VIEW: From the ground up, we need to start encouraging difference – Laura Conti

Laura Conti, experienced CFO and Founder of #GoKindly, believes businesses today aren’t welcoming ‘difference’ in the workplace. This is backed by recent research highlighting one in four employees feel the need to “minimise their heritage or personal identity to fit into a job.”

When embraced and encouraged, ‘difference’ can lead to innovation and creativity, Laura believes, and without this effort the result is lack of market competitiveness.  

In this interview, Laura outlines what ‘difference’ means to her, how her personal experiences have shaped her views today, and how businesses can start to bring more ‘difference’ into their workplaces.

  • What is the value of ‘difference’ in the workplace today?

I believe that difference is an under-rated and very important asset in a business. We need to learn in Australia to harness difference. The echo chamber inside executive and leadership teams is real.

  • How have your personal and professional experiences impacted how you analyse ‘difference’ in the workplace?

As a young person from a background of ‘difference’ I learnt to shut up, and not talk about my life experiences because the mainstream, privileged people I worked with didn’t value someone with different life experiences, they couldn’t relate to experiences so different to their own.  And I’d say that’s common in business – particularly conservative professional and corporate services, such as law and finance.

I was raised in a Fundamentalist Sect, in a remote part of Far Western NSW. I had a father inside the prison system, I had a mother with a serious mental illness. I was often caring for my siblings by the time I was 11 or 12. I left home young and had to support myself in a world I’d never been raised to understand – for instance I’d never had a TV or listened to radio.  I experienced homelessness and relied on a food bank as a young person. Despite growing up isolated from much of the world, I was very lucky to have  had rich cultural experiences, growing up surrounded by strong Indigenous people.

None of those experiences mean anything to mainstream employers and leaders – those experiences are not comprehendible to the average CEO or CFO.

  • Throughout your extensive experience in finance across a range of major enterprises, what have been your observations on how ‘difference’ is analysed and assessed in the workplace?

I have become increasingly passionate about demonstrating that we have a lot of ‘sameness’ in our leadership in Australia. I’m increasingly passionate about it, because I can’t see myself when I look at them. I struggle to see them as role models, when they have so little in common with my life experiences. Our leaders lack diversity of thought, education, religion and class – and that’s not even mentioning race, gender and sexuality – which gets a lot of media airtime!

When I look at the ASX Top 200 – the CEO’s and CFO’s are mostly clone’s of each other. I’ve started jotting down info about them as it comes up in the media – and noticed pretty quickly that they predominantly come from private schools, have anglo surnames, and went to group-of-8 universities. These people are not diverse – they don’t represent me or anyone I grew up with.

  • What’s your advice to other business leaders on making the most of the diverse workforces they have, while also ensuring they continue to attract diverse talent?

Sameness doesn’t breed creativity or innovation; sameness often shuts down anyone who thinks differently. In my career I’ve seen executives and leaders surround themselves with people like them – possibly without consciously realising that is what they are doing. It feels comfortable to be surrounded by people like you. But you don’t learn and grow in comfort! Business (and politics) needs to learn how to be open to difference, how to be respectful of difference, and to learn from different perspectives.

From the ground up, we need to start encouraging difference. When we hire, we need to be hiring from diverse educational backgrounds, when we do interviews we need hiring managers to have real-life skills so they can relate to people with different life experiences. When managers are rewarded and measured they need to be held to account for having not just gender diversity, but all kinds of diversity. A measure of ‘sameness’ needs to be invented and reported on – to hold our businesses to account!

We need to be looking at the people we surround ourselves with, and actively seeking out interactions with difference. For example, how many people volunteer with charities outside their own privileged postcode? How many consultants actively take on work with regional businesses, indigenous businesses. How many people support children in foster care, adults coming out of jail. There are many, many programs for individuals (and businesses) to participate in which take you outside your comfort zone – and leaders need to step up and be willing to accept they live privileged lives.

  • Why did you start #GoKindly Social Enterprise? What are the key goals for this organisation?

I started my own social enterprise, #GoKindly, because I believe there is a place for business to be involved in changing the world. I believe that profit can drive social change. I also want to hire and support ‘people of difference’, because I can see that they’re an untapped resource.

People from backgrounds of ‘difference’ have resilience and grit in spades. We often don’t have established networks, family support, or many role models – but we know how to work hard and I want that hard work to be more valued.

At #GoKindly, we create bed & bath goods and use the proceeds to support women experiencing homelessness. I’m passionate about this business being a ‘closed loop’ – which recycles old goods into new ones, which has more ‘difference’ in its ranks than ‘sameness’, which lifts up people to be more than they dreamt of.

I also work as a Freelance CFO, which allows me to use my financial skills, and be choosy about the kinds of clients I work with. I get to chose to work with good leaders – leaders who value diversity for instance. I particularly love working in transformation and change programs with clients, because they are times in a business’ lifecycle when they can be more open to difference.

About the expert

With over 15 years’ experience inside businesses both large & small, Laura is a freelance CFO, and founder of Social Enterprise #GoKindly. In her career she enjoys driving financial growth and scale in small businesses, and facilitating change and innovation inside large companies.

She values thought diversity and believes that fabulous cultures are built by teams who are more different than they are alike, and leaders who put aside ego and seek out different opinions.

Laura has a BA with a double major in Chinese Language and Women’s Studies, and a BCom. She is a CA and AAICD and has an adventurous streak – pursuing open water ocean swimming and adventure motorbike riding in her spare time. Also, she has no spare time, as she had a toddler.