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Exclusive interview: Talent International CEO Mark Nielsen

How this CEO found career success when he brought his whole self to work

Career expert Mark Nielsen smiling into the camera he has a bald head and is wearing a black tshirt
Career path: Mark Nielsen says inclusivity is critical at work and for success

What does World Pride mean for you?

I think World Pride shows how far acceptance and embracing diversity [has come] - especially for LGBTQI+ people - and it’s important to remember that, here in Australia, we are very lucky that we have got acceptance.

There are so many countries still now where you can be harmed for being gay. While World Pride celebrates how people have become more embracing of differences, it's also a message to other places in the world, where we LGBTQI+ people still don't have the same rights as others.

As an openly gay CEO now, how different was the world of work for you when you started your career?

I grew up in quite a conservative family. When I was in my late teens, I realised I was gay. I decided the best way for me to mitigate the risk of coming out and being kicked out of home was for me to be self-sufficient.

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I went to university, worked as hard as I could, moved into work and remained in the closet at that time.

I got into investment banking in my late 20s and, while I had built a strong career, I still had that negative feeling in the back of my mind - this fear of: “What happens if I come out as gay? What will happen to my career, my parents finding out, the snowball effect?

career expert Mark with colleague she has blonde hair and they are both smilling
Career success: Mark Nielsen says inclusive employers allow everyone to be heard

When did you feel you could come out as gay during your career?

I was working in London in banking and it was quite misogynistic, and what I did was I pretended I was straight and overcompensated. When others would make derogatory terms about gay people, I would play along. I was anxious that people would find out I was gay and it took a lot of energy to try to live that life. I could not be open and I was not 100 per cent focused on my career and I always had this in the back of my mind and I worried.

One day, I had a call from one of my customers and he said, "Mark, do you want to chat?" It was Pride Week that weekend and I imagined they had seen me there and I thought that was what he wanted to chat about.

He said he was looking for a CFO and asked me to be involved. I said yes but decided that I needed to make sure I could be myself at work so, I told him I had something I needed to disclose and he asked me if I had been to jail or if I took drugs. I told him I was gay, and he laughed and then said, "I am Jewish and I’m married." Straight away, the weight came off.

That was the first role where I could be myself and from there my career really took off as all that energy I had spent trying to be someone I wasn’t and leading a double life I could put into my career.

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How do we get more diversity in the workplace today?

I don't believe in quotas, I believe in giving everybody an opportunity to apply for a role, and changing the way we do that.

In recruitment, it’s how we pitch job ads. We know that women feel they need to tick every box regarding job skills, while men are more likely to think they can wing it. I think about inclusion as opposed to diversity because you can have all these people there, but they need to have their views heard, yeah? And that's when you get the best outcome.

What have you learned over your career? Would you do anything differently?

A few times I stayed in my comfort zone too long, so perhaps take a little bit more risk, have a little bit more career courage to implement change. But, overall, I wouldn’t change much. What I'm learning is that learning is continuous and wisdom takes over from the technical side of what you do in your career over time.

What’s your advice for anyone starting out with their career today?

Firstly, money shouldn't be your primary objective. Your primary objective is to learn as much as you can, fail as much as you can, and understand why you fail at certain things and learn from that too.

Focus on the long term. Build a career that you are proud about and one that you love doing, and that you’re always pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Have courage in your career and the money will look after itself.

Second, work in an organisation that is suited to your personality. You don't want to work in a place where you can't be yourself. When you work somewhere where you can be yourself and you feel like you are part of the culture and if your values align you will find that your career will flourish.

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Smiling women and piles of Australian cash
Smiling women and piles of Australian cash