Posted: 03 May 2018 15 min. read

Role models, resilience and reflections

From volunteering to travelling the world and forging a successful and inspiring career, we caught up with Mark Baxter, Chief Risk Officer for QBE Australia and New Zealand, and one of our Outstanding 50 LGBTI Leaders of 2018, to talk about mentoring, visibility and LGBTI inclusion.

Let’s start with something fun and easy to get the ball rolling. You’re hosting a dinner party – who would be your three guests – living, dead or fictional?

First would be Oscar Wilde, I think he’s incredibly witty, naughty and fun. Second would be Princess Diana, because I think she’d be a hoot. Wait, do I have to include my partner? (Interviewer: Let’s just assume your partner is a given.)

Oh, ok so Jeff is a given! I have to keep thinking … OK, lastly let’s say Don Dunston, the former premier of South Australia (SA) – SA was the first state to pass gay law reform. He came out as gay after he left the premiership, and most famously he turned up to parliament once in bright pink shorts!

Time for some serious questions – It’s been almost a year since you were appointed Chief Risk Officer for Australia and New Zealand at QBE – what has the past year been like? Any challenges, opportunities or surprises you’d like to share?

It has been interesting! This is my first year being back in Australia after living overseas in several different countries for an extended period. It has actually been quite fascinating getting back into Australian corporate life.

I must admit I came back with some trepidation, because I have always thought Australian corporate culture to be kind of ‘blokey’, especially compared to what I was used to in London. However, within my first week of arriving, I was asked to be the executive sponsor of QBE’s pride network.

It was a nice surprise to be asked – although it came about quite suddenly. In the past I wouldn’t have stepped up into this type of role so quickly. Part of the reason I did though, was that it was an interesting time coming back to Australia, while Australians were deep in the Marriage Equality debate and people needed support.

I have to say, QBE have been amazing, but seeing some of the things that were said during the debate made me realise in coming back to Australia, there are still deep pockets where there’s a long way to go and we all have a role to play.

You’ve had an esteemed career in banking, wealth management before moving into insurance – industries that historically have been associated with a ‘boys club’ culture. Was that your experience? How did you handle that?

Ahhh yep … Look it actually has evolved. But, I can remember when I came out in 1993 it was because I was being transferred to Hong Kong and I remember it well because at the time I thought of it as a bit of a risk. I was exploring whether or not my employer at the time would be willing to relocate my partner (as they would have with any heterosexual couple) and the answer ended up being no.

So yes, it was a blokey culture and you still see pockets of that – sometimes you get excluded. I don’t play football, I’m not that interested in sport. So there’s almost an implicit exclusion from certain things that others take as a given.

Looking at your career you’ve held roles all over the world: in the UK, Hong Kong, South Africa and of course Australia – what’s that been like and what did you learn from these global experiences?

I guess I would say one of the biggest things I’ve learned is that there’s no one ‘right way’ of doing things. Everybody and each culture has their own approach to doing things. So in return, you start learning to just be more flexible in how you adapt to things.

As a gay man, how did you find it in countries like Hong Kong and South Africa?

My first role overseas was when I moved to Hong Kong and I was pretty much out. I was there from 1993-1999. In Hong Kong they can be great, they almost don’t care about your personal life as long as you’re doing your job, hitting targets and making money – at least that was my experience.

Having said that, it was still a relatively closeted environment. While the expat community was very close, the local Chinese were quite closeted because of their families and cultural expectations.

South Africa was an interesting place for very different reasons, it is similar to Australia in some ways. In the corporate world there, you would see pockets of really blokey, rugby types. But interestingly, South Africa was also the first country to recognise sexuality in their constitution. The biggest issue there was in dealing with racial equality – so in many ways LGBTI was kind of overlooked and not so much an issue.

You spent some time mentoring with the Pinnacle Foundation, how did you find that experience?

I don’t want to give away my age, but I was one of the first mentors with The Pinnacle Foundation. It was brilliant, actually. I’m still in contact now and then with Troy, whom I mentored. He is doing really well. I think I actually learnt a lot from him and I hope he learnt from me too.

He was studying mining engineering, which is very, very blokey. It was great just chatting and hearing how he was dealing with that, and relaying my own experience in finance.

When you were starting out in your career, did you have any openly LGBTI role models? If so, who were they, if not who did you look up to?

No. Actually when I was starting out in my career even the LGBTI characters in popular culture weren’t exactly great role models. In shows like Are You Being Served, or the Benny Hill Show for example, I didn’t really relate to the gay characters.

And there were certainly no LGBTI role models in the business community either.

As I mentioned, I didn’t come out until 1993 and at that time there were no Pride networks or anything. There were however some (straight) people who took me under their wing and looked out for me, so that helped.

It was funny though, because once I was out, a lot of people would quietly come up to me and ask for advice, I was kind of this little beacon.

The first prominent LGBTI Australian I vividly remember coming out was Ian Roberts, which was in 1995. That was a big deal, I remember seeing the magazine and newspaper covers in newsagents all around Sydney, it was definitely a turning point.

Did you ever think you would live in a world where you could be an openly gay senior executive for a global insurance firm?

When I was younger, probably not. I think I have a certain resilience which has helped me, though I still find that there is a long way to go – not just insurance but in financial services.

In the LGBTI community, I think to a certain extent we still exist in safe bubbles around major cities. If I went down to Geelong or down to Toowoomba, I don’t know how it would go or how comfortable I would feel. This was certainly reflected in the Marriage Equality results – we saw from the voting results that there’s more to be done in the more remote suburbs of Sydney and more broadly, around Australia. We do need to be concerned for the mental health and wellbeing of younger LGBTI individuals living in these suburbs, because it would be very difficult growing up in that environment, feeling different.

Do you have any work related stories where you or people you knew felt they had to hide being gay?

I remember back when I was living in London, I was invited to a gay business networking event which was being held up in Stirling (Scotland) – we had a big operation there. And I remember a number of the staff were nervous about attending because they did not want to be outed – and many of them only agreed to go after they were assured that they wouldn’t be named if they attended.

You also spent some time on the Board of both the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Business Association and Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras – did experience like this help build your overall career?

Oh absolutely, I’m big on volunteer work. I currently sit on the board for Theatreworks – a theatre company based out of Carriageworks in Sydney, that release a lot of queer and diverse artistic stuff. But specifically when I was on the board for Mardi Gras, the experience actually taught me a lot: about working on boards and in particular, about how things can go wrong. I served on the board during the Mardi Gras festival that was straight after 9/11 and it had to be called into administration because there were just no American tourists travelling at that time.

So it was very interesting to work on that and work through the issues. It taught me a lot of lessons and I find myself even reflecting back on that time today.

This is the second time Deloitte are running the Outstanding 50 LGBTI Leaders List – how do you view the importance of initiatives and other similar initiatives?

I think it’s actually really good to get out there. As I mentioned, when I was early in my career, I had no role models at all. I didn’t think LGBTI people could actually be successful in business. It’s incredibly important to be out there so that young James at Manly High School, for example, can actually see that there’s successful people out there.

Let’s throw in a curveball – what’s your favourite song and why?

I keep telling Jeff that this is going to be my funeral music, I’m going to have to put it in my will so that it is actually played. I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Whitney Houston.

How can we all play a role in shaping the future of LGBTI inclusion and visibility?

I think it’s just about being visible, really. Not shying away from calling things out. I think sometimes in the past we’ve tended to just step back for the sake of being polite, let things pass. Sometimes that succeeds, because sometimes you are being goaded to try and make it seem like the bullies are being turned into victims – we saw a bit of that during the postal survey. I’m incredibly proud that as a community we remained calm and didn’t give them what they were looking for, which I think showed the community’s resilience.

Mark is one of our Outstanding 50 LGBTI Leaders of 2018 – a list that recognises and celebrates the many LGBTI role models in business. For more on our inspirational LGBTI leaders visit our Outstanding 50 webpage, or read more interviews in the series.

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