Many of our top 100 chief executives are from regional Australia

21% of Australia’s top 100 chief executives were born in regional Australia, according to the “Pathways to CEO” research undertaken by the University of Sydney Business School.

It is discussed in today’s Sydney Morning Herald and more on the research will appear in the Australian Financial Review’s “Boss” magazine.

When overseas-born chief executives are removed from the figures, the percentage of regional-born Australians in the top 100, rises to 38%.

It would be interesting to also know how many leaders in Australia’s business community have spent time living and working on farms or cattle stations (though not born and bred in the country themselves).  I’ve met quite a few.

But something that I’ve pondered upon ever since joining LinkedIn a few years ago, is why so many businesspeople who have a rural or regional background, don’t mention it.

In my observation the number of people who do have any mention of their rural or regional background in their LinkedIn profile, is less than 10%.  I could name a raft of them, starting with a well known magazine editor.  More than 90% have omitted any mention that they grew up outside a capital city.  Attended a regional high school?  Leave that off the public record!

Why?  Are they embarrassed about their rural upbringing? Do they feel it may prejudice the view of others towards them?

I believe so.  And unfortunately, with good cause.

There has always been a perception amongst many in our largest city, that those who don’t live there, don’t live there because they’re not up to scratch.  They’re “also rans”, or “would-be’s if they could-be’s.”

It couldn’t possibly be that they’ve actually made a conscious choice not to locate themselves in Sydney! Doesn’t everyone think it is the pinnacle of the universe?

I got a laugh from the fact that the SMH article writer chose to write “from Tamworth to Tenterfield and Bathurst to Broken Hill”.  He’s covered a laughably tiny area of Australia with that, just a slice of NSW – you could throw a rock from Tamworth and nearly hit Tenterfield, in relative terms!  Plus the rubbish insult “banana bender” is trotted out (I doubt the writer knows that the nearest banana plantations are more than 1,000km from Mt Isa.)  Hopefully the Boss magazine article doesn’t include “sandgroper” or “croweater” terms.

Wesfarmers chief executive Richard Goyder would not have been trotting out a ‘quip’ when he said: “Tough times, plenty to do in terms of work and maybe a bit of resilience,” in relation to growing up on a farm.  He would have been entirely serious, and is spot on.  One can only conclude the article writer has absolutely zero knowledge of farming, or doesn’t understand what the term ‘quip’ actually means.

The Sydney-centric view is endemic in all fields relating to art and culture, academia, business and the media.  I’ve encountered a great deal of it over many years.  (It must be mentioned – Melbourne just tends to quietly go on its way, getting the job done.  There is an arguably larger and more innovative cultural scene located there.)  I love visiting Sydney; it has a fantastic harbour, stunning beaches and a great atmosphere. But I’m not the only one who finds the arrogance impossible to love.

Unfortunately, because so many business people have chosen to hide the fact that they grew up in a regional area, the stereotype of rural and regional people being less smart, less driven and less well educated, still thrives.  Though the reality is – the further people live from capital cities, the more resourceful, resilient and tolerant they have to be.  And farms are multi-million dollar businesses requiring careful physical and financial management; often involving the very latest technology. In our harsh and unpredictable climate, any farmer who isn’t at least reasonably smart goes bankrupt quickly.  And it’s very, very easy for someone from a remote area to move to a city and rapidly adapt.  But not the reverse.

Time for everyone with a regional background to be loud and proud about it.  Major General Michael Jeffrey, AC, CVO, MC, the twenty-fourth Governor General of Australia, set a great example in this regard.  He is proud of the fact that he grew up in the tiny Western Australian town of Wiluna and doesn’t hesitate to mention it whenever relevant.

I hope someone studies the background of people who have achieved great success in other fields.  I suspect the figures for people who have risen to the top ranks in sport, would be similar or even higher.  Thankfully, at least sportspeople don’t seem to feel the need to be embarrassed about their background.  Instead the feats of expense and travelling endurance are trotted out as badges of honour – which is exactly as it should be.

I really hope that Australian businesspeople become confident enough to no longer feel the need to downplay the fact that they were born and bred outside a large city. Even if up-and-coming businesspeople still feel the need to keep it quiet when starting out, I hope they’ll get noisier about their rural/regional background once they have runs on the board.  It would benefit the whole of Australia.

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