Determination and open-mindedness navigated Shehani Liyanage, the Global Marketing Manager at Upfield to grow her way up the corporate ladder.
Shehani, a Devian, heralded from a grounded background with humble beginnings! She takes this positively as it has helped her become an empathetic individual among the different classes of people she associates with as a marketer. She believes that the downside of arising from a background as this is that it minimalizes the awareness beyond the traditional roles such as a doctor, or engineer. As a hardworking and studious kid from her schooling years, she has consistently worked to improve herself and do her absolute best. “I was a very hard-working kid when I was little and always wanted to do my best and be my best,” she said. After pursuing her advanced levels in the Biology stream, she was qualified to enter Colombo University science faculty to follow her bachelor’s degree in Biological Science.
At this point, one of my friends who was doing CIM asked me to try it out.” Being quite interested in the disciple, Shehani had a deep urge to try it out. She explains, “As CIM is also a costly degree, and my parents had a very traditional outlook on society they were not confident about being able to fund CIM. So, I got money from my father for the first two subjects, but he was very clear that he will not be able to fund me regularly. But after starting CIM I felt like marketing was my calling. So, I started to do classes for school kids as a part-time job and earn to pay for my CIM.” The determination to do what she was passionate about and the willingness to do whatever it takes to secure her dream is a part of what made Shehani who she is today. “By the time I was passing out from the University with a first-class honour as a batch top, I had also finished my CIM,” she added with pride.
The pursuit of her dream was further boosted during her 3rd year at the university when a multinational company conducted a career guidance program. “Luckily around the 3rd year, a well-established multinational organization conducted a career guidance program at university about their management trainee program. At that moment I was determined on a few things. One was to join a multinational organization as a management trainee and to become an Assistant Brand manager before I become 27 years old.” This was how the initial stage of her career flourished. Shehani started as a Management Trainee before she rose up the ladder to Assistant Brand Manager and finally was eligible enough to take up the mantle of Brand Manager all within a span of 5 years. This gradual process up the hierarchy brought her the well-deserved recognition and attention. “I was awarded, as an Emerging Leader there, which opened my visibility to other opportunities,” she stated. It was around this time when she joined Upfield Sri Lanka as Marketing Manager for both the Sri Lankan and Maldivian markets. Her streak of climbing up the corporate ladder did not slow down; she became the Global Marketing Manager for Blue Band at Upfield, in diverse market units as ANZ (Australia, New Zeland), AMEA (Africa Middle East and Asia) and Netherland/ LATAM (Latin America), under her portfolio for the brand just after two years.
Shehani had this to say when asked how she thought outside the box when faced with a task, “Honestly speaking with the extremely VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) world every day is an opportunity to think outside the box. Because if there is a problem, there is always a solution; you simply must find it. So, if you want to be a good marketer or anything to that matter you have to completely forget the box altogether.” The global pandemic brought a huge challenge and many organizations and businesses had to adapt to the new norm, Shehani as a leader too had to face challenges that came her way and make crucial decisions. “For us the number one priority was to make our products available to the consumers. Upfield team got together and started a completely new route to market operation with a home delivery system. Orders were taken through social media and our own contact numbers as we could not get a call centre operating amidst a lockdown. The deliveries were done by our own teams including the on-ground sales teams. Irrespective of selling to the outlets, we were delivering orders we received via online and calls, which was a huge operation with a very limited number of people. We converted our office premises and even a few of our team members’ homes into Uber/Pick Me delivery pick-up locations for the consumers who were ordering their groceries from the delivery apps. It was a tremendous team effort, with a lot of out-of-the-box thinking, resilience, and passion. I’m super proud and happy to say that with all the challenges we even over-achieved the March/April seasonal targets,” she said that this was a huge challenge and that she is glad that it was a success.
Everyone has to face conversations that are bound to be complicated in their own way, but what makes leaders stand out is how they approach and tackle them. “A conversation can be tough due to two reasons. One is that the point in the discussion is actually very serious. Or simply due to the tonality of the conversation. I never back out from touch conversations but I make sure that I approach them correctly,” said Shehani. She elaborates further on how she handles conversation as a receiver of a tough conversation, “if I’m the receiver of the conversation, the main thing is to keep the emotion out of it. Often, there is nothing personal in a tough conversation. So, if you keep the emotion out, you will approach it in a very objective manner which will help you to find the root cause and have a constructive discussion.” On the other hand, she states that it is of a different nature when you are the instigator of a conversation, “If I’m the one who is initiating the tough conversation, for me it is an opportunity to sharpen my leadership skills. We need to approach those discussions with our teams with empathy and care. There is a saying, that in leadership even if you are extraordinarily skillful; if you are not empathetic, you are not a good leader. At the end of the day, a lot depends on the tonality, so I always make a conscious call to regulate my tonality to drive the conversation to a fruitful outcome.”
Shehani advises young marketers to always be with an open mind and that inspiration and values can come from unlikely sources as well. “Something I always believe, and I always tell young marketers, is to be open-minded. There is something you can learn in every conversation you have. It does not have to be with a senior stakeholder. Even now I learn from very junior team members. But you must be open-minded to it,” Shehani explained further. The quality that brought her up the corporate ladder has been her open-mindedness to learn, “I actually climbed the career ladder fast, and honestly, one reason, in my opinion, was that I always had that open mind to learn. When I was a management trainee, I used to go home every day and at night think of all the new things I learned from all those conversations throughout the day. And it made my learning curve rise high faster and I live by this career tip even to date.”
For the upcoming entrepreneurs out there, Shehani had some words of wisdom for them, “I strongly believe that your success in anything depends on how passionate you are about it and the same goes for your career. If you are waiting until the weekend comes and hate Mondays, you are probably not doing what you love and you might not be passionate about it. So, it might be time for a change because life is too short to waste time doing things we don’t love.”