Business can benefit from students of humanities
A change of pace: Gail Kelly taught the language of Cicero and Julius Caesar in Zimbabwe before turning to banking. Photo: Michele Mossop
ONE of Australia's most powerful banking chiefs, Gail Kelly, did not start her finance career at Canary Wharf as a derivatives trader, or as a quantitative analyst at Martin Place. Instead she taught the language of Cicero and Julius Caesar to school boys at the exclusive Falcon College in Rhodesia, better known today as Zimbabwe.
Kelly's knowledge of verb conjugation and the Gallic Wars was enough to get her a banking job in South Africa. Since then she has scaled the highest peak of Mount Corporate in Australia, becoming the first female chief executive of a major bank.
However, if she were to apply for a prized graduate position at her own bank today it is more than likely that her classics degree would not be enough to get her through the door. All internship positions advertised on the bank's website require qualifications in commerce, economics or quantitative disciplines such as statistics and engineering.
This is ironic, especially considering Kelly's heir apparent - Brian Hartzer, boss of Westpac's Australian Financial Services division - is also a historian, with a degree in European history from Princeton.
The Westpac example shines light on a rather out-of-date human resource practice of corporate Australia - hiring people, especially at graduate level, from business academic backgrounds and overlooking arts graduates.
At the global financial hubs in London and New York, corporate employers are happy to take on archaeologists, philosophers or even cello players. It is not uncommon to see people with classics degrees running mergers and acquisitions departments of major banks.
In Britain, the highly regarded chartered accountant program is open to anyone with a degree and yet in Australia the program is only open to accounting students. The sad fact is that arts graduates are seen as second-class citizens in the Australian corporate job market.
Nikki Harrison, national head of recruitment at KPMG, one of the big four professional services firms, who has recruited in London as well as Australia, says: ''In the UK, a lot of people study English, literature and history and they join the big accounting firms. We [Australians] are more conservative and more risk-averse … we are very focused on culture fit.'' British business employers, not just those in professional services but across the sector, are much happier to take on people from non-business backgrounds.
This view is echoed by corporate strategist Peter Acton, the founding president of Humanities 21, an advocacy group for humanities education, and a former partner at Boston Consulting Group, an international strategy firm.
''When I first came to Australia 30 years ago, I was quite shocked at how vocational the bulk of tertiary education seemed to be here,'' says Acton, who studied classics at Oxford and Melbourne. '' I am not sure to what extent that is changed. I think there is much more pressure here on children to take on vocational courses.''
Acton, who advised leading companies on corporate strategy, suggests a humanities education can be useful in the business world.
''The ability to help a client to think through a complicated problem, to be able to articulate the logic and to come up with some creative ways of looking at problems, I think all these things come from somewhere other than straightforward vocational business education.''
There are signs that the business community is slowly changing. Professional services firms such as KPMG have abandoned their once rigid selection criteria and opted for more diversity in their graduate recruitments.
Technology giant Google is not only hiring computer nerds but also art critics. When still at Google as a senior executive, Marissa Mayer, now CEO of Yahoo, told The Times: ''We … will be hiring about 6000 people this year - and probably 4000-5000 from the humanities or liberal arts.''
Google is not the only technology company that is hiring humanities graduates. IBM Australia is also reportedly taking on classics graduates from the University of Sydney. Who would have thought that ancient linguistics was useful for computer programming?
Apart from Kelly and Hartzer at Westpac, there are many examples of Australian corporate leaders who have studied humanities as students and not been handicapped by their non-business education.
The man running Telstra, David Thodey, studied English literature and anthropology and had a distinguished career at IBM Australia. Kim Williams, arguably Australia's most successful media executive and head of Rupert Murdoch's empire in Australia, was trained as a classical composer.
The modern business world is a complex beast. Mining companies operating in remote parts of the world need to understand local tribal politics as much as the intricacies of mineral exploration. Bankers who said ''this time it will be different'' before the global financial crisis would have done well to take a lesson in economics history 101.
Corporate Australia should be opening its doors to people from more diverse backgrounds, including those who study humanities and social sciences. Business needs people who can understand the world beyond balance sheets and mathematical models. There are too many people at home and abroad who are showing that diversity is good for business for us to ignore them.
Ross Gittins is on leave.