Cultural Exchange

Wednesday, 01 November 2017

Fiona Smith photo
Fiona Smith
Journalist, Writer and Communicator

    Jingmin Qian FAICD, non-executive director of Abacus Property Group, and Peter Warne FAICD, chair of Macquarie Group, have polar-opposite backgrounds — perhaps that’s why their mentoring has been so successful.

    Jingmin Qian

    I came to Australia when I was 26 to do an MBA and fell in love with an exchange student from Germany who became my husband. In those early days, I had few friends — just people I knew from China.

    I didn’t know Peter by name before I started the AICD Chair’s Mentoring Program, as I didn’t follow the directors’ community that closely. He has a strong technical background, a quiet personality and is so sharp. I’m in a quite nerdy group of people and some traits of my personality are like his as well. It’s great that someone with our combination of traits can be a leader today. It makes you feel that we are in a good place.

    You are Asian, you are female and you are short. You have to work harder to have that presence.’ I said, ‘How do I work harder? Those are three things I cannot change.

    When I was at Boral, in middle management, I was part of a group sent to do leadership training. Of 30 people, I was one of two women and one of two people with an Asian background. The trainer was American. He asked me to stand up and said, “You are Asian, you are female and you are short. You have to work harder to have that presence.”

    I said, “How do I work harder? Those are three things I cannot change.” I wasn’t confident in how far I could go. I knew I was doing good work and was valued, but could I be considered for a board leadership role in the future? A lot of people were telling me I needed to be more assertive — that was 10 years ago — and I have now grown more assertive and confident.

    Two years ago, I did a leadership course at Harvard Business School. It was powerful. Leadership is about being authentic, knowing your purpose and being transparent. You don’t need to pretend to be someone else — you can be comfortable in your own skin and do well.

    The people I’ve met as part of the mentoring program are all doing great work and are phenomenal in their own space, but they are all different. When you see through the surface to the difference in the individual — their character and values — you become more bonded in the way that you do things.

    Reading social media in the Chinese community, you see many people who think it’s nearly impossible to reach certain levels in Australian businesses because of the cultural difference. It’s not a two-dimensional issue. Yes, it is a lot of work for people of different backgrounds to challenge themselves, but there is more than one way to do it.

    During the program, Peter and I would meet in person every month. He introduced me to other directors when he felt comfortable doing so; he’s introduced me to some great people. I’m really grateful to him, as it wasn’t actually part of the mentoring requirements of the program.

    He helped me to work out exactly why I wanted to be a director. He asked me who I am, how I make decisions and why. All those questions go back to fundamentals. Directorships are not the best-paid jobs, but being a good director is merely being a good person — that is part of the purpose of life. It also provides me with the special opportunity to work in challenging areas that I am passionate about.

    The mentoring is officially finished, but I still see Peter reasonably regularly. Sometimes, when I have a question, I call him. Interestingly, he has now started to ask me questions about how he should do things.

    Peter Warne

    Jingmin has such a broad experience base. She is very analytical and looks for connections. She brings a great ability to analyse the issue, understand the drivers and the things that are important and work out what, if anything, needs to be done.

    She is the first person of Chinese background I have got to know in any depth. She knows a wide range of people at senior levels in business and government in China and it has been interesting to understand how the system works. Then there are the cultural differences. Both of those things I have found incredibly interesting and we have great conversations about them. Having access to those [cultural] skills and experiences — and being aware of the nuances — is vital for any company thinking about doing business in China, whether you need a director or an adviser.

    We meet for an hour-plus, with no embarrassing pauses. However, it’s probably a fair comment that I am the more reserved. She is very chatty, has a million things going on in her life, a broad range of interests and views, and is very happy to talk about all of those things.

    We are both fairly analytical people who want to get to the bottom of various issues and understand cause and effect. Neither of us are emotionally based or conceptual in that sense and that has made getting along very easy.

    Jingmin’s gender and Asian background are strengths — I keep telling her so. She has some rare skills and experiences and everyone is on the lookout for talented women directors. But I’ve said this to her: you don’t want to paint yourself as the “Asian expert”. She needs to be seen as a good director with some Asian specialisation, not someone who is only interesting to listen to when the conversation is about China.

    Jingmin has lived in Australia for 20 years and has good broad Australian business experience. People want directors who have broad business acumen, not just a specialist in a particular field.

    Through the Chair’s Mentoring Program, I have introduced her to a range of directors and search consultants who have been able to get to know and understand her. She picks up their views of how boards work and what a chair wants to see in terms of skills, experience and behaviour.

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