Demystifying diversity on boards

By Jingmin Qian and Associate Professor Dimitria Groutsis
Location: Sydney, Australia

Cultural diversity on Australian boards has been steadily increasing towards its target of 30 percent. Meet two women who are helping to create change.

Jingmin Qian is no ordinary alumna. She sits on four boards, three as a non-executive director, two of which are ASX companies. In 2018, she was named as one of the Australian Finance Review's 100 Women of Influence. Associate Professor Dimitria Groutsis is an expert on cultural diversity in business and is interested in demystifying access to boards. Dimitria met Jingmin at her Australia Square office to discuss mentors, networks and how she has achieved success. They chatted for a few hours and shared their experiences and frankly, hit it off. But first, a quick look at the current state of play.

Associate Professor Dimitria Groutsis is an expert in cultural diversity in business. In the first part of this video, she explains the current state of boards in Australia. In the second part of this video below, she takes a look at ways to improve.

Dimitria: Who are the key people that have influenced your workplace experience and your pathway to leadership?

Jingmin: I was influenced by groups, rather than individuals. While managing the AusAID program at MOFTEC in China, I worked with a group of project staff, experts, officials and most importantly, the recipients. The project was the first bilateral aid program in China and was considered one of the most effective foreign aid programs.

Jingmin Qian
Jingmin Qian

It was rewarding and inspiring for me to see the possibilities to create tailored solutions to lift infrastructure, health care, education, income generation and management capacity of the people across the country. I saw dreams realised with efforts from people with all types of backgrounds, personalities and styles.

Language, culture and governance were barriers but not true barriers when everyone put their minds together with the same purpose and everyone was valued equally.

The projects were designed in a participatory approach with recipients in creating solutions. Every project needed to satisfy sustainability principles, including women in participation and environmental impacts. It was a surprise later to me to recognise that not every project in Australia was designed in the same way.

The next group that influences my professional career all possess an open mind, strong abilities, an incredible work ethic and the generosity to help others.

It is a long list of names, but here are a few:

  • Dieter Adamsas, a pioneer that considers an Asian background valuable.
  • Scott Charlton, for his strong skills and ethics.
  • David Mortimer and Peter Warne, for their generosity of time to support a new director.
  • Pro-bono advice from some prominent lawyers and advisors.

They are mentors, sponsors and supporters. They have different styles, and they are my role models.

Dimitria: What role have networks played in your career? How does the importance of networks differ in doing business in an Australian context as compared with a Chinese context?

Jingmin: When I came to Australia, I didn't have a local network. So my classmates, colleagues and neighbours formed the start of my networks. I studied quite a lot – my husband calls me a lifelong student.

I also spent quite a bit time volunteering on issues I cared about and that I could add value to, such as investment education and Australia China business relationships. So my networks extended to my volunteer work related communities.

Networks are important both in Australia and China. I would say that Chinese networks are mainly social and business focused, while Australian networks include various community activities. Community activities are traditionally covered by extended families and government organisations in China. Australian volunteers and community spirit is an important and valuable part of Australian culture. It probably needs to be better understood and appreciated by people from other cultures.

Dimitria: Do you think women generally and culturally diverse women, more specifically, practice leadership differently?

Dimitria Groutsis
Associate Professor Dimitria Groutsis

Jingmin: Women are generally more social and more focused on 'we', instead of 'I'. Culturally diverse women tend to be even more 'we' focused. I find culturally diverse women often pay extra attention to ensure every member of a team is comfortable with issues and decisions – a more collective style.

Dimitria: There’s a body of research that notes that some people change themselves to ‘fit in’ to the executive team/gain access to board membership. Do you feel you have had to change to ‘fit in’?

Jingmin: Effective communication also includes being well understood. Making small adjustments to fit into an organisational environment can help. For instance, I had voice training to fit into a bigger boardroom environment, so that everyone could hear me properly. While there is a need to adjust ourselves to be better understood, I do not believe that I need to change who I am to ‘fit in’ to gain access to board memberships.

Being authentic is a very powerful way to communicate and probably the only sustainable way for leadership in an increasingly transparent era.

It is also an important way to work out where I could add the most value and what I need to focus on learning – all important parts of career planning. Being authentic is an important condition of my efficiency and creativity.

Dimitria: In a report we produced last year, in collaboration with the AHRC and the AICD, we found that there are both visible and invisible pathways to board membership – what in sum captures these? Can you describe them?

Jingmin: There are many benefits to having diversity on boards. Diversity, including cultural diversity, is important for good decision making.

It takes time to understand cultural subtleties and requires efforts from both sides. Once we understand general and specific context differences, we will see the character of the individual. To understand these differences, it requires an open mind, a respectful attitude, a level of comfort and patience. It is an important personal journey.

My pathway to board membership came from referrals and recommendations made by people I had worked with in the past. I see the character of my fellow directors and appreciate their blend of unique skills, experiences, gender and cultural heritage.

Dimitria: Did you deliberately set out to acquire networks? Did you place yourself in networks to make yourself ‘visible’ as a strategic endeavour to gain board membership?

Jingmin: No, not really. I always tried to do things that mattered to me, or that I could add value to. Throughout my journey, I continued learning, met more people and joined a few boards. I started on volunteer boards and boards of small companies or subsidiary organisations. I didn't mind this gradual approach. It helped to build a solid understanding of the roles and build my capacity.

Dimitria: Do you consider yourself a leader?

Jingmin: Leaders are regarded by other people. I lead myself as best as I can.

Associate Professor Dimitria Groutsis discusses what we can do to improve cultural diversity on boards.

Jingmin Qian

Jingmin Qian

Jingmin is a director of Jing Meridian specialising in advising boards and senior management on investment, strategic management and cross-cultural management. Jingmin has significant expertise in the property, infrastructure and resource sectors as well as rich experience in Asia. She is a member of Macquarie University Council, a trustee of Club Plus Super, and a director and Chair of Thought Leadership Committee of the Australia China Business Council. We are pleased to welcome Jingmin as keynote speaker at the 2019 alumni dinner.

Dimitria Groutsis

Associate Professor Dimitria Groutsis

Associate Professor Dimitria Groutsis is an expert in cultural diversity in the business context. She has partnered with the Diversity Council Australia, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Last year, Dimitria released the groundbreaking report, Beyond the Pale: Cultural Diversity on ASX 100 Boards, which highlighted that the top 100 boards fail to reflect Australia's cultural diversity.