Returning to Australia: "A 15-Year Time Capsule", according to Derek Youdale

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Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance

Returning home to Australia after over a decade abroad was a “15-year time capsule” according to Derek Youdale, Global Data COO for HSBC and treasurer of Advance. Starting his global journey in the most typical Australian fashion – a European escapade with mates – ended up turning in to something substantially bigger. Derek reflects on how his time living in the UK and US has created his global mindset – and how that’s been crucial in creating opportunities for himself in Australia.

How long were you living and working overseas for, and where were you based?

It all started following a 7-week trip to Europe shortly after I qualified as a chartered accountant. I loved all the different cultures, but after a cold wet night staying on a Youth Hostel boat in London, it didn’t do much for me wanting to stay permanently. Still, after I returned home, I learnt that some close university friends were moving to Europe. They asked me to join, so I thought I’d give it a go for seven months. Seven months parlayed in to seven years, so it’s safe to say that London grew on me. After my stint in London, I spent eight years in New York – so had well and truly reached expat status by then. That decision to initially just jump on a plane and go was a bit out of my comfort zone at the time – but upon reflection – one of the best decisions in my life.

What was the major drawcard of leaving Australia to live and work overseas?

I wanted to spend time hanging out with some university friends who were already overseas. I had no inclination to leave the country until then.

Why did you return home?

I never thought I wouldn’t to be honest. I was always enjoying my time overseas but held the mentality of “planning to head home next year”. After saying this for the better part of 15 years, I realised I had been away a long time, and I wanted to get back. The major catalyst however was the birth of my kids (twins) in New York. Given my wife and I both had great childhoods in Australia we were keen to try and repeat the experience for our children. We were also very keen for the kids to have close relationship with their grandparents.

Did you experience a culture shock returning to Australia after some time abroad? A stranger in your own country?

Absolutely. I was a 15-year time capsule. I’d been back on short trips, but only noticed a new building or two – as I was busy seeing my family and friends during my time there. For some context – I left Australia pre-Sydney Olympics, and pre-mining boom. John Howard was PM, BHP was still making steel in Newcastle, and iron ore was $13 a tonne. When I came back –Julia Gillard was PM, there hadn’t been a recession in Australia since I left (vs the complete housing meltdown I witnessed in the US) and the mining boom was starting to taper, but iron ore was still 10 times higher than when I left.

Originally being from Sydney, I made the move to Melbourne for work. I came back thinking I was home, when I wasn’t. I was really on my third international city. I realise home is three things for me – 1) a work network 2) a good friend network and 3) knowing your way around. Now that I am travelling a lot again I find I really have four places I comfortably call home – Sydney, Melbourne, London and New York.

Is Australia’s marketplace in your industry keeping up with where you were overseas? 

Yes and no. I think some of Australia’s innovation thinking is just as mature as other parts of the world, but it’s my opinion that some large Australian organisations can lack the experience to execute. The US and Europe have been through some brutal times in Financial Services that forced companies to do things differently, right at the time that digital has become more mainstream. Australian Financial institutions haven’t had that pressure to rebuild as much and therefore I don’t think, have been forced to be as bold. There are some excellent Australian expatriates overseas and also a significant amount that have repatriated home, but that experience isn’t readily embraced in market. There is still a lot of reliance on big name consulting to tell companies what to do here in Australia, where I see more companies building that expertise in house in NY and London.

Has your time overseas made you more inclined to network and conduct yourself professionally on a global scale? 

Absolutely. My current workload is significantly skewed overseas and most days of the week I am doing US calls in the morning, and UK calls in the evening. I have made a conscious effort to maintain that global network. I run more of a hybrid lifestyle these days. I still do large corporate work, but also have co-founded a peak performance / neuroscience startup (www.thethinkgroup.com.au) that works well with my corporate experience. Both the large corporate and startup work is global. I am not sure I could “unglobal” myself these days.

Is there anything you miss about living overseas in your “adopted” home, personally or professionally?

I miss a lot of friends and work colleagues I made over the years. These days though, you don’t really lose them as friends, as you just shift from in-person experiences, to digital ones, (facebook etc). I also miss the exploring and discovering of new cultures, seeing how people live differently.

Professionally – I must admit I do miss the “can do” attitude of some of the organisations I have worked with overseas (which is a strong American trait). Things are far more caution here in Australia. People are far more worried about making mistakes.

What sort of reputation as an Australia preceded you in your adopted country and now that you’ve returned to the homeland, are you finding any validity in those reputations?

In the UK, Australians are a very well understood culture. I think in general, we have a great “can do” attitude that resonates well in the workplace. Socially, I think there is strong patriotism on both sides, which is always good fodder for banter… depending upon who is playing cricket and rugby better! In the US, I think we are more of an unknown, but that’s changing… 15 years ago, John Howard established the E3 visa, which has contributed to (finally) being able to get a decent cup of coffee in New York, thanks to the Aussie’s showing their presence. We are a long way away, and a lot of Americans see Australia as a country as somewhere they want to go “one day”, but often a bit of a pipe dream given the distance and the minimal time Americans get off from work. So, I do think there is a bit of intrigue about us, but again I think that work style resonates well in both the UK and US. In terms of relating it to back home, it’s very different. So culturally, you’ve experienced a shift, and when you are away a while you become a bit of a hybrid of cultures. You don’t quite fit back here in Australia, and you have part adopted the culture of where you have lived overseas – so it’s a mix. I find I gravitate towards people who have been through a similar cultural hybrid experience. I guess it’s why I find “you can’t narrow an open mind” something that I resonate with.