David Thodey: ‘Customers are Key’ to Workplace Cultural Diversity

David Thodey AO, Chair of CSIRO, Tyro and Xero, believes focusing on customers and creating an inclusive culture is the key to cultural diversity in boardrooms and senior management.

“I try to come at bringing diversity into the boardroom and the management team, by talking about the customers we serve and the culture we create.” David Thodey told a gathering of young professionals from diverse cultural backgrounds at the Professional Development Forum.

Mr. Thodey recalls his own personal experience with racial bias during a 5-year posting to Japan. “This was back in the nineties and I was the ‘Gaijin’ – the white guy. It’s quite confronting really, to have your identity defined by how you look. They had no idea who I was.”

As a founding member of the Champions of Change, David Thodey has been at the forefront of workplace diversity for more than a decade. During his time as the head of Telstra, David Thodey enacted a ‘flexible working for all roles’ policy and set up a diversity council.

Mr. Thodey says selecting people by their ethnic identities will not work.

“We went through this process of defining what our ethnicity was. So am I an Australian white male? Am I a European white male? Caucasian white male? Do I like being called that?” says Mr. Thodey. “I’m not sure I can go and say, ‘Hey, I want to go and hire, 20 Vietnamese and 10 Cambodians and 28 Filipinos’. It doesn’t work that way.”

Mr. Thodey reflected on the first meeting of the Champions of C hange, “and I can still remember the first meeting, this is normal Type-A behaviour from CEO’s ‘we’ve got a program, we’re putting in childcare downstairs, we’re putting in unisex toilets and that’s going to solve our problems on gender diversity’. And of course, this is anything but the truth because it’s the culture that you create that’s the most important. When I’m with my family, it’s a very diverse group, why is my family different to work?”

Instead, Mr. Thodey believes the key is to create “an environment where people are feeling embraced and free to participate”. Mr. Thodey says “Cause you feel it when you belong and you’re appreciated. And at the end of the day, that’s what all of us want. We want to be able to come in, feel valued for who we are and able to contribute, without all this baggage so often gets thrown around.”

“David’s advocacy for more inclusive workplaces in the national conversation is vital to get the best out of culturally diverse talent in Australia.” says Jeffery Wang, the founder of Professional Development Forum. “People from those backgrounds seldom find the mentorship necessary to advance their careers. Often they just give up on their leadership aspirations, and we as a nation miss out on their contribution.”

Founded in 2007, the Professional Development Forum formed by a group of young, diverse professionals to the growing frustration and the lack of satisfaction in their careers. They held monthly forums hearing from prominent business leaders to address the lack of culturally sensitive career advice, access to professional networks and mentors.

“We believe that everyone, not just the elite few, should have access to the knowledge, mindset and network to develop themselves. We run events that inform, connect, and inspire, and we share what we learnt with our community.” says Jeffery Wang


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