Salesforce ANZ CEO Pip Marlow has encouraged Australian business leaders to lean in to the changes brought on by the fourth industrial revolution and urged local organisations to improve the diversity of their leaders which she says will help manage the disruption.

Speaking at a Trans-Tasman Business Circle event for Australian women business leaders in Sydney the new Salesforce chief said technology like artificial intelligence will have a dramatic affect but it should not be feared.

“We can and will adapt as both individuals and as a society because we’ve done it before,” Marlow said. “But we need to do it with a real deliberate focus and action.”

Marlow told the room, which included Australia’s preeminent female business leaders that they needed to “rethink” their approach to culture, learning and innovation if Australia is to manage the change and potentially lead the world.

In March this year Marlow, who was still then running Suncorp, led a cohort of 35 Australian female business leaders on a “study tour” of Silicon Valley and San Francisco. This week a report from Capgemini based on the tour was released along with a campaign to promote more diversity in technology leadership roles in Australia, under the hashtag #futuretechwomenausnz . 

Marlow cited several statistics to underscore Australia’s current problem with diversity, particularly in leadership roles.

“Just 12 of Australia’s top [200] listed companies had a woman chief executive, a drop from 14 last year. We still have a gender pay gap in this country and women are only receiving 2 per cent of VC funding globally.

“I’m pretty sure we’re more than 2 per cent of the good ideas globally.”

Innovation tour

Marlow said there is currently “unprecedented change” being driven by technology and there is growing fear and doubt about the impact of technologies like automation and artificial intelligence, particularly in regard to job displacement.

“Fear kills creativity,” Marlow said.

“And we’re better not to wait for a platform to see what happens but, instead, to create burning ambitions, about how we break these changes and create work. And really that’s where the study tour came in.

“It allowed us to lean in, to better understand the impact of this technology and really think about the way it is going to impact the way we live, work and play.”

Marlow said the US tour, which included visits to IBM, Salesforce, and Stanford university, demonstrated the high value tech pioneers place on culture and capability, something she said Australian businesses need to focus on because of a smaller talent pool.

“There was a relentless focus on the importance of culture inside an organisation. Without failure, every single company was committed to finding, creating and sustaining the right culture for their organisation.”

Sunita Gloster, chief customer officer of WPP AUNZ and also on the tour, says the successful culture of tech leaders in the US is evident in their language and targets.

“The most frequently unheard words when we were away were profitability and efficiencies. It didn’t come up in any of the meetings we went to and it was actually notable by the end of it.

“For anyone that’s been to Silicon Valley, it’s really easy to be caught up in the infectiousness of change and innovation and growth, and you come back here [to Australia] and you walk into a room, which all of us are probably in at the moment, where we’re forced to do more with less.

“The constant conversation [in Australia] is around finding efficiencies to do these things.”

That focus could be even more damaging, Gloster says, when technology like AI forces businesses to reimagine their models.

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