26 May 2010Launch of ‘Riding the Wave’ GuidelinesWellesley Boutique Hotel, WellingtonMervin SinghamKia ora. Good morning t...
an issue with that. Then one day they found they were not beingconsidered for tenders in lucrative, emerging Asian economi...
China division of the Fortune 500 company they worked for. Most of theseambitious professionals want to contribute to runn...
justice or doing the right thing. Today, it really is about doing the brightthing.It is about employing the best people fo...
I would like to thank the many people who supported us in developing thisresource, particularly the people that contribute...
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Riding the Wave Speech: Mervin Singham

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"Riding the Wave" is a resource aimed at encouraging organisations to unlock the potential of a diverse workforce. Managing intercultural diversity is important for businesses which are looking to be smart, efficient and innovative.
This speech was given by the Director of the Office of Ethnic Affairs, Mervin Singham on the launch of the "Riding the Wave" guidelines in Wellington, New Zealand.

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Riding the Wave Speech: Mervin Singham

  1. 1. 26 May 2010Launch of ‘Riding the Wave’ GuidelinesWellesley Boutique Hotel, WellingtonMervin SinghamKia ora. Good morning to you all.I am Mervin Singham, and I am delighted to welcome you to the launch ofthe Office of Ethnic Affair’s ‘Riding the Wave’ resource today. Thank youfor making the time to attend. I understand we have a broad cross sectionof attendees from difference sectors here. We have people from FletcherChallenge, KiwiRail, Damwatch, the NZ Indian Business Council and theHuman Resources Institute of NZ. We also have senior representativesfrom government agencies such as the Ministry of Social Development,the Department of Labour and the Human Rights Commission.In particular, I would like to acknowledge: Phil O’Reilly (Business NZ) andCampbell Hepburn (The Johnson Group).The topic of diversity in the workforce conjures up many stories. Some arefunny, some are perplexing and others sad. One of the stories that cometo mind is about a young Indian colleague of mine. She confided in meabout a particularly odd aspect of selection in an organisation she onceworked for. Anyone who had a chance of progressing from internationalpolicy into the international business division had to pass “The LunchTest”, where the Managing Director decided if he would want to eat lunchwith this person for twenty years.The entire workforce of 40 staff, with the exception of one person, was,politely speaking here, homogenous. Naturally, the company did not have
  2. 2. an issue with that. Then one day they found they were not beingconsidered for tenders in lucrative, emerging Asian economies. The workdried up, and they started to spend more on creating a tender documentthan they would bring in per month.In desperation one day, and facing increasingly probing questions from hisBoard, the Managing Director called his business executive staff andinternational policy analysts into the room. He looked at the faces aroundthe table. One of those faces was of my colleague, the woman of Indianethnicity. Pointing to her, the Managing Director said: “There. You’reAsian. You probably speak their language. You deal with Asia.”In fact he made the right choice. The success the company had over thenext couple of years had little to do with the ethnicity of the individual, butmore to do with the different cultural style of working that breathed freshlife into a staid and dull company.Ladies and gentlemen, workforce diversity is associated with innovation,increased productivity, access to wider markets and more positive workingenvironments. The Harvard Business Review recently highlighted that twokey drivers for innovation in the workplace are a questioning approach thathelps companies break out of the status quo and consider newpossibilities. The second comes from networking with individuals fromdiverse backgrounds to gain radically different perspectives. Yet, manypeople are not seizing these opportunities.I was at the Harvard Business School last year. Professor Linda Hill, thechair of the faculty and a management guru in her own right, told our classthat ethnic minorities, particularly women, have to prove themselves twiceas much as others in order to get to the same place in their careers. This isbecause they lack the established networks with senior management thathelps people progress in their careers. Also they have to work twice ashard to establish their credibility with senior management and their peers.She spoke of brilliant Chinese Harvard MBA students, who speak fourlanguages, and were top of the class. Still they were only placed in the 2
  3. 3. China division of the Fortune 500 company they worked for. Most of theseambitious professionals want to contribute to running the whole company,not just the division that relates to their ethnicity.What a lost opportunity this is.So what does this mean for NZ? I think we need to wake up and smell thecoffee! Our societal DNA has changed forever. Population projectionsindicate that we will be transformed as a community by 2021, when 16-18% of our population will be comprised of ethnic minority people, otherthan Maori and Pacific peoples.We are already one of the most diverse countries in the OECD. And thatmeans our workforce is changing, and will continue to do so. So will theconsumers, and the markets that have generated profits for New Zealandin the past. Our traditional business allies are no longer the same. Today,New Zealand is heavily reliant on the Asia Pacific region for its economicfuture. In a customer-driven, global marketplace, multicultural intelligenceis a core factor in a company’s future success.Yet, although we live peacefully among this great diversity in NewZealand, at times we act in ways that deny it. We aren’t alone in thisdenial. Most countries in the Western world that face these dynamicchanges are preoccupied by the dilemmas that ethnic diversity brings.Many are deeply anxious about a sense of shifting identity and loss oftraditional values.These are valid concerns that must be dealt with. However, we must becareful not to be unduly focused on these challenges alone. If we do, wedeny ourselves the benefits that diversity brings – new opportunities,ingenuity in thinking and the economic and social richness that emergefrom diversity.Talk of workforce diversity is often associated with equity for minorities. Inthe Office of Ethnic Affairs we talk about employment on the basis of meritand merit alone. Employing ethnic minorities is not about promoting social 3
  4. 4. justice or doing the right thing. Today, it really is about doing the brightthing.It is about employing the best people for the job. Doing this means usingclear, objective criteria for getting the best people through the door.Unfortunately, research tells us our unconscious biases get in the way,leading us to hire people who are like ourselves.This is why we have created this resource called ‘Riding the Wave.’ It isnot another glossy bureaucratic publication that makes us look good. Wemean business. We want New Zealanders to understand how our richethnic diversity is a significant asset that is waiting to be tapped. We wantall New Zealanders to benefit from our country’s diversity.Many businesses and employers have told us that they want to create aninclusive and ethnically diverse workforce. But they don’t know what to doand how to do it.This resource is our answer. It provides practical guidance and highlightswhere employers and businesses should put their efforts. It explains howto manage a diverse workforce and what needs to measured in order toensure that diversity approaches are embedded in organisations ratherthan seen as a tack on.Making the tree of diversity bear abundant fruit for New Zealanders is anespecially slow process, like making fine cheese or developing wagyubeef. The most important catalyst for this process is a shift of thinking. Weneed to seriously start thinking and seeing diversity as an asset that wecan draw from rather than a social justice challenge. We need to be openabout learning FROM other ethnic groups and not just ABOUT them.I’ve attended many, many conferences over the years that espouse thevirtues of a diverse workforce. Finally, here is a resource that provides uswith the tangible tools to make it a reality. I hope you gain from it and thesupplementary support provided by the Office of Ethnic Affairs. 4
  5. 5. I would like to thank the many people who supported us in developing thisresource, particularly the people that contributed to the case studies in thispublication. I also want to thank my team from the Office of Ethnic Affairs,in particular our Intercultural Advisory Manager, Berlinda Chin, who wasresponsible for putting this resource together. Also to Craig Nicholson forhis sustained efforts around this work.I will leave you with a quote from John Stuart Mill:“It is hardly possible to overrate the value, for the improvement of humanbeings, of things which bring them into contact with persons dissimilar tothemselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with whichthey are familiar.” 5

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