An interview with Dr. Kathleen Turner: Enhancing Asia-Capability


Thinking Globally, Prospering Regionally. Image courtesy ASEAN EC 2015
Thinking Globally, Prospering Regionally. Image courtesy ASEAN EC 2015


Dr. Kathleen Turner is an experienced business executive and leader in the provision of global consultancy with a particular focus on Indonesia. Currently she’s the Queensland chair of the Australia Indonesia Business Council, the National Vice President of the United Nations Association of Australia, an expert panelist providing strategic advice to the Diversity Council of Australia’s (DCA) new project “Leading in the Asian Century: A national Barometer” and an Advisory Board Member of the Griffith Asia Institute. Asia Options sat down with Dr. Turner in order to get her views on what it means to be Asia-capable and how best to enhance Asia-capability.


You’re currently working with the DCA to establish the first ever ‘Australian workforce in the Asian Century’ national benchmarks. In light of this, what does being Asia-capable mean?

Being Asia-capable is more than just being culturally astute, it’s about knowing about the market environment, the regulatory environment, the dynamics of trade and investment and so forth.

Additionally, Asia-capability’s not just how an individual works in the market or in an Asian market, it’s also about working within teams and what the implications are for that. Working in the workforce with Asian counterparts requires an understanding of team dynamics and people management strategies as well.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that an understanding of business and/or commercial dynamics is an important adjunct to cultural acumen and therefore an important part of being ‘Asia-capable’.


Could you elaborate on some of the benchmarks you’re developing with the DCA?

There are a number of criteria that we’re looking at and there will be a tool for organisations to work with that will be almost like a check-list for Asia capability. The tool will form recommendations on what the business may need to invest in for their staff’s sake in order to bring them up to the benchmark. Exactly what that benchmark is depends on where you are in the organisation and what type of organisation it is. Therefore, from an individual perspective it’s variable. If you’re not there yet within a business, what can you do to leverage yourself to work within that environment? Well that’s a slightly different matter…


For someone wanting to develop their individual Asia-capability, what sort of opportunities are the most beneficial and should be prioritised?

There are a number of options, depending on what industry you’re interested in or would like to be a part of. In my case I graduated with an honours degree in Asian Studies and wasn’t sure what the next step was. I ended up taking a volunteer job through the Overseas Service Bureau, which is now Australian Volunteers International. That was a two year commitment and it engendered an interest initially in international development. I see that as a very good avenue to go down if you’re unsure about what to do next or obviously if you’re interested in the development/aid sphere, in which case, the options are many and varied. There’s the UN Peace Volunteers; the Australian Volunteer Program; the Australian Business Volunteers; and the Red Cross also offers volunteer work. Most of the volunteer work out there actually is in humanitarian roles.

However if for example you worked in agriculture, there’s the Australian Rural Leaders Program and they’re taking people to Indonesia for the first time this year, which is really exciting. Staying within the agricultural sphere there’s also the Nuffield Scholarship, based in Melbourne, which is a very prestigious agricultural scholarship where you get to do a placement overseas and come back to write a project based on your learnings.

If you’re in other disciplines, take a look at summer internship programs. Having worked in a big engineering firm, I’ve noticed that a lot of the younger graduates who end up getting hired started with an internship of some sort.

Another thing to consider is that one of the best outcomes you want to achieve when you get out of university is to have the networks. Anything you do in terms of investing in say an internship or a volunteer role is automatically going to bring you in contact with people in your industry, or even outside your industry, and it’s those networks that are going to pay dividends as you progress through your career. In fact, one of the things that put me in good stead was through a volunteer program, where I had a mentor who really nurtured me and literally gave me a job in Indonesia to expedite my career in that direction. How else could I have got that job? I don’t know.

Yet another thing to consider is that if you’ve done your undergrad, you might now be thinking about postgrad. Think about doing it in a research centre within a university which has a consultancy arm. So, for example, when I did my PhD at Murdoch University, I housed myself in the Asia research centre and at the time it had a consultancy arm through which I did some consultancy work for the World Bank in East Timor during my dissertation period and ended up making some great contacts.


What do you think about the importance of building a personal brand?

Personal branding, which essentially is the accumulation of experiences, is a very valuable long-term investment. I’ll take myself as an example.  I’ve tailored my commitments such that I now have some level of standing in the community and people will refer others to me, which helps enhance my career prospects. For instance, the Australia-Indonesia Business Council (AIBC), the United Nations Association of Australia, the Diversity Council of Australia, the Griffith Asia institute, whilst all volunteer roles, I have been referred each board position. It’s been almost like a domino effect where I’ve been on one board, so other people have referred me to another board and slowly I’ve build up a certain credibility and reputation. It doesn’t pay the bills, but I think when you’re younger, and when you’ve just come out of uni, it’s worthwhile investigating things like internships or volunteer roles so that you can build a foundation from which to go after the positions that you really want.


I’d like you to imagine that you’re back in undergrad and soon you’ll graduate. What’s next?

During my undergrad I would have done summer vacation internships with the view to consolidate my theoretical experience. I also would have combined my degree with something else via a double degree. I would have done something like business administration or economics, something that compliments or would consolidate my Asian studies so that it became more of a business Asia function, rather than just an Asia function.

I remember in ANU I became vice president of the Indonesia society, which I had down on my CV so that by the time I was out of university I had key differentiators, had created a little bit of a brand in the workplace and had started to develop networks. If I had my time over, perhaps I would’ve started trying to put myself in leadership positions earlier in my degree.

Coming out of university with the knowledge I know now, I would have joined an international global firm with offices throughout Asia and worked myself up until a point where I get deployed in Asia. I’d work in the Asia office for a reasonable time, perhaps move to different offices in Asia, and slowly work myself up the chain to a point where my experience is such that I’m able to exert influence on new board positions. In this way my seniority and leadership would be augmented by some senior roles on different boards, maybe a not-for-profit that I really admire, like Asialink for example.


In a recent report by the Asia Society entitled ‘Connecting Australia and Indonesia’ it was written that ‘There is good reason to be optimistic about the future opportunities in Indonesia. But to be successful, you’ll need to think differently’ – what do you think the authors meant by ‘thinking differently’?

I think you’ve just got to be informed. I actually don’t take that statement very seriously in that it seems to imply that we have to almost change ourselves, or that there’s this really unusual beast out there.

We’ve been dealing with Indonesia for a long time, and I think there’s a great repository of knowledge in Australia about Indonesia and its business dynamics. There are over 400 Australian companies doing business in Indonesia, so they’re obviously doing it well and they know how to do business in Indonesia. We have accumulated lots of market knowledge and intelligence regarding Indonesia and so I think it’s not a question of thinking differently but rather acting intelligently and with good business acumen so that you understand the market environment and the cultural context, so that you understand your objectives, so that you understand people’s motives, and so that you’ve prepared yourself sufficiently to facilitate an easier transition to grab those market opportunities. And that means certainly being knowledgeable about the language; the culture; the political machinations; the regulatory environment; financing; and the list goes on.

I don’t things it’s as monolithic as ‘think different’ seems to imply. In saying that, it’s surprising how few people are prepared to make that investment to think intelligently about what they have to do. I mean, people just have to understand that Indonesia is not Australia and we can’t operate in Indonesia like we do in Australia. If you understand that, then the opportunities out there, of which there are many, are quite a bit closer. The language amongst businesses at the moment is infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure, and what does that translate to? A lot of businesses are asking themselves, ‘look we’ve heard about infrastructure opportunities, but how do we get them?’ It’s not an easy question to answer because the information is sporadic, but I think if you want the opportunities in Indonesia and you do the research, you talk to the right people and you equip yourself with the right skills, I don’t see any reason why you can’t take your career in that direction.


Previously you have said that it is important as a young professional to be ambitious in a practical sense. What did you mean by that?

When I talk ambition, it’s almost a euphemism for enthusiasm and drive. You can’t just sit at home and wait for someone to knock on your door – you have to go out there! The other point I want to make in conjunction with that is: don’t think so short term. You should understand that your career is not over the next five years, you’ve got to look at least ten years ahead because realistically you’re not going to get that job in the big firm straight out of university, so go out there and invest in your skills and experience so that you’re on the cutting-edge. Then, in three or four years’ time, you’re a lot closer to achieving that goal.


Jakarta New Port, Image courtesy of Turner Urban Design


During the 2014 election campaign Jokowi revealed the need for half a trillion USD in funding for Indonesia’s infrastructure plans over the next five years. It’s widely acknowledged that the infrastructure needed is beyond the capacity of local institutions to fund or build. In light of this, what are the risks and the opportunities for those looking to position themselves in this space?

There’s clear opportunity for multinationals to be involved in infrastructure development because, even though Indonesia has an incredible labour pool, it doesn’t necessarily have the needed international experience.

Another reason why multinationals will be involved is that they’ll be sought after to provide the needed oversight of infrastructure development. With large financial commitments there are certain requirements imposed by lenders, which means fulfilling environmental compliance, social compliance and other such measures to meet international standards. This is where Indonesia’s regulatory requirements have severe shortfalls and is an area that perhaps encapsulates the challenges and opportunities you’re referring to in the question.

Another thing to consider is that in December this year the AEC (ASEAN Economic Community) will be formed. China recognises this and has subsequently formed the Asia Infrastructure Bank, to which Australia has decided to be party. With the development of these financial and economic ties and what is being heralded as this huge infrastructure opportunity, a lot of multinationals will be vying for opportunities in Indonesia and so the awarding of contracts will be highly competitive. As a result, it’s quite difficult to assess what exactly those opportunities are.


An important part of assessing opportunity, as individuals or within organisations, is to understand the relevant regulatory and legislative frameworks. How do we avail ourselves of this knowledge?

If you already have a presence in Indonesia, it’s much easier. In the case of business, it’s incumbent that they be aware of any opportunity in the context of the legislative frameworks, and if they’re remote from that it’s extremely difficult. Part of the problem in Australia is that businesses don’t have a consolidated institution for helping small to medium sized enterprises find the information they require to operate effectively. It’s not that no one is offering these types of services but rather that there’s so many out there (there’s Austrade; Trade and Investment Queensland; the Chamber of Commerce and Industry; the Australian Industry Group; the Indonesia Investment Board; the Australian Export Council; and others still) that small to medium sized businesses find it difficult to effectively navigate the sources of information.

I was talking to the head of the Mining and Energy Services Council of Australia (MESCA), which is the industry body for mining suppliers. Every month, they provide a list for members of all the opportunities in Indonesia that they know about, which is very practical. I admire that because I don’t see that elsewhere. 


Is there anything else you would like to add?

I guess the other thing that I’d like to add, which is something that I really admire and don’t see very often, is for young people to seek out mentors. In your studies, in your volunteer activities, in your life generally, you may have come across some people you really admire for their ability to think outside the box, or analyse things in a way that you perhaps could not. Take them with you on your journey throughout your career and form a relationship with them so that at points in your life or career where you’re not sure what the next step is, you can touch base with your brain’s trust. And I’ll tell you what, they will always hold you in good stead because those who’ve amassed such a wealth of experience want to impart some of that to the next generation. The bottom line is that if you form that relationship, they can probably provide you with opportunities that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

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Harry Roach-Wilson

Harry is a student at University of Queensland and a passionate advocate for multilingual primary and secondary education. Studying Indonesian and Engineering, he takes a practical approach toward promoting multilingualism and continues to work with local organisations to facilitate cultural exchange.

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