The ‘tall poppy syndrome’ that permeates Australian organisations is holding them back from creating a business environment where human capital and its development is a strategic national priority.
This is the view of Peter James, chairman at Macquarie Telecom Group and former non-executive director at iiNet, who says although state and federal governments are ensuring the innovation debate is right up front, the nation's businesses run the risk of being mediocre.
“We have this tall poppy syndrome and if you go to the US, over there they celebrate success … here we don’t want to be too successful because you might be letting your mates down. The tall poppy syndrome at the top is still relevant,” James said.
James, who was part of a panel on technology strategy at the ACS Reimagination event recently added that Australians also have a fear of failure.
“You’ve only got to pick up the Financial Review or any [other publication] and if anyone trips it’s on the front page of the media. Whereas if you go to the US or other parts of the world, failure is just part of having a go, it’s okay to fail as long as you get up quickly and learn from it.”
He said there are some venture capitalists and investors who “look for the scars on your back” to show that an entrepreneur has had a go and learnt from it.
“So I call out this culture that we in Australia need to address – tall poppy at the top end and the fear of failure at the bottom end.”
Fellow panelist, Richard White CEO and founder at WiseTech Global agreed with James’ assessment but said he believes the more central problem is the ‘politics of division’.
“We have a deep political divide … there is a message here that has to cut through all of the politics. It has to say that as a country, everybody has a role to play to project us forward.
“Each of us, whether we are successful entrepreneurs, whether we are wealthy, whether we are poor, whether we started from humble beginnings and dragged ourselves up, we have to find a way of envisaging the future and not feeling that it is being taken away from us by someone being successful,” he said.
White argues that while people in Silicon Valley and California love entrepreneurial success, the rest of the US doesn’t necessarily share the same view.
Still, Australia needs to celebrate success and we can’t 'turn inward' and try to protect ourselves from the rest of the world, he said.
“Stopping 457 visas isn’t going to make us safer. We export enormous amounts fresh food, coal, iron ore and many other things and now we are in a position where we are starting to get a hold on exporting knowledge.”
White said that with a strong economy, good taxation, legal and government systems, Australia has enormous potential to be a knowledge leader.
“The culture of our country wants to disrupt, it wants to break through, it’s one of those countries where everything faces the right way and yet we still have to turn inward and start criticising ourselves and ignore the fact that the only way forward is forward.
“It’s politically easy to beat each other up but nobody wins.”
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