For decades, the traditional view was that business leaders had to be infallible, calm, in control, and fearless to be successful. These leaders appear to be natural-born leaders, easily endowed with supreme intelligence, coming up with brilliant ideas and directives from the mountain top that lower echelons with the expectation of executing commands. However, the pandemic has highlighted what was already becoming apparent before the emergence of the virus: that hero leadership is no longer what companies need. The most effective leadership today — at all levels — isn’t about technical expertise and having all the answers. Besides articulating a compelling vision, it’s about being human, showing vulnerability, connecting with people, and unleashing their potential. One such leader is Daraz Sri Lanka’s Managing Director, Rakhil Fernando.
To begin the narrative, Rakhil commenced his career after graduating from university, working in various jobs, including Credit Suisse, Coutts & Co Bank, and Batey Advertising. Following that, he spent several years in the Singapore start-up ecosystem, his latest position being the Founder and CEO of Kashmi, peer-to-peer payments and digital-first banking platform that serviced Singapore and Sri Lanka. In 2017, he became the Director of Innovation at LumenLab, MetLife’s Asian innovation arm, to lead external innovation and start-up engagement. He has additionally been involved in Habitat for Humanity projects, where he was assigned as the Goodwill Ambassador of Sri Lanka. Rakhil came into the picture with Daraz, a subsidiary of the Alibaba Group, when they were looking for someone to take the reins as the new Managing Director in Sri Lanka in 2019.
Rakhil demonstrates that his upbringing consisted of him attempting everything and anything. He recalls playing various instruments, taking part in plays, and trying virtually every sport imaginable. Nevertheless, he maintains that his exposure to attempting different things and failing at some of them gave him the foundation for cultivating a personality and thick skin that empowered him to explore the world of technology and start-ups.
In the world today, when one reflects upon them, it calls for an answer to an age-old question: What is it to be human? It is believed there is no single immutable answer. Humans are what we conceive ourselves to be, which means there are two things: what we will ourselves become and what we say we are. Our self-conceptions are, in turn, responses to conditions that we encounter in our environments, and those conditions constantly change with time and place. Every year, many of us walk into a new year envisioning a better version of ourselves. Appealing to how he would define himself in 2021, Rakhil voices, “Definitely more mature and patient.” In 2019, he had a new perspective on life after the birth of his son. In addition, the increased responsibility he has at Daraz has made him less impulsive and more methodical in all of his judgments.
Conferring how he became engaged with Daraz and how the company has advanced under his leadership, Rakhil clarifies somewhat a sentimental fact that he and his wife intended to return to Sri Lanka in 2019 for the birth of their son; so that he may grow up close to his grandparents. He learned about the Daraz opportunity through a LinkedIn search and sent his application to the Alibaba Group. Since he took control in June 2019, the company has risen by roughly 1500 per cent. As Rakhil puts it, the key to growing a firm is hiring and retaining suitable people and granting them the freedom to make judgments.
To be successful in e-commerce, one needs to think bigger than e-commerce. The core question retailers must ask themselves first is not, “What e-commerce investments do I need to make?” but rather, “What consumer experience do I need to offer?” This is a culture change for many retailers who’ve long had a mentality that’s anchored in brick-and-mortar stores. The consumer experience is rapidly evolving from one built upon the transactional process of in-store shopping to one rooted in deep, ongoing and enriching relationships. As a retailer, you need to create an interwoven journey that’s relevant to your target consumer — and structure your channel ecosystem, e-commerce included, in a way that provides value along that journey. In this context, backed by Rakhil, Daraz stands apart from other online platforms thanks to its cutting-edge technological solutions. According to him, the consumer journey and experience are at the centre of these solutions. Hence, even if it has a favourable financial impact on the firm, they won’t do it if it makes sense to their customers. Rakhil further points out that Daraz is the only platform with access to over 3 million products ranging from electronics to fashion apparel and food, making it a one-stop-shop for everything. He annotates, “We have now started diversifying into different services as well, all within the platform. The plan is to get people to spend as much time with us as possible.”
Concerning how Daraz has changed since being acquired by the Alibaba Group, Rakhil declared that its acquisition has come with tremendous expectations for them to perform. They are predicted to increase by triple-digit percentages every year as Daraz’s Sri Lankan enterprise. Further, Daraz no longer strives for anything less than 100% year-over-year growth. As a result, their challenge is to exceed their expectations, which he is glad to announce they have done thus far.
It is not an overstatement to say that versatility is the most crucial component of leading effectively today. Looking into some of the challenges he’s faced in his role, Rakhil asserts that leading a team of over 2000 people is never easy. “Making sure you have standardized processes to scale the business and an environment to harness each employee’s unique contribution is a difficult thing to juggle as you grow,” he remarks. However, he maintains that his team is youthful and hungry. Thus allowing them to tap into that raw ambition consistently is something that Daraz excels at, which is how they achieved that 1500 per cent growth in just 24 months.
The ability to empathize with, connect with, and influence others is a pivotal skill for success. In response to a question on what he values most in a working relationship, Rakhil underlines, “The importance of trust is crucial. I have complete faith in my management team and the rest of the organization. I assume that everyone at Daraz is working to fulfil the company’s objectives in the best interests of the company.” Furthermore, he states that removing one’s ego from the issue and being comfortable is always critical to attaining the most remarkable result for the organization’s interests. Rakhil considers it is essential to have that level of faith and trust in his employees, allowing them to make decisions and carry out their duties; this is because micromanaging causes the entire computer to slow down, resulting in a less-than-ideal working environment.
The pandemic — and its personal ramifications — have presented us all an opportunity to find new identities, roles, and jobs more suited to our talents, ambitions, and purpose. For those who want a life of excellence and impact, it may be time to forge a new path. As we contemplate a slowdown or end to the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us are talking about getting “back to normal.” But others, wisely, are instead using this moment to recalibrate, reset, and reinvent. Rakhil, speaking on the current global epidemic and how it has affected Daraz, announces that everyone expected the problem to be resolved much sooner than it has. Although the pandemic has benefited the e-commerce business, the WFH concept has been challenging for Daraz since it affects employee morale; creating personal ties with coworkers is even more difficult when you can’t physically engage with them. He also insists that Daraz’s operations team’s health and safety has been a significant problem. The company’s riders put their lives on the line every day delivering parcels. Thus Rakhil made sure they had systems in place to keep everyone safe and all the resources available to assist any infected employees and their families, which is his priority.
Mastering any skill usually requires some element of fear-conquering. Leadership is no different. Many fears can come into play when leading a team. Entrepreneurs face this head-on as their companies grow. You go from being an eager person with a great idea to a leader, manager, and someone who is looked upon for inspiration. Sometimes this happens more quickly than anticipated, so one must be prepared to handle these inevitable challenges. Putting forward his biggest fears and what gives him the most satisfaction as an individual, Rakhil responds, “I think both aspects of the two questions tie into each other. Always doing things that matter, both for me and a greater cause, is important. So, my biggest fear is being stuck in the mundane.”
As the world becomes more tech-centric by the minute, humans must drive change and direct technological investment and adoption. Ultimately, the benchmark for successful technology comes down to whether it’s helping the humans in an organization do what they need to do. Businesses that want to continue to deliver value and help ensure enterprise resiliency in this time of rapid change should aim to become Human Enterprises — putting humans and their needs at the centre of their strategies, values, processes, and operations, with technology serving as an enabler rather than a driver of change.
Humane leaders make a profound and lasting difference in the lives of people around them, the organizations they lead, and the world. This journey from mind trap to mind shift and mind build is what separates yesterday’s leaders from Rakhil, who can successfully navigate today’s and tomorrow’s challenges, inspire others to unlock their inner human leader and shine the light brighter into the world. He ends his account with a remarkable statement, “Minimize your regrets in life. Many of our regrets in life are acts of omission, the things we didn’t try, the path untraveled.”