Indigenous business leader: we need to talk about racism

Shelley Reys, CEO of Arrilla Indigenous Consulting and partner at KPMG with her dog Scout. Picture: John Feder/The Australian.
Shelley Reys, CEO of Arrilla Indigenous Consulting and partner at KPMG with her dog Scout. Picture: John Feder/The Australian.

Australia needs to have a “big and brave” conversation about racism if we are to move to reconciliation, says one of the most senior Indigenous business leaders in the country.

Shelley Reys, a KPMG partner who has just been elected to the board of the professional services firm, says we need to move from “safe to brave” in order to change the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“When I think about the temperature of reconciliation at the moment … we can see a raised enthusiasm year-on-year for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures,” she says.

“We see more symbolism than ever before, flags, Indigenous motifs for NAIDOC, welcome to country … but we do need to keep our hands on the wheel and really pay some attention to turning goodwill, sentiment and symbolism into real action. And the only way we are going to do that is to move from safe to brave.

“In my mind that means we need to have the uncomfortable conversations about what is stopping us from really advancing in the ways that we want to.

“For example, if we look at business alone, there are more than 1100 reconciliation plans in existence and that is an awful lot of organisations that have made lofty commitments in the reconciliation space.

“It will only be possible to meet those commitments if we start to have some of those big and brave conversations, and I believe that the biggest and bravest conversation to have is the one about racism.

“None of us likes to think of ourselves as racist, none of us likes to think of our organisation as having policies and procedures that through our unconscious bias make it difficult for people to participate in the way that they could and should.

“It is a conversation that we need to have because it (racism) does exist and when we have those conversations, we learn from one another, we take down our armour, we expose ourselves professionally and personally and that’s what we need to really do.”

Reys is the first Indigenous person to be elected by the 600 KPMG partners to its 11-person board – an achievement she hopes will inspire other corporate boards and partnerships to build more diversity into their membership. Reys, who is a Djirribul woman, has spent almost 30 years in corporate and community work and has held a swag of board positions. She was the inaugural co-chair of Reconciliation Australia and is a former deputy chair of the National Australia Day Council.

As its CEO, she built Arrilla Indigenous Consulting over several years and worked closely with KPMG before selling the firm a minority share in 2016. She remains CEO of Arrilla as well as a KPMG partner.

Reys joins four other women on the KPMG board, including national chairwoman Alison Kitchen who says the partners wanted Reys not as an “adviser on Indigenous issues” but as a board member able to bring her business skills across all the firm’s issues.

After recent elections, the KPMG board now has almost equal gender representation of six men and five women.

Reys says it would be “shortsighted” if people think she has been voted in because she is Indigenous: “It would be a shame if people pigeonholed me. I have run my own business for 30 years, I have considerable governance experience … I have been on a whole host of boards since my late 20s. I have driven nation-building work …”

Reys says the reconciliation movement has become much more of a “people’s movement” with the broader public holding organisations to account for decisions they make about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“I was involved in the reconciliation movement … under a Keating government and it gives me great joy to see the people’s movement making some topics like that part of the everyday conversation,” she says.

Asked if Australians are afraid of using the term racist about behaviour of Australians, she says: “There are a lot of words that we have chosen to swap out for other words that are easier to hear and use because the difficult parts of our shared history are so recent.

“For example, stolen generations is a term that we came up with to describe what essentially slavery was and what other countries called slavery.

“We are more comfortable with the term unconscious bias than we are with the term racism but in the context of unconscious bias in the workplace, more often than not, it is racism.

“Whether it is conscious or unconscious is irrelevant.”

But Reys acknowledges that “people are running their own reconciliation race” and are at different points in the journey.

“Some people are more comfortable with some words than others, so my major interest is that we have the conversation to begin with,” she says.

She says that when she became deputy chair of the Australia Day council in 2004, no one was talking about the date of Australia Day other than Aboriginal people marching and protesting in the streets.

“We were the first to actually turn it into a formal discussion and debate,” she says.

“And now because of the people’s movement it has a life of its own. What’s important is the outcome, rather than the kind of language that we use a lot of the time.”

As for the politically complex debate over “race-shifters” – people who belatedly discover or claim an Indigenous history – Reys says: “Australia has a history of systemically removing children from their families, homelands and communities. Naturally, this removed them from their cultural teachers and customs.

“As this is recent history (in many cases, the legislation was still in use in the late ’60s and early ’70s), our living generations are made up of those with cultural authority and those with much to learn, retrospectively.

“Those who have much to learn should not be judged for the position they find themselves in. And I like to think that those who are not culturally capable are open to learning before becoming the teacher.”

Asked how boards or organisations should select Indigenous representatives, given the issues around Indigeneity, Reys says: “When I want to fill a position where Indigeneity is an important part of the role, I state that the successful candidate ‘will be of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent and be culturally confident’.

“This clarifies that I’m seeking a First Nations person who has the deep knowledge and lived experience that I – and my clients – can trust. When interviewing, these attributes are respectfully tested by me, personally.”

Reys says KPMG has matured as an organisation and applauds the “600 partners who stood up and said, this is the kind of leader that I want. Ten years ago KPMG would never have considered an Aboriginal woman to represent them on the board. It was unheard of.”

She says her appointment acknowledges the need for boards to reflect the diversity of employees and clients.

“Organisations talk a lot about diversity but I don’t believe that they really understand what it means and its value to an organisation,” she says.

She says people base their thinking on their own life experiences and this means they can sometimes lose opportunities to act in new or different ways.

“Organisations call this unconscious bias,” she says. “When you think about most organisations and their workforces, you will find there is a plethora of religions, ethnicities, transgender, straight, gay, LGBTQI.

“The list goes on. So the population of our workforces reflects the population of Australia. It’s a complete melting pot. It is quite old fashioned to look at diversity as some subset group that sits on the side. It is actually who our people are.”

Reys says she was initially unsure about putting herself forward for election to the KPMG board position.

“I have had a lot of board experience but I wasn’t sure that the firm was ready for my kind of leadership,” she says.

“I am a different kind of partner, let alone a board member proposition. I am CEO of Arrilla which is a joint venture between me and KPMG. I don’t walk the halls like other partners, I guess. But I am also an Aboriginal woman whose career has been devoted to reconciliation and lifting the Australian workforce’s efforts in that area.

“I am not an accountant, I am not an auditor, I am not a financial services professional. I see the value in being different but I wasn’t sure whether the firm did.”

Alison Kitchen, who has been chairwoman at KPMG for four years, says she has worked to change the composition of the board by bringing in an independent director; nominating partners who were new to the firm and who would not normally be elected because they were not known to other partners; and increasing the number of women. The board has had gender diversity targets for the partnership for some time and has now signed up to diversity targets, that is people from non-Anglo Saxon backgrounds. Kitchen says gender diversity is at 10 per cent with a goal of 20 per cent.

Kitchen says Reys’ broad business experience was important: “We can’t just build a board and say, we have an Indigenous person here and a gay person here and a black person here … and rely on them when an agenda item comes up (on a specific issue).

“We have to have board members capable of engaging across the full range of our agenda.”