20/08/2015 5:20 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST

Australia Needs To Swipe Right On Ambition

Relaxed businessman using his smartphone at office
thodonal via Getty Images
Relaxed businessman using his smartphone at office

Australia and ambition have a circumstantial relationship.

When it comes to sport, we're in the throes of a full-blown infatuation. We love winning, particularly over the Poms and Kiwis, and we really don't like being shown up... just ask the Aussie London Olympics Swim Team or the 2013 Ashes squad. Our ambition (and expectation) far exceeds our 23 million people "weight class" and, more often than not, we step up and deliver.

However, when it comes to business and politics our relationship with ambition isn't so warm and fuzzy.

In the world of business, it's complicated. We know what we like (hint: our "type" is maximising shareholder returns) and we're comfortable with pursuing it. But, when it comes to being a bit more adventurous and chasing variables like innovation and global operations, or investing in early-stage start-ups, we've routinely proved ourselves to be 'unable to commit'.

When it comes to politics we're estranged... long-term estranged. We seemingly resigned from the ambition-dating scene a couple of decades back and now we don't know our 'swipe left' from our 'swipe right'. It's as though we're testing a reverse psychology hypothesis that if we talk and act in an anti-visionary way (reducing deficits and fiscal cliffs, instead of stimulating growth and developing industries), ambition will magically rock up at our door with a box of chocolates begging us to get back together.

As Darrell Kerrigan from the quintessential Aussie movie The Castle would say, "Tell 'em they're dreaming".

We currently have only 8 percent of our businesses operating in Asia; the OECD ranks us 33/34 for the connection between our universities and the business community, which is exacerbating the skills mismatch of our workforce. We also show no signs of having a proactive plan for the 40 percent of jobs the 2015 PWC report on the Australian workforce estimated will be automated within the decade.

Earlier this year Harvard Business Review's Digital Evolution Index (DEI) classed Australia as 'slowly receding' with regards how we stacked up in terms of readiness for a digital economy. Based on the performance of Australia from 2008 to 2013, we were firmly labelled as a 'stall out' nation, a category reserved for countries that have achieved a high level of evolution in the past, but are losing momentum and risk falling behind.

We have a critical five-year period to get our skates on and if we want to shift from 'receding' to 'leading' it's time Australia got down on bended knee and promised to love and cherish ambition til death do us part.

However, there's a huge elephant in the room that makes this just that extra bit more difficult: tall poppy syndrome. Our beloved cultural sport of tearing successful people down is handicapping our progress. If what goes up will only be brought down, why would anyone want to go up? Why would people want to put their hand up to lead? As a result our current crop of leaders (consciously or unconsciously) seem to be opting to cruise at 34,000ft rather than try and break through to the stratosphere.

It's easy to respond to that by saying that we just need more courageous leaders and leaders shouldn't care about what people think about them but that's to absolve ourselves of any responsibility. Leaders can most certainly shape their environment but they're also a product of it. We, the shareholders and stakeholders, the voters and constituents, need to give ambitious leaders license to operate.

When did you last throw your weight behind an innovative idea at work? Sponsor a different perspective in to a seat at the table? Throw some of your investment dollars behind an emerging entrepreneur or collaborate with others to proactively challenge sub-par policy?

The standard you permit is the standard you get.

We want and deserve better than what we've got right now, so let's go get it.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Australia ranked 33/33 for the connection between our universities and the business community. It should have been 33/34. The piece has been updated to reflect that change.

This blog first appeared in August.


Holly Ransom is CEO of Emergent Solutions, a company specialising in high performance intergenerational engagement and leadership.