It’s time to embrace and foster Indigenous exceptionalism



By Ann Sherry

Corporate Australia needs to get serious about its role in hiring and developing the Indigenous talent of today for the senior leadership roles of tomorrow.

How long will it be until we see the first Indigenous bank CEO, or Governor of the Reserve Bank? At the current pace, at least two generations and that needs to change.

I’ve had the privilege of working closely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for over 20 years. Through my work as a board member of the Cape York Partnership and Jawun, I’ve also been fortunate enough to get to speak with many young up-and-coming Indigenous leaders about their future aspirations, and I always like to ask them what they want to do next.

NAB Non-Executive Director, Ann Sherry with NAB banker both smiling
NAB Non-Executive Director, Ann Sherry with NAB business banker and proud Gringai man of the Wonnarua nation, Adam Fletcher.

There’s always a group who want to be doctors and nurses, and who have dreams about fixing aspects of our health system, which is critical work. There’s quite a number of them who want to work in Indigenous Affairs policy to legislate long lasting change for their communities, which I also certainly value and encourage.

But there are very few who say, “I want to be a banker” or “I want to be an economist”. It’s interesting because if I speak to young non-Indigenous leaders about their aspirations, there are a number of them who want to be bankers or work in some of Australia’s largest companies, particularly lots of young men.

As a board member at National Australia Bank and co-chair of NAB’s Indigenous Advisory Group, I recognise there is a significant opportunity to attract more Indigenous talent into careers in business, banking and finance. These are the professions that underpin our economic system, and where there is an opportunity to embed Indigenous perspectives into the organisations that power this country.

This underrepresentation is symptomatic of a larger problem in the way big businesses are reaching out to our Indigenous communities. We need Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, in all sectors across this country, to stand shoulder to shoulder to drive change and attract the Indigenous leaders of tomorrow.

True inclusion can’t be achieved by Indigenous people alone, while the rest of the community does nothing.

In the same way, true change for women can’t just be done by women if men do nothing. It requires all of us to have our hands on the wheel. It requires all of us to be part of a shared future.

Fortunately, we don’t need to look far to find heartening examples of passionate young Indigenous trailblazers.

NAB business banker and proud Gringai man of the Wonnarua nation, Adam Fletcher, is part of a growing team of Indigenous bankers who are actively working to back Indigenous businesses.

During NAB’s NAIDOC week activities last year, Adam profoundly reflected on his role at the bank in a way that really stuck with many of us; “once you see things change, everyone can look back and wonder why it took so long”.

There is so much truth in the common phrase “you can’t be, what you can’t see”.

Role models like Adam challenge the systems in place. They speak up and they call out what doesn’t work.

Acclaimed journalist and fellow Indigenous Leadership Summit presenter, Stan Grant has often spoken about his experience when starting out in journalism and how hard it was to be one of the first Indigenous men in the newsroom.

Today, numerous Indigenous journalists are following in Stan’s footsteps with the ABC’s incredible Europe Correspondent, Isabella Higgins shining brightly as she reports each night on our televisions from the war in Ukraine.

We need to sponsor and support more Adams and Isabellas.

We need to move beyond participation and move into Indigenous exceptionalism. We want exceptional businesses. We want exceptional leaders. We want exceptional role models, and we want to support that inside our country’s largest organisations.

If we can achieve this, we’ll be on our way to truly creating a business community that is reflective of the sort of Australia we want to be, with services that are reflective of the Australia that we are, a country that is at its core… more inclusive.

Ann Sherry AO is a NAB Non-Executive Director and Co-Chair of NAB’s Indigenous Advisory Group. She is also Chair of the NAB Board’s Customer Committee and a Member of the Board’s People & Remuneration Committee. 



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