Why it's important to be yourself at work
- 21 June 2016
- From the section Business
When Alan Joyce, the chief executive of Australian airline Qantas, was asked by a young indigenous woman whether she could ever head up the firm his answer was unequivocal.
"I said, 'Well if a gay Irishman can become the CEO of Qantas then an indigenous lady can.'"
The fact that Mr Joyce makes no secret of his sexuality, makes him a relative rarity among top ranking bosses.
Among the chief executives of the 500 biggest US companies only one, Tim Cook of Apple, is openly gay. Similarly, in the UK's 100 largest firms listed on the stock exchange, Burberry boss Christopher Bailey is the only well-known gay chief executive.
Of course you could argue that the sexuality of those at the helm is not really anyone else's business but their own, but Mr Joyce believes being open about it allows him to be himself at work and demonstrates to others that it hasn't hindered his career.
During his tenure, he has steered the airline through huge difficulties caused by tough competition and soaring fuel costs, including a 2011 union dispute over restructuring which led him to take the unprecedented step of grounding all flights.
He subsequently led the firm through a massive cost-cutting programme that involved some 5,000 job losses, in the midst of which the national carrier announced the biggest annual loss in its near 100-year history, leading to calls for Mr Joyce to be sacked.
Critics accused him of ruining a national icon, yet earlier this year, helped by the drop in fuel costs, the firm reported its best ever first-half profit.
Mr Joyce credits the airline's diverse senior leadership team for its successful turnaround, saying it meant they came up with more varied ideas for addressing the firm's problems.
"We've got three Brits, an American, an Irishman, a Kiwi. So all different type of backgrounds. We've got three women, three gay men, people that were mathematicians, people that were business consultants, people that were flight attendants.
"I can say categorically that we wouldn't have gotten through the transformation and the tough times of this business as well as we did without having that diversity in the top leadership team. At the end of the day, it makes you a better business."
Recent research suggests Mr Joyce's conclusion is spot on.
Firms in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians, according to management consultancy McKinsey, which looked at 366 public companies across a range of industries.
A separate study by accountancy firm Grant Thornton estimated that publicly traded companies in India, the UK and US with male-only executive directors missed out on £430bn of investment returns last year.
"The research clearly shows what we have been talking about for a while: that diversity leads to better decision-making. Those businesses stuck in the past are not fully unlocking their growth potential," says Francesca Lagerberg, global leader for tax services at Grant Thornton.
Yet while recognising it is the right thing to do, embracing diversity can be tough in a firm that has traditionally employed a particular type of person.
One of Australia's biggest firms, Westfield, which owns shopping centres around the world, has been listed publicly for over half a century and has its roots in real estate and construction, both sectors which have historically been male-dominated.
The firm's global spread means that it is already very diverse culturally, says co-chief executive Steven Lowy, but he admits it still has "some way to go" on gender diversity.
"The gender issue is a challenging issue for companies to come to grips with, but I would suggest that we're very focused on it," he says.
Often it is business needs that drive a firm to become more diverse.
Jayne Hrdlicka, chief executive of Qantas' subsidiary Jetstar, grew up in the US. As a female CEO who was brought up abroad, she sees herself as a great testament to the firm's diversity.
Over half of Jetstar's revenues are generated outside Australia, meaning a diverse workforce is an absolute necessity.
The airline has invested significantly in educating people in working cross-cultures "because it's such a fundamental part of the way we need to operate," she says.
'Right thing to do'
One exercise it has carried out with external experts is a nationality swap, where for one day Australian staff pretended to be Japanese and the Japanese staff pretended to be Australian.
While an exercise like this could seem superficial, Ms Hrdlicka says it taught staff to respect each other's roots.
"We were able to appreciate the different ways of working, and the importance of building on the best of all those different ways of working rather than trying to force one over another," she says.
In the end, though, she says embracing a more diverse workforce requires a broad shift in how those at the top think about things, meaning that it's time that will make the biggest difference.
"It's the right thing to do, but it's a smart thing to do. You get the best outcomes for your shareholders and you get the best outcomes for all the stakeholders involved in your business when you really do create an environment that brings the best out of everyone."
This feature is based on interviews by CEO coach and author Steve Tappin for the BBC's CEO Guru series, produced by Neil Koenig.