Business leader spruiks dangers of the status quo

The former leader of one of Australia’s most recognisable retail chains has said that Australia is a victim of its own success, as 25 years of continuous economic growth have put the brakes on innovation and diversity.

“Australia in particular…hasn't had the economic shocks that a lot of other countries have had, and sometimes if you don't go through those hard times, you're not forced to change, and so you'll stick with the status quo,” said Mark Bilton, the former group managing director of Gloria Jean’s Coffees.

“New Zealand, for instance, has gone through some massive economic shocks, and so their businesses tend to be more flexible, more innovative, and possibly more entrepreneurial, and other places in the world are similar.

“So we have quite a conservative business culture, which helped us in the global financial crisis, but with transitioning to a digital business environment now – what I call business 2.0 – it's holding us back. So productivity rates are low, engagement rates are very low, and we're slow to adopt technology.”

Mr Bilton is critical of having all the eggs in one basket, which is essentially what happened during the mining boom years.

“We've been able to go out west, dig a hole, [and] whatever we find, we give to China. That's why we've been growing. But there's a whole economy outside of the minerals and the mining sector that has to grow – and has to grow quickly – if we're going to catch up. We've had a very benign economy, that's been very reliant on resources and mining, and I think that's clouded, probably, the reality of where we're at [as] a business culture.”

Now operating his own business consultancy, Thought Patrol, Mr Bilton says creating diversity and attracting new talent, particularly within younger generations, should be at the core of every business strategy moving forward.

“Embrace what’s going to kill you,” he said.

“I think there's a real challenge, particularly for large institutionalised organisations, to create culture, to create strategy and to have a leadership environment that will actually embrace new generations.

“I'm a fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, so I'm part of the problem – [a] white/ Anglo Saxon, male baby boomer. We were listening to a very good talk on diversity, and I looked around the room, and here was the irony of these white/Anglo Saxon, male, grey-haired people listening to a talk on diversity going 'Yes, that's really important'. And yet, Australian businesses I think in general, are very conservative, very slow to adopt diversity.

“The business environment is changing so fast that a lot of them are going to be in trouble unless they really start to do leadership, culture and strategy in a completely different way.”

In July, Harvard Business School Professor Boris Groysberg spoke to Mortgage Business about a potential leadership crisis in years to come.

“In Australian markets, people basically get developed as a specialist. In not many cases do you actually develop people who are general managers. Job rotations have been in decline in Australia, so one of the challenges – not right now, but in 2025, 2030, 2040 – is a leadership challenge,” he said.

“And to my mind it would be a bigger challenge than technology: where will the next leaders of companies come from?”

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Adam Zuchetti

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