VIEW: Having diverse educational backgrounds on leadership teams can drive innovation

It’s easy to assume that corporate success can only be achieved by people with university qualifications and strong academic performances. But Kelly Van Nelson, Managing Director of Adecco Australia, is proof that this isn’t true, and that resilience can play a much bigger and more effective role in generating career success.

Kelly believes that, while a commitment to continual upskilling and reskilling is critical to future-proofing your career, there are many different ways to obtain new skills, and businesses with an open mind to hiring and promoting people with different education backgrounds will reap rewards that directly impact their bottom line.

  • How has the role of traditional or non-traditional education impacted your career since leaving school at 16 years old? 

As a child raised in a low-income household on a council estate, academic opportunities were limited (My public high school has since closed due to poor performance). Despite achieving outstanding GCSE results in the UK, I left school aged sixteen to enter the workplace, contributing to rent and essential home living expenses. At the age of eighteen, I enrolled in night school and achieved a distinction in computer studies.

I am one of the few board level leaders in the Fortune 500 I work for without a degree education, although this is now shifting, with more leaders coming up through the ranks with non-traditional education backgrounds. I have never seen the absence of degree as a setback. Instead, I listened and learned from others, embraced confidence, leveraged other development opportunities that were available, and offset lack of youth education with professional certifications in Prince2, Change Management Practitioner, Six Sigma, and extensive leadership training gained at I3 in Switzerland.

Supplementing work relevant training with on the job experience has been a great pathway for me and gave me an inner steely resilience along the way, powering me to succeed. Willpower is my superpower and trumps education every time.

  • As an executive in a Fortune 500 company, how important do you think it is to include people of all different educational backgrounds at the leadership level? 

Diversity in any organisation is critical to bringing new perspectives to business strategy, opportunities, and challenges. Diversity leadership has a purpose of creating broader understanding and engagement between people, whether they be internal colleagues or external customers, partners, or suppliers.

In an era of globalization, diversity in all business environments needs to span gender, race, ethnicity, religious and political beliefs, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientation, disabilities, and also education.

Diverse leaders with different educational backgrounds can positively contribute to fostering empathy across this full spectrum of people from all walks of life and can more deeply assist with driving transformation through innovation and uniquely creative thinking, thus contributing to a more inclusive society and increasing profitability of the business.

  • Is there value in business leaders assessing someone’s educational background when assessing their suitability for a role? Why or why not? 

The purpose of business leaders conducting thorough background checks is to bring as much confidence to a new hiring decision as possible. New employees are an important asset requiring a significant investment of time and money from any employer. Getting this decision wrong can be costly for the company.

Business leaders want to know an employee is trustworthy, reliable, brings discipline to whatever they are applying themselves to, and is willing to learn. Verifying and assessing educational background against the requirements of a role is one way of doing this and gives employers some assurance of the years an employee has spent dedicated to learning and development.

Ultimately though, assessing education credentials alone is not enough to guarantee a great hire. Employers are hiring for one specific purpose which is to accomplish a specific job. An employee has to bring the required competencies to the table, especially soft skills and the right culture to fit with the business. They need to demonstrate to an employer they are talent worth developing and investing in for the long term.

  • Looking ahead, what role do you believe formal and informal kinds of education will play in the workplace.

There has always been a need for employees to meet constantly changing workplace demands, but due to technological advancement and globalisation, the world is shifting in new directions faster than ever before. As a result, organisations proactively seek alternative ways to improve efficiencies, tackle growth markets, and drive differentiators, which means change is inevitable.

The key to career growth and future-proofing employability in these rapidly evolving environments remains in upskilling, and reskilling. This can be done through both formal education channels and informal training methods.


About the expert

Kelly Van Nelson is on the Adecco Group executive board and is Managing Director of Adecco Australia, the world’s largest provider of HR, staffing, and workforce management solutions. She is a Change Management Practitioner, Six Sigma Yellow Belt, and Prince2 Certified. Kelly is also an advocate for Women in Leadership, gender equity, and workplace inclusiveness initiatives, regularly appearing in the press, on radio and television. She was recently announced winner of the AusMumpreneur Big Idea Changing the World Award for her work as a prominent anti-bullying activist in schools, universities, and the workplace. She was awarded the Roar Success Gold Award for Most Powerful Influencer for the impact her literary work has made on raising social issue awareness. She is the number one bestselling author of Graffiti Lane, a contemporary poetry collection that won the Roar Success Best Book Award and was gifted to Oscar winners and multiple Hollywood A-list celebrities. Punch and Judy, her second poetry collection, puts the spotlight on domestic violence and she has had numerous short stories, poems, and non-fiction articles published internationally. Kelly is also mum of two. In short, she is a juggler.


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