Leading across the country

By Dr Joshua Healy and Angus Blackman

Since last issue of Exchange, the Centre for Workplace Leadership released the initial findings of its major research project, the Study of Australian Leadership (SAL).

Since last issue of Exchange, the Centre for Workplace Leadership released the initial findings of its major research project, the Study of Australian Leadership (SAL). The largest study of leadership and management in Australian history, SAL gives us a comprehensive and representative picture of Australian leadership for the first time.

For two weeks in May and June, we took SAL on the road to talk to Australian thought leaders, policy-makers and businesses about our findings. Starting in Melbourne and making our way up the east coast, before crossing back west via Canberra and Adelaide to Perth, this road show gave us an opportunity to gauge reaction to SAL and to reflect further on what constitutes great leadership.

So, what stood out to the rest of the country?

Male, pale and stale?

It was clear early on that diversity in the workplace was going to be one of the stand-out issues. The suggestion that our leaders are “male, pale and stale” raised eyebrows.

SAL shows that senior leadership in Australian organisations is dominated by older men from English-speaking backgrounds. Dominic Holland, CEO of Tow.com.au and panellist at the Brisbane launch of SAL, agreed that his industry is still far too dominated by leaders of this kind. “Both the tech and transport industries are heavily male-dominated; with a younger demographic seen in the tech industry, but still with a much stronger male breakdown.”

Gender Diversity

These sobering findings suggest that there is more work for many Australian organisations to do in diversifying their leadership profiles. Yet, there are also some encouraging signs that future leaders will be more diverse. Compared with senior organisational leaders, the cohort of workplace leaders is younger and less male-dominated.

This is true to an even greater extent among frontline leaders — half are women and more than half are under 45. As the Hon. Patricia Forsythe, Director of the Sydney Business Chamber and host of the Sydney SAL launch, said: “In the longer term, the idea of the glass ceiling is potentially able to be broken."

The challenge for Australian businesses is to nurture and hold on to these more junior leaders so that they are able to move into the most senior organisational leadership roles in time.

Innovation Nation?

The last major study of leadership in Australia, the 1995 Karpin Report, identified Australia’s innovation capability as an issue. More than 20 years later, not enough has changed if we want to be better performers.

“If we want to become the innovation nation, many Australian organisations need a reality check,” says Professor Peter Gahan, the Director of the Centre for Workplace Leadership.

Perhaps surprisingly, SAL shows that public organisations are generally more innovative than those in the private sector. Participants in Canberra, however, were less surprised. Some suggested that the political cycle demands constant innovation from public servants. Departments experience regular upheaval and pressures to adapt. Ms Renee Leon, Secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Employment and panellist at the Canberra launch, said: “Great social and economic reform is always underpinned by deep policy thought and innovation in the public service.”

Multi Level building

While the differences in public and private innovation performance caught people’s attention, there was also much interest in innovation performance across industries. Exclusively for Exchange, we have dug a little deeper into these results.

Innovation Performance by Industry
Industry performance by Industry
(RED) = Radical innovation: creating products and services that go beyond what is expected by existing customers, with a focus on new market opportunities and new ways of working.
(BLUE) = Incremental innovation: refining and improving existing products or services

The graph shows average levels of workplace innovation performance by industry. These results are reported by senior workplace leaders on a five-point scale, where higher numbers suggest stronger innovation activity. The blue bars show results for incremental innovation; the red bars show radical innovation. In every industry, there is more incremental innovation than radical innovation. This is perhaps not surprising, since incremental innovation is more routine and similar to ‘continuous improvement’. Radical innovation is riskier and harder to plan, and therefore less typical. In some industries, however, there is a very wide gap between the two types of innovation. For instance, Mining, Transport, and Utilities do a lot less radical innovation than incremental innovation.

The horizontal reference lines show the average level of performance across all industries. The lower line is the overall average for radical innovation; the upper line is the overall average for incremental innovation. These lines show which industries currently tend to be innovation leaders and laggards. Some industries clearly outperform the average on both counts — such as Education and Arts and Recreation Services. Other industries do well in one, but not both, types of innovation — such as IT and Finance. And still others underperform in both areas — such as Mining, Manufacturing and Construction. Lifting national innovation performance is as much about encouraging innovation in these underperforming industries as it is about identifying and promoting the “star performers”.

Not end of the road

As we packed our bags on the west coast and the roadshow drew to a close, it was clear there is still much to do. We continue to explore the SAL data to better understand Australian leadership. Ultimately, SAL shows us that, while some organisations are performing well, many still have a long road ahead.

Watch our Research Streams series for more information on the Centre for Workplace Leadership's Study of Australian Leadership (SAL) research and more:

Download SAL at sal.workplaceleadership.com.au
@leadingatwork #SAL2016

Check out some of the media coverage from the SAL launch.