Igniting change

| November 16, 2016

The chasm between organisations seeking Indigenous middle managers and senior executives and those who could fill those roles is obvious. Rachelle Towart endeavours to change Australia, one great hire at a time.

In the dust around the campfire, a man stares into the flames, surrounded by the stars as the cold of a central Australian desert night closes in.

Squatting on his haunches in the dust, he contemplates how he wants to rise further in his career – stuck in middle management at a Top 200 Australian corporation, unable to find a pathway forward for now.

But away from the steel and glass monuments to commerce in the city, he remembers how much he likes the fire. He feels torn, drawn back to traditions that he had all but forgotten.

We are in the centre of an Aboriginal community, attending the Garma Festival in Northwest Arnhem Land, and the protagonist in our story is European, having emigrated to Australia a dozen or so years ago. He is an amalgam of a dozen faces around the campfire, but represents a new phase in mainstream Australia’s recalibration of attitudes towards Australia’s first peoples.

During eight years as the CEO of one of Australia’s leading Indigenous education organisations, I met hundreds of corporate leaders, the vast majority of whom wanted to see an improvement in the lives and careers of Indigenous Australians. At the same time, I also met – and helped to provide training to – thousands of emerging and established Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders.

Corporate leaders now compete for tickets to the Garma Festival and many other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander events, not out of pity or idle curiosity, but as a result of a genuine desire to help create a better future for Indigenous Australians. However, there remains a startling gulf between Australia’s leading private and public sector organisations and the leaders they wish to employ.

The chasm between organisations seeking Indigenous middle managers and senior executives and those who could fill those roles is obvious – no Indigenous people in the top tiers of Australia’s Top 200 companies, very few on leading Boards or in top posts in Commonwealth, State or Territory departments. But this gap is no longer just about racism, or inequality of opportunity.

At a time of unprecedented goodwill and commitment, the systemic dislocation of candidates and opportunities required a circuit breaker – and I decided there and then that circuit breaker would be crafted on my watch.

One of the most common questions I am asked by organisational leaders across Australia is ‘Where are they?’ Where are the Indigenous leaders that organisations seek?

At the same time, Indigenous leaders – who have not typically had family role models in high-flying careers, or school networks, or even just workplace acceptance – most frequently ask me the simple question; ‘What’s next?’ In asking this, they are not asking for the next chapter of their career to be written for them, but they want an idea of what is possible, of where opportunities could lie and how to find a role that enables them to thrive without having to hide their culture or defend their Aboriginality.

So I quit my post as CEO of a great, well-respected organisation to establish one of Australia’s first Indigenous executive recruitment companies. We are challenging Australian organisations to pledge their support for 5% of senior roles in business and government to be awarded on merit to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by 2025.

On merit – not token roles. It is simply an aim to have Australia’s boardrooms reflect the proportion of First Australians in our population.

I have been told that, with few Indigenous executives currently serving in Australian organisations, this goal is fanciful. Noble, but unworkable. But I have met the talent, and I have met the corporate and government leaders wanting change, and I know it is not.

So Pipeline Recruitment, our shiny new recruitment company within Pipeline Talent, is going to endeavour to change Australia, one great hire at a time. We want to shine a light on undiscovered talent, with recruitment solutions and ongoing coaching and support that change the traditional recruitment paradigm, creating a win-win for everyone.

It’s a mammoth goal. But as the man around the campfire said, with so much support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the community today, it’s an idea which should not be suppressed a moment longer.