Maintaining an ambience of dignified leadership and audacious perspectives, Dr. Ramesh Shanmuganathan, Executive Vice President / Group CIO of John Keels Holdings PLC, Director/CEO of John Keels IT and Non-Executive Director of Nations Trust Bank, elaborates the tales of his life within precision and ambiguity!
1.TAKE US THROUGH YOUR LIFE AND CAREER JOURNEY UP TO WHERE YOU ARE NOW.
My life has simply been an exciting and rewarding journey to me. If I were to reflect on my life to date and if someone asked me to describe it, I would pick a few words to describe the path that I traversed to date; dynamic, fearless, adventurous, straightforward, intuitive, versatile, courageous, witty, entrepreneurial, fun-loving, humane, and a maverick.
I have never been a conformist and always loved to challenge the status quo. For me, this has always laid the foundation for my originality and success. I grew up with two siblings in a home where both our parents were working. Growing up was exciting and eventful, with lots of fun, adventures, and of course mischief! All of us have done well on our own accord to date – my sister is a Chartered Accountant domiciled in the UK and my brother is a Maxillofacial surgeon in Sri Lanka; one of the few in the country.
I discovered electronics in my pre-teens as my uncle used to dabble around. I used to watch him at work in awe, and took effort into replicating what he did; disassemble working gadgets and putting them back together. That inquisitiveness, curiosity and passion for technology and electronics only grew over time. My academic proficiency, especially in mathematics and sciences, also gravitated me to engineering. Even as a teen, there was never any doubt about what I wanted to be when I grew up. An engineer!
The most exciting for me, all along, was the opportunity I got to write my playbook every time I started a new role or accepted added responsibility. I wanted to truly create and do something different to set us apart and something had never been done before. It’s gratifying to see that people chose to trust, learn, follow and replicate what you have done by adapting your playbook in their organizations. The most challenging part was to write a master playbook to balance my multiple roles & responsibilities, to
address the multi-stakeholders as well as multiple industries in a regional as well as a conglomerate setting whilst finding time for yourself, for family and to enjoying life.
In all the roles I’ve accepted I never inherited a playbook starting from my very first C-level role at the age of 33. I had to write my own; establishing best as well as next practices. I have played various C-level roles both at a company level as well as Group level, but I always looked for ways to rewrite the playbooks to create the next point of inflection by pushing boundaries and creating new vistas. I never did what I did to leave a legacy, but more so because I believed in something and wanted to always chase my dreams. This also gave me the courage to take anything on, to push boundaries and not fear failure.
It’s important for when you are trying to always disrupt yourself and what you do to recreate the next or the new normal that you need a team who not only believes in you but who is willing to walk along with faith and confidence. That is something you cannot demand, but you need to earn it. This is only possible by having a strong set of guiding principles and philosophies and for me those were – that’s to be truthful to myself; challenge myself to be my best at all times; learn
to unlearn; think anything is possible; treat everyone as an equal with respect; stay humble and grounded; walk the talk; inspire everyone to live their best; build relationships with people because they are humans not for what they can do for me; live my life and not of others; build myself to be a worthy citizen which is beyond titles and enjoy what I do and finally be humane.
My matra for my success to date had been no matter how old you are, it’s never too late to live the life you’ve always wanted – do the things that you wanted; visit the places that you wanted; learn the stuff that you wanted; to make the mistakes that you have not made before; to push yourself off the cliff and still hope you remembered to wear that parachute you brought along; be an original and not a replica of someone else. Don’t let anyone but yourself say no to anything. Live your life, the way you want it. Regret nothing.
2.HOW HAVE YOU ACHIEVED “EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE”?
Emotional Intelligence is key for any leader. All great leaders must possess the intellect, and business /technical acumen to qualify as being business smart, but the key attribute that differentiates one is emotional intelligence. Personally, for me, that’s about having a 360o view of myself in order to enhance my self-awareness, self-regulation and self-control to be effective as a leader and its journey since you will never be perfect. The moment you acknowledge that you are human and you will error then taking the necessary steps in self-improvement is much easier.
What has helped me to date in achieving the same are simple but consistent practices to always help me be a better version of myself – I compete against myself every day. I don’t want to be prescriptive, but these are a few things which have helped me to become a better leader each day.
• Be physically active and be self-disciplined to create a positive posture about yourself and to create positive energy around others too.
• Always stay grounded and be humble immaterial of the circumstances and be ready to apologize, if you genuinely did wrong someone.
• Create a common platform of trust by using the same rules, measures, etc. to measure yourself as well as others and be consistent in doing so.
• Practice mindfulness to develop self-awareness, self-regulation and self-control. This has helped me to be more socially aware of the people that I interact with and to build better relationships through better emotional balance, though you must acknowledge you are not perfect and you will have those bad days/moments.
• Be truthful to yourself and say what you mean and mean what you say and establish trust and credibility.
• Develop and promote open communication without preconceived biases and identify areas that you need to improve on and work on them.
• Learning to accept feedback without getting defensive or offensive though sometime what you hear may make you angry/emotional but ultimately listening to understand the underlying message and not the emotions.
• Always keep an open line of communication for anyone to approach and speak to you and never shut the door on anyone.
• Building equality and inclusiveness across the organization by being approachable and getting to know people you work with immaterial of ranks and profile.
• Walking the talk each day and encouraging others to follow suit.
• Have the humility to admit that all of us are humans and prone to making mistakes and admit when you make them and apologize if you have to.
• Be frank and open in your communication and confront issues and not the person.
• Invest time to develop one-on-one personal relationships and have frequent discussions to develop interpersonal relationships with as many as you can and use those to solicit feedback about yourself as well as guide/coach people.
• Always keep up with time and be in step with what’s happening around you and stay current and relevant
• Always inspire the next and lead from the front
3.HOW CAN/WOULD YOU, AS A LEADER, ENCOURAGE AND FACILITATE PEOPLE TO TAKE SMART RISKS AND SHARE BOLD IDEAS IN YOUR OWN TEAM? WHAT INSPIRATION CAN OTHERS DERIVE FROM THE JOURNEY YOU HAD TRAVERSED ON YOUR WAY TO BEING A PROMINENT LEADER?
I don’t categorize myself as a conventional leader by any yardstick. I always question myself as to what’s something I would expect from the one I would look up to as my LEADER? For me, the answer lies there – the value that I bring in whatever form to my world, my society, my organization, my team, my family, my context, etc. but on a sustainable and continuous basis to establish trust, empathy, and confidence.
Creating an environment for SMART risk-taking means, you need to develop an organization with a culture and mindset which will encourage people to learn new things; challenge the status quo; get out of their comfort zones; push boundaries; create the next point of inflection, and that too on a continual basis. This also means that the leadership must provide adequate safety nets and comfort that they are doing this for the organization risking their reputation, careers, and growth opportunities.
They have you standing up for them if things don’t go well. Personally, I never looked for safety nets and always aimed for the sky. I was never content with the status quo and was the first to always challenge them. This does exert a lot of pressure on your extended leadership team as well as the other stakeholders. Since the speed of change that you are trying to propagate is something unfamiliar to them, they feel it’s a huge risk. The comfort you derive from your knowledge, experience and expertise is not the baseline for all to rely on, especially for those who are new to the industry along with the current developments powered by technology. It’s imperative that you need to play the role of a confidante in filling in the blanks, busting up the enthusiasm, courage and building up confidence.
Along with ensuring adequate safety measures are in place to ensure those risks are managed as part of a broader portfolio so as to not have a negative impact even if the worst-case scenario that we forecasted was to occur. As a leader, one must learn to manage this at different stakeholder levels from the top to bottom to be successful.
In my career span of 20+ years, I have faced all kinds of challenges and roadblocks, but have never been deterred by them. I had the knowledge, faith, courage and confidence to pursue my aspirations and steer through. Taking calculated risks, leading the way, and building up consensus where required, to create the much-needed point of inflection for the organization and its stakeholders. If I were to name a few during my career span that would be – exiting the PC business as early as in 2002 while everyone was getting into it at KBSL, building an early Systems Integration practice at KBSL around the INTERNET(IP) and NET economy early in 1999, engineering the entry of NOKIA’s Enterprise business into Sri Lanka, contributing to the growth of big, multinationals such as IBM, Cisco, Lucent, iflex(Oracal Banking Software); NetApps, Juniper, Checkpoint, VMware, Redhat, Systimax, Symbol/Motorola, etc during 2000 to 2005 as the CEO of KBSL. Along with creating a consultative approach to addressing customer needs which culminated in our Joint Venture with Air Arabia to develop their entire portfolio of software for the airline which spanned from 2005 to 2014 I was an ardent advocate for Information Security and established the first such practice in the country in 2001 and introduced the Services’ catalogue and charge-back model for IT at the John Keells Group in 2006 for the Group which was the first in South Asia. I helped the Group to leverage
IT as a strategic asset rather than a utility and drove a wave of consolidation, cloud enablement, bimodel IT strategy, data-centricity, platform thinking, and open innovation as leading practices and trends in the region for many others to follow suit. I relaunched JKCS & SGIT as John Keells IT to drive Digital Transformation with a presence in the Asia Pacific, Middle East, and Nordics in a short span of 3 years and established as one of the top 3 partners of our strategic principals in the markets that we operate in. We have grown 300% both in terms of top-line and bottom-line.
The attitude, trust, enthusiasm, confidence, empathy, and comradeship to name a few; that you create are infectious and set the tone for your team as well as the others you work with.
4.ANTICIPATIONS’ AND ‘NAVIGATION’ ARE SIGNIFICANT COMPONENTS OF LEADERSHIP. ELABORATE YOUR TAKE ON THAT.
Anticipation and Navigation are akin to Vision and Execution for me.
Anticipation – We can anticipate the future whilst we live in the present and how well we take cues from the past distinguishes and determines how successful we are as leaders.
.Why? Tomorrow’s opportunity is what creates the future whilst we sustain the organization engaging in today’s opportunities. The delicate balancing act of walking the tight rope is what leadership is all about and it’s both an art and a science build upon through your life-long journey and conditioned by your aspirations, knowledge, expertise, experience, intelligence, intuition, gut, reflection, humility, risk appetite, trust,
camaraderie and your ability to challenge the status quo, walk the talk, lead from the front , and encourage others hearts.
The power of anticipation is key to facing the uncertainties that we have to face in today’s world. It is a must-have skill today for any leader to survive and be able to navigate the maze of complexities by being proactive and strategic.
Anticipation is crucial in mapping out anything that’s strategic. Let alone operations, during a period of uncertainty. All of us want a leader who is a forward-thinker and a trend-setter. Key to this are the following attributes,
• Active Awareness – create a collaborative, situational awareness that lays the foundation for future action.
• Picking your bets – identify the right opportunities to invest whilst mitigating those threats that can impede the organization’s growth.
• Drive Innovation – Encourage people to break the mould and create a new order.
• Be the Maverick – Rules don’t always apply. Be bold enough to break and
tolerant enough when others do it for the right reasons.
Navigation – On the other hand we wish for a leader who can anticipate the future and help us navigate the maze in getting there too.
Navigation is not just following your compass from A to B since the conditions do change and there could be unknowns as well. This means that navigation requires good information, keen awareness, and careful analysis, but this is no longer the job of a single, all-wise leader. Rather it involves aligning and enabling extended teams that collectively provide the necessary awareness and analytics to get to where we have to. Organizations need to take teamwork to a level where navigation becomes a collective instinct and an enabler.
The 3 key factors which enable great navigation in an organization are,
• Destination – The final destination is key to any navigation in terms of vision. It must be clear to all stakeholders and that must encompass the stakeholder aspirations too; for them to want to get to a common destination. It’s a statement of intent which should be simple, clear, concise and inclusive.
• Connectedness – The degree of connectedness amongst the stakeholders is key for the organization to navigate. This is achieved by a shared set of values that all will subscribe to. Create a culture that will bring out the best in making the navigation more constructive and a rewarding exercise that clarifies who is doing what in terms of a clear structure. Consistent communication for everyone to know where they are and what they need to do next.
• Awareness – Maintaining consciousness of external vs internal context as well as our resources vis-à-vis opportunities/threats is key for us to connect the dots as and when they emerge as we traverse the path towards our destination.
5.AN INSPIRING PIECE OF ADVICE TO THE UPCOMING ENTREPRENEURS, FINE-TUNING THEIR INTUITION
Extracting Megan Street’s famous saying, people will try and put limitations on you but the only person who can truly limit you is YOU.
All of us must realise that the world is going through an unprecedented series of circumstances/events starting from the pandemic, little over 2 years ago, and it will never be the same again. The change that we need to braise ourselves to will be far from what we have known and there lies the challenge for all of us.
It’s important for us not to be driven by fear, anger or anxiety. These will force us to fight against the very change that we ought to be creating for ourselves and our future generations.
So, let’s be guided by courage, awareness, consciousness, responsibility, empathy, tranquillity and consensus which will serve us in abundance in creating a sustainable, inclusive and equitable future for all.
Remember, we can change ourselves and feel free as birds by doing what we can: We can be serene even amidst these calamities and, by our serenity, make others more tranquil. Serenity is contagious!
Have the confidence to pursue your dream. Find that sticky idea! Find
the team which challenges you, but at the same time complements you. Look to refine the idea with your team so that it’s solving a problem that is of interest to you and your team but is big enough and worthy of being solved. Validate your problem and the solution. Assess its business viability of it holistically. Articulate the initial problem you are going to solve and how; i.e your minimum viable product (MVP). Acknowledge if your initial idea was not good and pivot if necessary. Play to your core strengths and build the business model around them. Know when to let go. Don’t worry about the noise around you. Be ready to do anything and everything. Find the balance and don’t blame anyone else. It’s your company – you decide, you run with it. Have fun doing it.
Remember, the lives you touch are your voice. Your team is your power. Your Knowledge is your asset. Learning is your hobby. Change must become your habit. Challenge is your adrenaline. Pushing the boundaries is your prescription. Never saying anything is impossible is your attitude. Al of them collectively will keep YOU alive, relevant, informed and focused!