The Times are a Changing

Read our final report from this year's Next Generation of Female Leaders Program. The Vida Goldstein syndicate looked into how business culture has changed through time in Australia.  Their 'article based report' was developed by looking back at culture over the decades and insights shared by key business leaders interviewed.

The Vida Goldstein Syndicate

L-R Dr Angela Ziebell, Amanda Nuttall, Brownwyn Hooton, Samantha McCormack, Michelle Kern
Syndicate mentor: Catherine Brown


This syndicate explored how leadership styles have changed over time.


Desk top research and qualitative interviews with influential leaders including:

  • Ian Carson, Co-founder, Secondbite
  • Jan Owen, CEO, Foundation for Young Australians
  • James Baum, CEO AON
  • Jill Hennessy, Victorian Attorney General
  • Jeremy Loeliger, CEO NBL
  • Professor Tina Overton, Director Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence
  • Amantha Timber, Founder Inventium
  • Jillian Broadbent, OA
  • Nicole Sheffield, Executive General Manager, Community and Consumer, Australia Post
  • Bill Shannon, Founder, The Shannon Company
  • Amanda Peatt, Medicine and Poison Expert, Department of Health and Human Services

Letters to the Editor

Here's a sample of this syndicate's newspaper based report.

View PDF


A history of change

The first part of this syndicate's report looked at how organisational culture has changed over time.  They found that organisations and corporate culture have undergone significant widespread change since the early twentieth century when the workplace began to emerge. Technological innovation and rapid social change marked the twentieth century as a time of great transformation that had significant impact on the work environment.

Key Periods 

1900 – 1925: responding to industrial change

The workplace in the first quarter of the twentieth century was characterised by change in the size, scale and workforce needs of organisations. It was a time of rapid industrialisation and business owners needed to rely on others to provide labour. It was during this period that the concept of ‘people management’ began to become common practice.

1926 – 1950: workers’ rights and participation

During the second quarter of the twentieth century, two very important events took place that created fundamental changes -  the Second World War and the stock market crash of 1929 that led to the Great Depression. Following these developments, the trade union movement strengthened and drove action around wages, working hours and conditions. Government regulations began to be introduced and a demand for institutional safety nets emerged.  Two key models emerged during this period.

1951 – 1975: the rise of technology and automation
This period was characterised by changes due to  the  rapid introduction of technology and  the rise of automation. It was also a time of great social upheaval with counter-culture movements and civil rights dominating a discourse that questioned authority and institutions and changed social norms. The level of knowledge and skill within organisations increased and employees began to focus on building capacity in specialist  areas.

1976 – 2000: responding to a complex and ambiguous world
Huge advances in technology continued to influence the workplace environment through this period. Initially, the office cubicle system became increasingly popular, ostensibly as a means to boost employee happiness and allow for privacy. In practice, it created a culture that encouraged people to work independently and avoid social distraction. Changing social norms meant that the 1970s started to see more diversity and relaxing attitudes towards dress codes and formality.

2001 – current: reinventing organisations

The first nineteen years of the twenty first century have seen a similar rapid evolution on thinking and practice regarding corporate culture. Significant social, labour and technological changes are impacting how we work and  the types of organisations we wish to work for and with. The rising gig economy has resulted in many more freelancers, contractors and consultants who, aided by technology, can and do work at any time from anywhere.

We are also experiencing an aging workforce, as well as often four or five generations with different needs and expectations working within the one organisation. On top of all this, we are seeing shifts in community expectations with regards to ethical practice in business, social licence to operate, responsible investment and responses to climate change and human rights, fed by growing activism and social agitation.
In Australia, the recent Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry (the Hayne Royal Commission) has brought corporate culture to the forefront

Quotes from the Leaders Interviewed

Directors and Senior Executives are taking stock and asking themselves how they can be more diligent and alert to the potential risks, and importantly how to monitor and detect problems before they get out of hand.

“As a leader, you need to be visible and transparent about what you espouse the culture to be”.
“I’ve tried to keep us focused on a very clear strategy of modernizing ourselves.”

“…you need to be persistent to stand up for culture and give it priority which can be hard when you are all about delivery
“Culture is the personality of an  organisation. Like individual’s personality it can change intentionally, and that change can happen spur of the moment or over time”

Corporate Culture - what's happening in practice

Whilst most organisations have mission statements, corporate values, codes of conduct and processes & procedures, we continue to see daily examples of corporate behaviour that fall well short of community               standards and expectations.  It’s this behavioural piece that is at the heart of corporate culture.


Corporate culture has the ability to materially impact customers, employees and shareholders alike, and this is intrinsically linked to the overall financial performance and longevity of the business. In contrast, poor culture can create massive dysfunction throughout an organisation, and when left  unabated, can  create  widespread risk to critical assets such as corporate brand, reputation and can impact share price and ongoing viability;

So why is culture still so often overlooked by Directors and Senior Executives?
There are a myriad of reasons - winning at all costs, group think, short term focus, being tone deaf to social consciousness, focus only on financial metrics, putting company  above basic human standards and common sense. These are some of the common thoughts that filtered through the interviews.

As business leaders across the globe are shifting mindsets, they now recognise that corporate  culture plays an integral role and should be viewed as an important asset of a company, not merely a “soft” issue.
As behaviour is at the heart of culture, the best and first steps should involve setting the tone from the top – looking to encompass respectful, thoughtful and collegial behaviours in the interactions at the Board and Senior Executive level. This behaviour, when executed consistently with authentic and genuine intent will permeate through the rest of the organisation.

Equally as important is the diligent enforcement of  acceptable standards, by developing scorecards and KPIs which can be cascaded through the organisation.

Vida Goldstein Group

Vida Jane Mary Goldstein was an Australian suffragette and social reformer. She was one of four female candidates at the 1903 federal election, the first at which women were eligible to stand.

Further Reading

More on our Next Gen 2019 Graduates
Read about Next Gen's 2020 Reinvention
Read group 1's report on Leadership in the Digital Age
Read group 2's report Natural Born Leaders
Read group 3's report Leading Through Disruption

Meet our 2019 Graduates
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