This is the tenth instalment of my conversation with Nigel Lake, CEO of Pottinger, a global corporate advisory firm based in Sydney, Australia. Nigel is the author of The Long Term Starts Tomorrow, a must have book “for any manager, leader or Minister.” The Hon Mike Baird MP, Premier of NSW
Tom: There has been a lot of support given to entrepreneurs in the UK in the last few years which seems very promising. Do you think that Australia is perhaps falling behind in that area?
It is not a question of “is Australia falling behind?” Australia is massively behind.
I moved [to Australia] in 2003 and was amazed by the almost complete lack of online anything. Wind the clock forward and the online businesses of the big companies are still terrible. So there has been an amazing lack of innovation.
[Pottinger is] quite plugged into the entrepreneurial universe here through the universities, through some of the people who have invested in those companies, and through the incubators and so forth. We have put a fair amount of time into trying to support the evolution of that whole ecosystem because we think it’s amazingly important.
[Australia has] a political environment where there is a significant disaffection with science in general. There is a real love of things which are steeped in the past. There is a great unwillingness on the part of business here to embrace things which are new.
The poster child for success is Atlassian, the tech company, which sold its product in 10 or 15 countries to dozens of large companies before an Australian company would buy any of its products.
They are based in Sydney and had a fantastic platform for making your own wiki. They had a similar platform for managing agile software development programs, which is now used in many large companies around the world. Australian companies were at the end of the queue, despite the fact that the company is actually based in Australia.
Tom: So it sounds like there may be a cultural issue that Australia needs to overcome. I know that after finishing university a lot of the smartest people either leave Australia or take plum jobs in the established order of things. There appears to be a missing segment of the economy which exists in the UK and the U.S. And that is, young people trying to change things and create new businesses.
Nigel Lake: You just need to look at the university world. In most countries around the world, university students are pretty radical and protest about everything all the time. I have never heard an Australian student protest about anything apart from whether the temperature of their cappuccino is quite right.
There is an endemic acceptance of the status quo as being nice and comfortable and really quite reasonable, which to a significant degree it is. But you don’t have a change the world mentality, and people who want to change the world, as you said, they just get on a plane and they go somewhere else where they feel more welcome.
The only way you can change Australia is by changing its leaders. And that is about political leadership and business leadership. It’s an absolutely massive endeavour to attempt to do that. The challenge is that the political leadership comes out of the party system, which is breaking down in Australia as it is in the UK, but it is hard to see where that inspirational change the world leader will come from in Australia.