Non-Executive Director of Commtract. This article was originally published on AWP’s Wisdom & Wit and can be viewed here.
As a frequent visitor to Asia, the UK and the US, it occurred to me recently how differently we, in Australia, treat the discipline of corporate affairs and the corporate affairs function.
And by that, I mean how differently senior candidates are viewed when executive searches are carried out for leading corporate affairs roles.
In the UK, US and increasingly Asia, there is a greater acceptance of senior talent who bring international experience to the position, even if they happen to live outside those jurisdictions where the role is to be based.
It generally doesn’t matter how their accent sounds, or if they have strong local relationships with the government or media – if they have the best credentials, experience and reputation they will almost certainly get the job.
Australia is hugely tolerant on so many levels, and obviously a multicultural success story, but in this one regard I feel there is sometimes a blinkered conservatism.
My observation is that corporate organisations in Australia tend not to be accepting of global professionals unless they bring established networks and/or local experience.
There is often a desire to hire someone who is not only living in the relevant city but has the right political, business and media connections – even if an ‘outsider’ candidate might have a broader, deeper and more relevant experience in having dealt with similar circumstances overseas.
I am generalising to some extent, but to me there is a clear pattern: in Australia, if you are not known to the government or the business media, then you’re not considered the optimum candidate for the job. Given the growing demand for experienced professionals in the discipline of corporate affairs and reputation management, that just doesn’t make sense.
In Asia, multinationals and local companies are looking for professionals with global experience. They tend to have a greater interest in learning from others, as well as being more accepting of professionals who may not have local networks or may not even speak the local language. It’s all about being the best, and learning from the best – whoever they may be and wherever they may be from!
We haven’t quite adopted that broad-minded position here yet.
If we have a candidate in Canberra versus someone sitting in London or New York who may have worked at the White House or Downing St, it’s generally a one-horse race. The local wins out every time.
Macquarie Bank recently hired as their global head of communications Paul Marriott, a Brit who was working in Hong Kong as chairman of global financial communications consulting firm, FTI. They managed the search themselves, I might add.
There was initial talk that the successful candidate was going to have to be an Australian with a strong network of contacts and connectivity in Canberra. But the bank – to its credit, I hasten to add – eventually chose Paul, even though he had limited relationships with government and the Australian media.
But he’s had no issues whatsoever with these supposed obstacles. He has a robust team around him, many of whom do have those relationships, and his role is as a “leader” to work with the executive and the board on the bank’s broader strategy. Of course, he has to go to Canberra but he says those trips haven’t been difficult because the relevant people in government want to know him, as much as he does them.
I can think of three recent examples in corporate Australia involving three ASX-listed multinationals which had aspirations for international talent so requested global searches for their vacant executive corporate affairs positions.
They were all provided with market maps and shortlists of some of the best global corporate affairs talent – but all three ended up going for someone living in Australia.
In a similar vein, I spoke to a candidate last week – a European who brings the most amazing global experience in banking, finance, investment and asset management – both in start-ups and large corporations. Their experience incorporates time in the Middle East, Asia and the UK. If that person was Australian, I could almost guarantee placement into a role within six months. But because they are a global player, as opposed to “local”, I think my chances of securing a role befitting their skills and experience are pretty slim on home ground. Maybe one for Asia?
These are clear examples of what I am talking about.
But I think change has to happen soon. It has to happen. We are robbing ourselves of so much global talent and experience with this blinkered approach.
By being more accepting of different skillsets and experiences, we would get to learn more about what happens in the other parts of the world. How have corporate affairs specialist in Britain dealt with banking issues, for example? How is the US experience useful given some of the other corporate issues we have faced recently? Surely, there are some lessons that can be applied here.
I suspect people in the industry are subconsciously aware of the local-vs-global dichotomy, but won’t actually deal with it. I think the time has come for a mature discussion to address this issue.
Anna Whitlam is a highly regarded leader in people strategy and executive search. She brings over 20 years’ experience in senior business leadership, executive search, organisational structure and design, specifically in the disciplines of corporate affairs, communications, marketing, reputation and risk.