More on HRM

A CEO shares his diversity mindset

Does change really come from the top? And is it better to mandate diversity, or nurture it? A CEO and AHRI award finalist offers his perspective.

Many executives use the word “organisation” or “company” as if the noun were an extension of themselves. When they tell you, for example, “this company is focused on agility” they’re saying it’s a C-Suite priority. There’s nothing wrong with this, it means they care deeply about the company, however it does suggest a top-down way of thinking.

When David Smales, CEO of Energy Queensland, uses “organisation” it throws you, because he literally means the organisation’s people. He describes his role this way: “My job is about creating and maintaining the right environment for the organisation to thrive, both as individuals and collectives, and then getting out of the way and letting them create magic.”

To make sense of that sentence most people would switch “the organisation” with “our workforce” or “our staff”. It seems like a small thing but Smales’ word choice (and his statement in general) reveals the mindset of someone destined to foster diversity. So, it’s apt that he’s a finalist for AHRI’s CEO Diversity Champion Award (his fellow finalist is Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz, CEO and MD of Mirvac).

Smales has been in the energy industry for 35 years and his attitude toward work and diversity developed early, in the 1980s, when he was an apprentice mechanical craftsman in the power industry in the UK.

“There was a forced environment of working with different people every day – meeting hundreds and hundreds over the course of a few years. And you’re in a learning environment, so you’re learning the job, but you learn so much from individuals – their behaviours, values, their thoughts,” he says.

Setting the agenda

Forcing a new philosophy on a workforce is much less effective than encouraging them to develop it naturally. The opposite might be true at first, because you can make drastic changes and hit early targets, but this is rarely the case in the long run. Case in point: Google’s diversity report only shows marginal progress, after five years of being published.

At Energy Queensland, Smales doesn’t make his staff embrace diversity, he gives them the information and lets them figure it out. “From a cultural perspective, we promote diversity and inclusion. We’ve got an I&D council and working groups that are able to select their own priorities. And what that does is harnesses the organisation to make cultural changes as they see fit.

Importantly, Smales doesn’t think quotas would work for Energy Queensland, so they have a different tack. “We don’t say to a leader, ‘you’ve got 25 per cent females in your team, in two years you need to make that 35 per cent.’ We say, ‘here are all the benefits of diversity and inclusion.’ We lay out the whole business case and rationale for it and then look to support leaders to achieve the outcomes they feel they’re able to achieve.’”

That support is varied and includes:

  • A strong flexible work policy
  • Access to the company’s recruitment drives
  • A mentoring program: leaders are given access to other leaders who are already making progress in the space, in order to learn from them

“We also share a lot of stories around diversity,” says Smales. “And we have events throughout the course of the year at various different milestones. We launched our EQL Pride Network [for LGBTIQ+ staff] and we got something like 550 employees demonstrating their support for that. Change is being spearheaded on a number of fronts, but that’s been driven by the organisation itself. From a leadership perspective, we’re just trying to create the right environment for them to do that.”  


When asked to explain how storytelling works at his organisation, Smales would rather not go into detail – he doesn’t want to betray confidences. “Some of [the stories] are very extreme – both from a happiness perspective, and others from an extremely sad perspective.”

Smales talks a little bit more about this off the record, but considering what ‘diversity and inclusion’ is at its core – the embrace of marginalised groups – it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to realise what the stories must be about. However, he can speak to the impact storytelling is having.

“The teams at Energy Queensland who become exposed to their colleagues’ stories become much stronger as groups. They become more supportive, more open and more caring. As people connect at the human level, rather than the role level, they’re more able to have conversations around how they feel and how they are doing at work,” says Smales.

Change from the top

HRM asks Smales if, considering his approach, he believes change has to come from the top of organisations. “I think to a large extent the answer is ‘yes’. Otherwise organisations don’t actually change. I think naturally people look to see what leaders think is important. So if a leader talks genuinely and authentically about the benefits of diversity and inclusion, then people start to become more aware and more open to that way of thinking.”

“We’ve got a long way to go even though we’ve made a lot of progress in the last five to ten years. Most energy companies are now sold on the benefits – the business case has been proven and it’s a non-issue.

“The issue that our industry faces is the ability to increase levels of diversity in a meaningful time frame. A lot of the challenges are around availability of people and the rate of vacancies – there are some practical issues. Some organisations have been very innovative around that; and some organisations are mandating change around their performance metrics.

“At the end of the day we’re all human beings. And it’s important to connect on the individual level because every person matters. People’s differences enrich our conversations, our understanding, and our perspectives. And if you’re open to listening, you get better outcomes – including better business decisions.”

Be recognised for your HR achievements by applying for an AHRI Award in 2019. Express your interest online.

Leave a reply

  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of
More on HRM