Leadership and influencing change

Tuesday, 01 March 2022


    Andrew “Fuzz” Purchas OAM GAICD is co-founder of Pride in Sport and chair of the ACON Health finance and audit committee. He draws on his rugby experience to advocate for diversity in business, sport and society.

    The good thing about rugby is there is a position for everybody on the team. Yes, there’s the physicality, but what really matters is how the team draws on a lot of different strengths to play the game and whether everyone is confident their teammates are there for them.

    My dad was very conservative and strict, so while I’m not spiritual, he taught me, “do unto others” and that whenever you commit to something you have to fulfil it.I remember him coming home one Friday, when I was eight, to find I wasn’t at rugby training. When he asked why, I said, “I don’t feel like it”. I basically got kicked all the way there — so that was an early lesson about being true to your word and following through on commitments.

    When I became captain of my rugby team, it was clear you were judged by your actions and what you say. You’re not a leader just because you’ve been appointed to the role, you have to work to get people’s trust and lead by example. Everyone gets tired, but you can’t ask people to dig deep if you’re not prepared to do it yourself. That doesn’t mean you have to do everything — you can delegate, but you need to be reliable.

    Coming out

    Back in my younger days, there was a huge disconnect between who I was and who I showed to the world. I was a basket case before I came out. I had a male partner, but because I didn’t have enough confidence, I’d be very careful about what pronouns I used to describe my partner, and whenever the companies I worked for had a big event, I would take a woman. Then, after a few years, one of my friends said to my boss, “Why does Andrew keep on bringing a woman to these events when, you know, he’s gay?”

    Like many people, I didn’t come out until later, when I felt it was safer. Because while there’s been good progress in corporate diversity in the past decade, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

    When CBA started its LGBTQIA+ network, it asked employees how many identify as same sex-attracted and three per cent said yes. The next survey, it was 7.5 per cent. That shows more people came out because there was more awareness and acceptance of how important it is to create a workplace where people can bring their true selves.

    However, that proactive support for diversity is taking longer to filter into sport and Australia is miles behind other countries.

    Inclusive advocacy in sport

    I didn’t really get gay rugby at first, and I certainly wasn’t out for many of the years I played. In early 2000, my partner and I went to San Francisco where a gay and inclusive rugby club called San Francisco Fog had started up. A lot of the guys had stopped playing sport in high school, or never played, because they’d experienced toxic masculinity and didn’t feel they could be themselves.

    I played on the team and became friends with a player called Mark Bingham, who died the following year. [Bingham was one of the passengers who, during the terrorism attacks of 11 September 2001, stormed the cockpit of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed into a field outside Pittsburgh.]

    The Fog inaugurated the Bingham Cup tournament in his honour. Just seeing the passion these guys had to be part of a team sport, where they were accepted and encouraged to participate, motivated me to start a gay rugby team in Sydney in 2003. It’s not a gay social group — it has rugby at its core and it’s always been important that we’re competitive. It’s hard for other teams to give you a hard time if you beat them. A decade later, we had 30 gay rugby teams coming to Sydney for the 2014 Bingham Cup, so we decided to put a real focus on homophobia in sport. We found all four football codes in Australia relied on the Anti-Discrimination Act, a really low bar. So, in April 2014, we held a nationally televised press conference and invited the four football codes and cricket to commit to implementing inclusion and anti-homophobia policies by the time the Bingham Cup happened in September. All the CEOs signed on television, but by September, Rugby Australia was the only code that had actually followed through.

    Obviously, having the CEOs sign a bit of paper wasn’t enough.

    Bingham Cup then worked with ACON (formerly the AIDS Council of NSW), the Australian Human Rights Commission and Australian Sports Commission on the Pride in Sport Index, which is similar to the Australian Workplace Equality Index.

    Since then, Australian sport has come a long way. Many Australian sports codes are now members of Pride in Sport — part of ACON’s Pride Inclusion Programs — helping organisations create environments where people can bring their true selves.

    There’s now a lot more awareness of how important it is to make inclusion real — people will pick up if it’s tokenistic. What makes a sports team or business successful are shared values and purpose — having everyone rally around goals and aims they believe in creates its own momentum.

    Collaborative leadership

    I started my career as a solicitor, then worked in supply chain with McDonald’s before getting excited about new technologies in the early days of machine learning and AI. I became chief security officer at Westpac internet banking at the time cyber fraud began to appear. We had to create new anti-money laundering and fraud- detection models using neural networks.

    I’m keenly interested in how technology can help improve decision-making, although when you’re setting goals you want to be really clear about the intent — it needs to be realistic and everyone needs to be able to articulate it.

    Being a consistent leader is important, but there’s strength in being vulnerable and admitting when you’re wrong or could’ve done something better. It might feel hard in the short term, but in the long run, your team will trust you more and be more loyal.

    We often see in the political class — and sometimes in business — that people stick to their guns despite changes in circumstances or knowledge. Listening to different perspectives helps. Having a diversity of lived experiences on a team helps you identify opportunities or challenges you might’ve missed. That’s true whether you’re making big decisions in sport, business or on a board. When a board goes through its skills matrix review, part of that should be looking at the diversity of the board — and it makes sense to have quotas. Diversity is especially important at the boardroom table to get input on decisions that will impact a lot of different people, not just people like you.

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