In 1981 Rachael Mah arrived in Melbourne from Malaysia to pursue her degree studies, initially at Warrnambool College, then at La Trobe University as an international student. She remembers those days as being “memorable, yet scary,” and marked by major Australian and Asian cultural differences.
One such experience she’ll never forget is her first dinner with a lovely Australian family. She asked them what to bring, and they responded “bring a plate.” In Malaysia, Rachael was brought up to respect the decisions of elders without question, and didn’t ask why she would need to only bring a plate.
Rachael ended up arriving to a dinner holding an empty plate, and eventually cottoned-on to the fact her hosts had expected her to bring a Malaysian meal to share. Luckily, she had a big box of Lindt chocolates too, so she managed the cultural misunderstanding by saying that the plate was for the chocolates. It was then she realised how multicultural understanding is crucial for successful communication and partnerships, not just in everyday life, but in business as well.
Growing up, studying and working in culturally diverse countries forged Rachael’s career path. She graduated from La Trobe University with a Bachelor of Economics, majoring in Accounting and not long after, in 1984, she commenced at PriceWaterhouse Coopers in Kuala Lumpur.
After four years she returned to Australia as a permanent resident; first to Sydney and then to Melbourne, where she got married and set up a home and raised her two beautiful children, Angela and Anthony, who are now aged 18 and aged 14.
In 2004, Rachael was offered the Regional Asia Pacific role for one of the largest US based pharmaceutical firms, Bristol Myers Squibb Australia. She relished the application of her technical and soft skills in chartered accounting, internal auditing, risk management and compliance, as well as the navigation of very diverse and complex Asian cultures across the Asia Pacific region.
After living and working in Australia with American and European organisations for nearly 20 years, one of her many notable and unforgettable cross-cultural communication hiccups occurred in 2005 during her first Executive Directors’ presentation in the Tokyo, Japan office. During the presentation, all 12 board directors were either writing notes or closing their eyes, instead of looking at Rachael (as the presenter) or the presentation slides. Rachael was silently frustrated and thought she had lost their interest because local directors were not used to an international executive lady presenter.
To Rachael’s relief and surprise, she learned that in Japan, it is a business and cultural practice to avoid eye contact with presenters as a signal of respect. Whoosh! There are many more cross-cultural practices that Rachael has mastered through her work.
Rachael attributes her success in her varied corporate roles to her hands-on experience and understanding of Asian cultures, and her ability to navigate these when running a multinational organisation’s function.
In 2009 Rachael started a boutique advisory and training services firm AusAsia Training and Advisory (AisAsia Institute). She helps clients in private and public sectors, as well as high-net worth Small and Medium Sized Enterprises, to effectively improve governance, risk management and controls in the Australian and Asian economic environment, by applying impactful cross-cultural communication skills and practices.
To hear more of Rachael’s cross-cultural experiences and insights, you can visit her podcast “What is ‘money’ in the Asian context.”