Women remain under-represented in all key decision-making roles across almost all industries in the Australian workforce. Within this, culturally diverse women have an abysmal representation, out of the 46% of board directors across sectors in Australia, only 5.7% of them are culturally diverse women. In our Australian edition of the Leaders Cafe Live series, we had a guest speaker who defied all odds as a young immigrant and rose to become a leader in the traditionally male-dominated banking industry,  Ana Marinkovic, Executive General Manager, Small Business Bank at NAB.  Ana shared her invaluable insights and experiences, focusing on two pivotal topics:

Strategies for women immigrants looking at building their careers in Corporate Australia; key challenges and how to overcome them and How can organisations focus and enable the journey of women leaders (with a focus on culturally and racially diverse women leaders); tried and tested tips to foster inclusion and true belonging.


Here are the key highlights from the conversation:

  • From day 1, I was an outsider. Being different and coming from a unique background when I entered the Australian corporate world, specifically in a banking graduate program 20 years ago, I believed in demonstrating my worth through results and the impact I could make on my work’s quality. I embraced hard work, often putting in extra effort without additional identity burdens, which opened up opportunities that others might have missed.

  •  I’ve mastered the art of not belonging, and it’s become my mantra. I firmly believe that diversity, including diverse experiences, thinking, cultural perspectives, socioeconomic backgrounds, educational experiences, and technical expertise, is what fosters a successful, vibrant, and progressive culture.

  • Challenges in Corporate Australia: Discrimination against diverse professionals, especially those with non-standard accents, persists in Australia. This unconscious bias needs systemic change within organizations. There has been progress in diversity and inclusion in corporate Australia, but it’s not happening as quickly as it should.  Both men and women share the responsibility of promoting meritocracy and uplifting talented individuals, regardless of their background.

  • Balancing Work and Life: Ana believes in doing what suits your personal circumstances and family without apology, focusing on quality interactions with loved ones.

  • Reading Recommendation: Ana enjoys biographies, and she recommends reading Otto von Bismarck’s biography for insights into influential historical figures.
  • Role Model: Ana’s role model has always been her grandmother, who emphasized independence and education.

  • One Word to Describe Ana: Strict (according to her kids), in need of more holidays (according to her husband), and a transformational leader (according to colleagues).

  • Ana’s Mantra: “Master The Art Of Not Belonging.”

  • Diversity and Different Perspectives: Ana emphasizes the importance of diversity in experiences, thinking, cultural perspectives, socioeconomic backgrounds, educational experiences, and technical expertise for a successful and vibrant culture.

  • Handling Comments About Quotas: Ana doesn’t support quotas but believes in hiring based on meritocracy. She advises focusing on your track record, confidence, and the ability to communicate your abilities convincingly.

  • Changing from Mentorship to Sponsorship: To shift from mentorship to sponsorship, show that you’re gaining value, putting effort into self-improvement, and embracing feedback for continuous growth. Authenticity, selflessness, and shared values are key.


Sandra – Welcome everyone. After successfully running the leaders cafe in India, we are excited to inaugurate The Leaders’ Cafe in Australia today. In our Leaders’ Cafe Live series we were credibly excited to welcome a guest speaker who came to Australia as a young refugee and broke several shackles to emerge as a leader in the typically male dominated banking industry. We are speaking with Ana Marinkovic, Executive General Manager small business bank at NAB. Can you share some of the highlights that brought you the way you are today?

Ana – Sandra, my experience may not be unique, as I’ve met many who left their countries for various reasons. My childhood was idyllic until it suddenly turned into chaos. I left home at 12 and reunited with my parents much later. This journey taught me that life’s titles, possessions, and social standing are transient, but resilience, impactful choices, and helping others endure.

It’s also taught me the value of authenticity, both in personal and corporate life. Authenticity is the foundation of trust and loyalty. So, my journey over the past few decades has been filled with invaluable lessons.

Sandra  – One thing that resonated a lot with me, it was initially a little bit of a shock, but that resonated with me is the line that you say it’s okay not to belong. And, you know, we talk a lot especially in organizations about belonging as the foundation of actually being true, inclusive and getting people to feel safe to speak. And here, I’m listening to you as a woman leader who travels the mile and said, You know what, it’s not okay to belong.Would you like to share a little bit more about what you mean by that?

Ana  – I’ve had various reactions to my differences. I’ve mastered the art of not belonging and fully accept it. I understand that my unique experiences, accent, and perspective won’t change. These aspects define my identity more than my CV does.

“In boardrooms, I’ve faced comments about my fashion, assertiveness, honesty, and even suggestions to change my name, soften my accent, or develop a taste for wine. But these are just labels. Over time, I’ve learned to focus on feedback about my work, strategy, leadership, and not let the noise affect me. It’s become a survival tactic that’s served me well.”

Sandra  –  Sometimes, I’m reminded of the many stories that play in our heads when we’re talking to clients and coaches. We often compare ourselves to others or try to fit in or emulate someone else. I often think of horse races, where the fastest horses wear blinders. It’s liberating to focus on our goals and not get caught up in the chatter of belonging.

But there’s also the reality of being a woman from a multicultural background. I’ve faced challenges from questions about my name not matching my appearance to comments on my accent. There were times when I was the only multicultural woman in a leadership forum, and some suggested hiring people who looked different to represent stakeholders. Despite these challenges, I’ve continued to stand up for what I believe in and push forward.

There are also articles like HRD recently talking about discrimination based on accidents, where career opportunities are mixed, missed by equally qualified candidates with non standard accents and even more pronounced for women. Another article in a financial review that talks about how job seekers in Australia with ethnic names are 57% less likely to be considered for leadership roles. What do you feel even if it’s unconscious based, it needs to be systemic discrimination by organizations against diverse professionals? What are your thoughts?

Ana – In the Australian corporate landscape, upper management and board levels often lack diversity, reflecting a reality we face. Moreover, in my role overseeing millions of small businesses, I encounter expectations about a certain executive prototype. Being an ethnic banker in a predominantly male, monolithic industry presents unique challenges, not only in the workplace but also with customers.

Unconscious bias is pervasive. For instance, a customer assumed I had conflicted feelings about Ukraine due to my appearance and accent, highlighting how perceptions can lead to misconceptions. Another customer asked to change my sender name in a newsletter, citing stereotypes. These biases are deeply ingrained.

Addressing this issue requires collective effort, ongoing attention, and a focus on diversity in positions of power to drive change effectively.

Sandra – What’s the situation right now in corporate Australia in making inclusion real?

“Ana On Making Inclusion Real  – There have been positive strides toward inclusion and diversity, and I see it extending beyond just the male-female binary. There’s significant progress, with organizations realizing that diversity isn’t a mere preference; it’s a necessity. This shift is driven by social responsibility and the need to better connect with our customer base for improved commercial outcomes.

However, progress isn’t happening as swiftly as it should, especially in a multicultural country like Australia. Some agenda items may take precedence, which affects the pace of progress.”

Sandra  – I often also see when you’re talking about this case, as women being champions of diversity, equity inclusion, they’re either the leaders talking to running these forums, where do you see male allyship coming to this picture What would you recommend, say your senior male colleagues to do in organizations to support more inclusivity?

Ana  – I believe in consciously looking beyond gender, cultural heritage, or skin color when evaluating individuals. It’s everyone’s responsibility to promote meritocracy and uplift talented, hardworking people, regardless of their background. Both men and women share the responsibility in this regard.

In my own career, I’ve received substantial support, advice, mentorship, and sponsorship from some male colleagues and leaders. Women supporting women is an important aspect of this agenda. While we often discuss men supporting women, it’s equally vital for women to view each other as allies rather than competitors and work together to advance this cause.

Sandra – In the last few years, I’ve seen the shift happen on women supporting women, or at least the shift disrupting, and I’m pretty happy looking at that shift. What else can we do to support each other?  Besides you mentoring, coaching, what else can we do to together rise in this situation?

“Ana On Women Supporting Women – I recently came across a perspective that strongly resonated with me: “Women are over-mentored and under-promoted.” It makes sense when you objectively assess the situation. The real challenge isn’t finding a mentor; it’s demonstrating to the system that you’re ready for more significant responsibilities and promotions.”

While having a mentor and a sounding board is crucial, mentoring alone won’t determine your career path. It’s vital to focus on building critical experiences that pave the way for advancement.

Sandra– So if you want to reflect back and all the mentorship opportunities that you feel grateful for, what could you? What did you do at that time to get those mentors for yourself?

Ana –  Being different and coming from a unique background when I entered the Australian corporate world, specifically in a banking graduate program 20 years ago, I believed in demonstrating my worth through results and the impact I could make on my work’s quality. I embraced hard work, often putting in extra effort without additional identity burdens, which opened up opportunities that others might have missed.My dedication and results gave me access to a diverse network. I was confident in seeking help and had an insatiable thirst for learning and improvement.

“Actions often speak louder than words. My “luck” was a product of genuine efforts to make a difference and continually improve. People notice and want to help when they see your commitment to their success. It’s about earning the right to ask for help and advice when needed by consistently contributing and demonstrating your dedication.”

Sandra – The first step in seeking mentorship and support is foundational. It’s been a personal challenge for me, particularly when I made a mid-career transition to Australia. I arrived here after having a successful career in India, coaching clients and organizations that were on my wish list. I reached a point where I didn’t need feedback, as I had people working with me.However, in Australia, I became a newcomer and had to start over in my middle age. I realized it wasn’t about completely changing who I was; it was about redesigning myself. I had to step out of my comfort zone, seek feedback, and adapt to a new coaching approach. In my previous life, I never asked for mentorship, but in my new life, I had to break out of that pattern. Nobody comes to you; you have to actively seek support. Fortunately, many people are willing to help when you take that first step of asking, even though it can be challenging.

To seek mentorship, you have to place yourself in those situations and actively ask for support. However, there are internal obstacles we often encounter, like the Cinderella complex. Some of us might think, “I’ll just do good work, someone will notice me, and I’ll get my seat at the table,” which isn’t necessarily true. What are your thoughts on this Cinderella complex that some people may have?

Ana – I find it a bit challenging to relate to the Cinderella complex because I’ve always been an outsider from day one. When you carry that label, your focus shifts to fitting in, making an impact, and finding your place in the world. You don’t dwell on whether you deserve your job at a technical level.

The risk with Cinderella complexes or impostor syndrome, as some call it, is self-sabotage. It’s crucial to approach every situation rationally. If you’ve already faced disadvantages in life, avoid adding to them with self-doubt. That’s my advice.

Sandra – A brilliant point indeed. Firstly, avoid putting yourself in that cage because once you’re in, only you can let yourself out. Most of my work revolves around empowering women leaders who excel in organizations. Many face the double bind dilemma – being seen as either too soft or too aggressive. Women often receive feedback about toning down their assertiveness, a critique rarely given to male leaders.

As someone assertive and vocal, have you encountered feedback about being too assertive or aggressive? How would you advise handling this double bind dilemma?

Ana – It’s crucial to be conscious of how you present yourself and your style. However, trying to strike a perfect balance between assertiveness and not being too aggressive can be a losing battle. I’ve received feedback about speaking too little and too much, and it’s challenging to please everyone.

“On Double-Bind Dillema : My approach is not about being liked by everyone, but about being respected, leading with integrity, and staying true to my values. It’s about authentic leadership and being able to look in the mirror at the end of the day, liking the person I see. I ask myself, who do I need to thank, and who do I need to apologize to after the day I’ve had”

Sandra – I want to come back to the topic balancing work life. Are there any strategies, any insights tips you have for us?

“Ana – I’ve never believed in work-life balance. Instead, I believe in doing what suits your personal circumstances and family without apology. I’ve always loved my career, which has been a central part of my life. It doesn’t mean I love my family any less; it just means we focus on quality interactions when we’re together. Balance, to me, is when you and your loved ones are happy with the life choices you’ve made and continue to make. That’s the only balance I strive for.”

Sandra – How does one communicate that balance with work as well?

Ana – It’s crucial to aim for a job that doesn’t bring negative feelings about Sundays or Mondays. In Australia, where unemployment is low, we often have the power to choose our work environment and leaders. It’s about working in a space that motivates rather than demotivates you. The responsibility for these choices lies with the individual.

I wouldn’t work in an environment that doesn’t allow me to be authentic, and if an organization’s values don’t align with your own, focus on what you can control and lead by example to make positive changes. However, if there’s a fundamental conflict, it might be time to consider a different organization.

Sandra – what would you recommend as a good book for us to read?

Ana – I’m a fan of biographies because they reveal that even those who have achieved extraordinary success in their professional or personal lives faced steep and challenging journeys. I’ve read many biographies, but one that stands out is Otto von Bismarck’s. He unified the Prussian states into modern Germany, and his life story, tenacity, and handling of political complexity left a lasting impact on Europe, influencing the factors that led to the First and Second World Wars.

I enjoy exploring characters like Bismarck because they offer insights into the human condition, human context, and the choices people make, regardless of whether their stories are positive or negative.

Sandra – One woman role model that you will look up to.

Ana – I look, it’s always been my grandmother. Unfortunately, she’s no longer with us. But she’s the woman that taught me the importance of Independence and the importance of education.

Sandra – How would people describe you in one word?

Ana – The kids would say the strictest mum that they know. Husband would say you need to take more time off and go to Italy or Spain on holidays. And I think colleagues and my teams would say someone that’s a transformational leader. Someone that likes to challenge the status quo? 

Sandra – And what would Ana say?

Ana – I’m passionate about building highly engaged, effective teams that make a meaningful impact. I believe in the power of small actions that can greatly affect people’s lives. That’s why I’m dedicated to serving the small business customer segment, where the decisions my teams make daily have a significant impact on many families across Australia.

Sandra – What’s the mantra you live by?

Ana – Master the art of not belonging.

I want to take this opportunity to pick up some questions from the audience as well. Why do we need to confirm when we want people to bring diversity and different ways of thinking?

Ana – I’ve mastered the art of not belonging, and it’s become my mantra. I firmly believe that diversity, including diverse experiences, thinking, cultural perspectives, socioeconomic backgrounds, educational experiences, and technical expertise, is what fosters a successful, vibrant, and progressive culture. I don’t see homogeneity as the best path forward. It’s not just about what you believe but also ensuring your actions align with those beliefs. Who you hire, fire, promote, mentor, and sponsor should all contribute to building a diverse culture and giving people opportunities.

Sandra – As a woman, how do you tune out such noises which indicate you got there because a quota had to be filled? Or was it because of hard work involved in your promotion?

Ana – I’m not a big fan of quotas for this reason. I believe in hiring based on meritocracy. However, this requires creating a system that ensures women have equal opportunities to learn, develop, and advance as men do. It’s crucial to have a strong track record of excellent performance, confidence in your abilities, and the ability to communicate this convincingly. Your elevator pitch should be punchy and based on lived experience rather than a sense of needing to justify your presence.

Sandra – how do we change from mentorship to sponsorship in organizations?

 – The distinction between mentorship and sponsorship is crucial. Many have asked me to be their mentor but treated it as a transactional interaction, asking a few questions over coffee and not following up. To turn a mentor into a sponsor, show that you’re gaining value, putting effort into self-improvement, and embracing feedback for continuous growth. This creates a mutual interest in your success. Authenticity, selflessness, and shared values are key. If it doesn’t click with one person, keep searching until you find someone whose approach resonates with you.

Ana – Leaders are not born, leaders are made, and they’re made by their actions and the actions around them every single day.

Sandra – On that note, wishing all of you a wonderful journey in discovering your identity and creating that identity and then dancing with it. Thank you once again, and for spending that time and sharing completely authentically. 

Ana – Thank you so much Sandra for this opportunity. And if anyone has even taken a little bit of advice or help or helpful word or two, that’s been a success.