Is Michelle Guthrie’s exit from the ABC a setback for culturally diverse leadership?

Is Michelle Guthrie’s exit from the ABC a setback for culturally diverse leadership?

Simply put, the handling of the now former ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie was humiliating. While there are reports of ABC employees relieved with her departure as her tenure was said to have low staff morale and a significant amount of job redundancies, her termination nevertheless has broader implications on what this could mean for Australia’s tenuous path of achieving diversity in leadership.

Obviously we need to look at the facts and specific reasons why the ABC Board decided to terminate Guthrie’s employment midway through her five-year contract. But the vague information that has been put out so far, that is issues with her leadership style and relationship with the Australian Government, indicates a scenario that could have possibly set her up to fail and may cause women and people of culturally diverse background to rethink their leadership aspirations.

Let’s unpack the reasons.

Leadership style

The ABC Board advised that it was not in the best interests of the ABC for Guthrie to continue. They believed that new fresh leadership would benefit the organisation and the long-term interests of its people and Australian viewers and listeners. Because there is so little detail about what went wrong, speculation is that she was not the right fit for the job in terms of understanding the business and advocating for it.

That said, this sends a terrible message to aspiring leaders out there on what it takes to reach the top. Was she appointed for tokenistic reasons?

Gender and race has to be called out because the diversity in Australia’s leadership is so under-represented. The Human Rights Commission found that within senior leadership positions in business, politics, government and higher education in Australia, 4.7 per cent were people from a non-European background. Cultural diversity was found to also be particularly low for Australian public entities like government departments and universities.

For this reason, the success and failure of someone like Guthrie is even more acute. This was highlighted by Dai Le and I last year when we welcomed her vision to “embrace diversity” in the ABC.

So to be sacked so unceremoniously and with immediate effect, this could create a chilling effect both from the point of view of aspiring leaders but also employers – we tried something new and chose someone different, and look how it failed.

Relationship with the Australian Government

The ABC Chairman has commented that part of Guthrie’s failings was a difficult relationship with the Australian Government. This reason is somewhat galling because it is becoming well clear for the world to see that appalling behaviour is also found in the Australian Government . A number of female politicians representing the government have gone on the record to say there is a longstanding culture of bullying and sexism.

While some may argue to look at the specifics of Guthrie’s performance and her relationships with key stakeholders, what must be remembered is that people with diverse backgrounds have a tougher job of navigating systems that were not built to benefit them.

Guthrie’s experience shows that she did not thrive because she could not successfully adapt to the existing systems, and these systems were unwilling to embrace her vision of change. These two factors are not conducive for achieving diversity and inclusion.

Katie Calvey is an Australian public policy specialist who has dedicated most of her decade-long career on developing government reforms which have been instrumental in driving social change and positive outcomes. Her experience includes providing strategic advice on complex and diverse issues ranging from education policy, social justice to legal reform.

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