“Oh, the places you’ll go”. Discussions around the places a financial services career can take you and the range of opportunities it can deliver are thrown into sharp relief when framed by the examples offered by the likes of John Goulios (pictured), global co-chair of the insurance sector at DLA Piper, a global law firm that’s partnered with Dive In Festival for the fourth year running.
His role is one that sees him split his time between Melbourne and Singapore, an international focus which follows the same global undercurrent that has demarcated his professional journey to date. Speaking with Insurance Business following the success of the 2022 Dive In Festival, Goulios shared his own diversity, equity and inclusion journey, and the difference that initiatives like Dive In have made to those who share stories similar to his own.
“I’ve really been part of the DE&I conversation since I emigrated from Greece,” he said. “But when I started out in the law, I wrote about 60 application letters and got less than a handful of first interviews, even though I had a double degree in law commerce at Melbourne Uni and had got half-decent grades.
“The problem was that my applications were landing on the desks of the partners responsible for graduate recruitment back in 1989 – who at the time were invariably, to coin a current phrase, ‘stale, male and pale’. They were more interested in where I lived, what sports I played, what clubs my parents belonged to or what social circles I mixed in. And at the time I bombed out on all that criteria.”
Born in Greece, Goulios and his family arrived off the boat in Australia with a single suitcase and lived on a side of town that he doubts most of the partners serving in those city law firms ever stepped foot in. Looking back, he said, he knows he could have opted for the easier route of pursuing a job in a suburban law firm serving the Greek community. But he had bigger dreams and ambitions, fuelled by a determination to make it in the city one day and sit at the same table as those who couldn’t seem to see past his background.
After pursuing this single-mindedly for some time, he was about to give up and go instead into accounting when he found himself being interviewed by a partner who had recently arrived in Australia from South Africa to set up a new Melbourne office of a prestigious Sydney firm. The newly formed team saw his potential, he said, and, within a few years, he was promoted to partner – where he remained with the firm for almost two decades.
When he came across DLA Piper, he was attracted by its global reach and the natural diversity of its team, and he has relished the opportunities his role has presented for working with colleagues based all over the world. Before they recently moved back to Melbourne, Goulios and his family spent 11 years living in Singapore, he said, motivated not only by his passion for new adventures, but also his and his wife’s abiding commitment to broadening the DE&I exposures of their family.
“I was born in Greece, my wife was born and spent her formative years in Argentina,” he said. “And my three kids are now being brought up not only in our respective cultures, but also having lived and breathed the remarkable mix that Singapore provides of Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures, and the unique mix of the expat community that it also houses.
“I’d like to think that this has well embedded diversity, equity and inclusion in their core. And I do, in fact, see this in the outlooks they exhibit as young people which I think is particularly important to the ongoing progress we need [as a society] to make in this area.”
Assessing his own career to-date, Goulios highlighted that even more than his successes in building out and profitably growing his practice across multiple jurisdictions and practice lines, he’s proud of the work he’s done in the DE&I space. At every stage in his career, he said, he has championed diverse talent – promoting on the basis of potential as opposed to just performance.
Everybody goes through phases which don’t necessarily correlate with a traditional career progress path, he said, but leaders need to recognise that those paths don’t need to be so rigid. Leaders should be able to spot potential, stand up for it and be supportive in helping an individual realise that potential. As somebody who benefited from another person spotting that potential in him, he’s aware of the capabilities, the experiences and the insights that can be lost when leaders and employers take an inflexible approach to recognising talent.
“For me, one of the biggest success stories is the contribution that hard-working families like my own have made in Australia’s development and that my own kids wear their ethnic and diverse background as a proud badge of honour today,” he said. “Because when I grew up, I wasn’t wearing that proud badge of being ethnic, to be brutally honest. You lived a double life. You’d go to school and be one person, then you’d come home and be another. And you didn’t want those lives to mix.
“That my kids are proud of their mixed background is fantastic. And while there’s still a long way to go, seeing the increasingly diverse voice in this country that migrants have helped shape is very satisfying. And the same goes for workplaces - diversity, equity, and inclusion, I think are very important components in any modern, rich and successful workplace. But these will take time, and it does require the right representative leadership mix and continuous messaging.”
Having leaders with a lived experience of diversity is crucial to opening up further conversations on this critical topic, he said, because it gives these conversations depth and credibility. And the thing about trailblazers when it comes to DE&I is that the world needs as many as it can get to really define and redefine what it takes to thrive in a professional services career. That’s why the Dive In Festival and the forum that it creates are so critically important - because it keeps offering everybody the opportunity to reflect on this subject.
“And it spurs people to action as well as reflection, which I think is particularly important because the pace has been slow,” he said. “But the conversation has definitely progressed during my career, and it’s heading in the right direction. And going back to my early days, I had the privilege of being exposed to the epicentre of the insurance industry that is London, from very early on in my career.
“But the changing attitudes from the laddish culture prominent in those days have been self-evident. I think, from an industry perspective, the focus and attention that Dive In has placed as a leading voice on that conversation has been particularly influential and had a significant impact.”