Career Advice Working Women

Only connect

Nomura’s Alison Harbert gave up music for a career promoting diversity

It is said that extroverted people not only enjoy meeting and working with other people, they actually draw energy from such encounters.

Alison Harbert correctly judged her extrovert inclinations when she gave up a career in music - foreseeing hours and hours of lonely practise - and chose a marketing-orientated vocation rich in people interaction.

"I realised that connecting with people needed to be part of my work, so locking myself in a room practising violin for 10 hours a day was just not me," says the vice-president and head of diversity and inclusion for Asia ex-Japan at investment bank Nomura.

Harbert, from Australia, made good use of her differing interests with what she describes as "a foot in both [fields]". She first worked as a manager for Musica Viva, an Australian organisation dedicated to chamber music, and then as deputy development manager with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, where she was responsible for raising money from financial organisations.

"I find that my passion is in working with others, connecting with people and forging relationships with them. I get so much energy from other people and the progress we can make as a group gives me a real buzz," she says.

Making connections has also helped Harbert find and open up new opportunities in Hong Kong, where she arrived four years ago. She first worked as the manager for Asia of not-for-profit organisation Advance - Global Australians, where she devised strategies to connect Australians across Asia with each other, as well as with local business leaders and government representatives.

"You've got to submerge yourself in the region, push your own boundaries," Harbert says. Her job did just that by throwing her in at the deep end. She was responsible for organising the Advance Emerging Leaders India Summit 2010 at a hotel in New Delhi, which started with a terrorist alert and the complete lock-down of the hotel. "This is indicative of the range of things you have to deal with in that capacity," she says.

Harbert praises "the collegial environment" in Hong Kong that connected her with people who helped her join Nomura, first as manager and now in her current role where she reports directly to the head of its global talent team.

Her job covers three areas: gender balance at senior levels; supporting managers and running courses on stress and work-life balance; and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues. The latter includes support for the company's employee network, strategy and positioning and covers meetings with senior members of management, writing speech notes on diversity, and working with external partners and the global talent team.

Part of Harbert's job is to support women in achieving greater visibility and connectivity. To achieve this, Nomura operates an annual nine-month programme covering professional development, mentoring, sponsorship and exposure to executive management, to enable women to be seen as leaders and gain respect.

"Every day, I am encouraged by how we make progress," Harbert says. "For example, I see many women accepting responsibilities more willingly. They feel empowered to take up the challenge and their contribution to the firm is so much more than just what they were employed for."

Since her daughter was born a year ago, Harbert has been working part time. Still, when she gets to the office, the first thing she does is prepare a huge cup of coffee to get her going for another "chaotic morning".

"I work three days a week. Nomura has a flexible work policy which is offered to all employees. It is a huge retention tool," she says. "It makes an enormous difference to me - I don't mind doing evening calls or logging in from home knowing I have the flexibility I need for my family."

In Harbert's experience, respect for people's time results in a more engaged workforce and better productivity. Harbert herself is an enthusiastic runner, hiker and healthy eater, and also partakes in pro bono work for various not-for-profit organisations and her book club.

She concedes, however, that making the most out of her spare time and achieving a work-life balance need serious personal commitment, even for someone working part time. "Spare time as a concept changes considerably after you have a child," she says.


Connect "Invest the time into finding the best in people and communicate with others with confidence and clarity."

Stick to your values "Being authentic and honest is key in a personal and professional environment."

Be simple and humble "Don't take yourself too seriously and enjoy the good life with others."

Nurture yourself "There are several 'selves': the family self, the professional self and the personal self. I have found that if I nurture one, I can achieve more in all three areas."

Make the most of your spare time "Be realistic about what work-life balance means to you and be committed to your plan."