Kordia Group chief executive Scott Bartlett says he is in the minority - gay and a CEO of a large New Zealand business. He fears some of the LGBT+ community are worried their sexuality will impact on their careers
New Zealand has made solid progress over the past 20 years when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Unlike some liberal democracies around the world, we continue to advance towards a more equal society.
But we should not kid ourselves that equal opportunities are a given in New Zealand. Stigma, bigotry and prejudice remain effective in slowing the progress of women, the LGBT+ community and people of minority races.
I'm gay. I'm also a CEO of a large New Zealand business. There aren't many Kiwis who fit both of these descriptions. There also aren't many (or enough) female, Māori or Pasifika CEOs.
The lack of representation makes me worry that there are members of the LGBT+ community who are fearful that their sexuality may hinder their career progression.
We need to inspire our young people, particularly those in minority groups, to strive for a position in upper management or leadership. We need to tell our stories in the hope they believe their passions and talents will define them, not the colour of their skin or who they love. That's my hope and reason for writing this piece.
Diversity: A business asset
On a personal level, it's horrible to think our society makes some people feel marginalised for being who they are. From a business perspective, the creative ideas and passion that the economy is missing out on through discrimination, whether subconscious or not, is wasteful. Without embracing diversity, New Zealand business will quickly become stagnant and fall behind the rest of the world.
I've had this conversation with several friends over the years. They've shared stories with me about feeling the need to change or moderate their personalities to fit in at work, or worse, hide who they are. An organisation with a culture where employees can't be themselves isn't likely to nourish the creativity needed to be successful. These businesses will lose talented staff and will produce products and services that aren't representative of today's New Zealand.
Several years ago, I interviewed to join the board of a major New Zealand listed corporation. I was told that while I had the skills and experience, my "lifestyle" meant I wouldn't be a good fit with the board culture. They didn't mean my love of gardening. At the time I was hurt and disappointed, feeling I had something to contribute to an iconic Kiwi brand in decline. Today that same company is one of the worst performers on the NZX. Surely, hiring people that only look and sound a certain way is not going to produce out-of-the-box thinking needed to re-energise the brand. I wonder if an invigoration of diversity and all the new ideas that come with it is just what they need.
That said, I feel I've been extremely lucky to avoid major prejudice in my life. Sure, I've had numerous times when I've been the victim of mean-spirited jokes, and when I was younger this really eroded my confidence. Fortunately, this has had little impact on my career, but I acknowledge that being a Pākehā man with supportive family and friends has shielded me from overt discrimination to some extent. But discrimination isn't always on full display, it often works in the shadows. Whispers of prejudice that disadvantage or unfairly treat people can be hard to prove but pack the same punch.
We need to share more success stories to inspire young minorities and educate our community on the advantages of diversity. I look at inspirational leaders such as Vittoria Shortt (ASB CEO), Vic Crone (Callaghan Innovation CEO), Dr Farah Palmer (Director NZ Rugby) as role models for young women. And let's not forget that our Chief Justice, Governor General and Prime Minister are all women.
New Zealand has come a long way. Gay marriage was legalised in 2013 and more and more organisations are implementing official policies to embrace diversity. In an ideal world, policies wouldn't be necessary to help with equality, but we're not there yet and for now, it's a step in the right direction.
I'm extremely fortunate to work at Kordia and to be on the boards of ASB Bank and the University of Waikato. These are three organisations working hard to embrace diversity from the top down, recognising people for their talent.
In any organisation, I believe it's important to identify up-and-coming talent and put them on the fast track by investing in their development. However, business leaders need to be aware of an unconscious bias that can perpetuate the status quo, often to the detriment of people with a different gender, race or sexual orientation to the majority of the establishment.
Supportive environments are incredibly important in helping New Zealand organisations reach their business potential. Organisations that prioritise this in their office culture and employment strategies will quickly see the benefits. It's these environments that will develop our next set of great leaders.
Internationally and more broadly, I'm seeing more and more organisations empowering the LGBT+ community. In fact, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, our Minister of Finance Grant Robertson and Apple CEO Tim Cook are openly gay and have all talked about the value of diversity.
The Israel Folaus of this world are still out there, but there are also people like Brad Weber and TJ Perenara, who went on the record defending the rainbow community and fundraised for several LGBT+ charities – what admirable New Zealanders. With people, or rather heroes, like this supporting gay rights and gay culture, I know we'll have a gay All Black one day.
I challenge all Kiwis to be more like TJ and Brad. You don't need to be in a minority group to support one and make them feel comfortable – from the workplace to the schoolyard to the rugby field. Creating supportive environments will help ensure all New Zealanders are offered equal opportunity based on their talents and the willingness to give it a go. After all, that's the Kiwi way.
AT A GLANCE: Scott Bartlett
• Age: 39
• Marital status: Single
• Lives: Mt Eden Auckland
• Upbringing: Grew up in Hawke's Bay, his father passed away when he was just 7 years old and he was raised by his mum - a strong, single mother of three who instilled the value of hard work and perseverance into him from a very young age. Went to Havelock North High School, he then went on to study at the University of Waikato. He didn't complete his degree, however, as he wanted to get straight into the workforce.
• Career highlights: Appointed chief executive of Orcon aged 26, then became group chief executive of Kordia 10 years later. Was appointed to the boards of both the University of Waikato and ASB aged 38.