Workplace conferences missing the point

I was going to pitch a version of this to The Conversation, but as you will read I got a tiny bit ranty. And while I’m probably helping to destroy any future employment opportunities (like I had any to begin with) I still had to get it all down .

“Ooh I would love to go to this” tweeted a learning specialist friend today. The ‘this’ in question was the Future of Work conference to be held in Melbourne in April by The Centre for Workplace Leadership which operates within the faculty of economics and business. I replied that I too would love to go but the $990 ‘early bird’ price tag meant that I’ll probably be at home that day plugging away on my PhD which, coincidently, is about leadership. I followed with a tweet that I was disappointed that a large potential group of participants in this event was never going to be able to attend, excluded based on cost.

While this is not a revelatory idea, something about it bugged me as the day progressed. How can we promote creative, ethical, practical, diverse discussions of what constitutes effective leadership when those doing the talking (and listening) come from a limited section of the community? The speaker list for the conference includes academics and business leaders, HR managers and CEOs from innovative organisations. And the audience, I’m sure, will be filled with more of the same. They bring research knowledge and experience in finance and venture capital. There’s a calculated mix of genders and nationalities, but they are also all from mainstream, generally large, institutions.

The Centre for Workplace Leadership undoubtedly has its target audience and revenue generation goals. Leadership is big business. A 2012 report on US companies suggested they spent almost $14 billion on leadership development, often with limited impact. The Centre for Workplace Leadership is only one organisation that offers a suite of training and development resources for sale in the Australian marketplace.

Despite all this spending leadership does not have a good reputation. There’s a lack of faith in our political leadership, the questionable ethics of our business leaders have now become pop culture material in films and books such as The Big Short and my own research into leadership within the cultural and creative sector shows that emerging leaders are giving the title of leader the cold shoulder.

Surely rolling out the same ‘innovative’ companies in the same over priced conference format is not changing anything? The Centre for Workplace Leadership’ mission says it aims to improve leadership across Australian workplaces, but in reality it is speaking to and for a very limited section of organisations. The creative industries, to highlight my own area of interest, is roughly 6% of the Australian economy, and of the 123,000 or so creative businesses in Australia 98% of them employ less than 20 people, many of whom turnover less than $200,000 annually (CIIC Valuing Creative Industries Report.) The only way any of these guys are attending a $1000 conference is if they are invited to speak as the ‘token creative.’

Couple conferences like these with the increasing corporatisation of cultural leadership and the conversations all start to sound the same. Is there any wonder that my research participants think ‘leadership’ is not relevant to them? If the only representation of leadership they see is a) political b) corporate, c) our (cough cough) sporting leaders then it is unsurprising that the title is not one they want to embrace.

This lack of diversity in discussion is not restricted to leadership. The rise in popularity of events like TEDxSYDNEY saw what once was a culturally and economically diverse event (which was free, but had a ‘curated audience’) shift to a advertising and design agency love in at the Opera House at $250 a pop.

Do I want to attend events like TEDx and The Future of Work? Damn straight I do. I believe I the power of conversation, peer learning and the importance of storytelling as a leadership tool. But if I have to hear the HR team from Macquarie Bank tell me how they implemented design led thinking to their leaders (with chickens and beanbags!) again with no actual creative practitioners in the room and everyone earning over $100k per annum (which did happen at a Sydney conference last year) I may tear my hair out.

How about a discussion on the future of work that actually includes all types of workers? Sole traders, freelancers, volunteers, organisational leaders, artists, creatives, activists and those that don’t even know what they are doing is leadership? Then we might have a conversation that makes a difference.

Rant over.