Presently serving as Director / Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for JKH Consumer Foods sector and Executive Vice President at John Keells Group, Nelindra Fernando is an all-Sri Lankan female success story. We sat down with this accomplished Management Accountant professional as she discussed her experiences running finance in an industry traditionally perceived to be a “man’s domain”.
Tell us about your journey, both professional and personal?
One of my earliest memories is of my father encouraging us to be professionals. He believed that financial independence was something we should aspire to as females, along with life’s various duties and responsibilities. This encouragement was a constant in my life. I was never very ambitious, but I was always passionate about whatever it is I did, and always gave my best .
From 2009 to 2013, I took a 4 year career-break to be a stay at home mom, dedicating my time and being there for my sons, who are now 15 and 12 years old. Being the youngest of 3 sisters, I grew up in Borella. My father was in the Airforce, and my mother made a home for us, fulltime. I believe that giving your children their due attention is crucial to their development, and I’ve tried to give my best to my kids always too, while pursuing my own career.
Schooling at Devi Balika Vidyalaya, , I pursued Bioscience for A-levels but didn’t get through to med-school and at the time, thought it was the end of the road. Instead, it led to me exploring other options.
I changed careers and pursued accountancy, and that road has led me to where I am today. I completed my CIMA qualification whilst also qualifying as an Chartered Accountant of Sri Lanka (ACMA and ACA). Then I spent four years at Ernst and Young doing external audit. Then I was at MAS for 9 years performing diverse roles. That was a very challenging yet exciting start, and I really grew there and set up a good foundation for my career in finance. I started as a Management Accountant at MAS Bodyline and rose to Manager Corporate Finance at MAS Holdings and then Head of Management Accounting at MAS Active.
Looking for a new challenge and experience and wanting to work for Sri Lanka’s biggest conglomerate , I moved to the John Keells Group 9 years ago and have really matured here. starting as the Sector Financial Controller for the Consumer Foods Sector, I am now the Director/ Chief Financial Officer for the Consumer Foods Sector
As a member of the leadership team at John Keells, how do you contribute towards the Group’s success?
I push myself & my team to constantly challenge our own status quo whilst raising the bar each year by setting and achieving stretched targets to ensure market leadership. Continuous and consistent improvement, everyday if possible. I expect the same spirit from my team where we believe in continuous improvement in everything we do
Integrity is one of the John Keells Group values and a principal that I have always lived by, in doing the right thing. This however has made life challenging for me sometimes, and even made an enemy or two along the way. But there is no greater peace and sense of wellbeing in life than a clear conscience.
As a result, I’ve never been afraid to voice my opinion and go against the current, especially when I have seen decisions detrimental to the company being made. Often, I’ve not been very popular for it, but I have stood my ground and maintained integrity for myself, my team and the Company at all times.
How important is Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) & at John Keells?
Being inclusive of and respectful towards our diverse workforce is of utmost importance and this has always been our strength and ethos over the year. A few years ago we formalized our approach on DE&I with the launch of our ONE JKH brand. Through ONE JKH we strategise and roll out long term initiatives in 3 focus areas – increasing female participation in our workforce and value chains, ensuring inclusivity of the LGBTIQ community and increasing careering opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. , one of our most recently initiatives under ONE JKH has been in the introduction of equal 100 days parental leave for our staff at childbirth and adoption. Other initiatives on gender include employer supported childcare facilities, women centric training, addressing unconscious bias and mentoring female talent.
The Group has set a 5-year goal to reach 40% women in the workforce and all the sectors including the Consumer Foods Sector has set goals in both workforce and leadership levels to work towards meeting goal. In the Consumer Foods industry , there is a challenge in inspiring female participation, due to our nature of business; the manufacture and distribution of food items.
Negative societal perceptions of roles acceptable for women also contribute to this challenge and, as such, there are many non-traditional roles to fill. To address this, we work with vocational training institutes and universities to encourage wider female participation. We’ve also come up with mechanisms to allow women to apply for jobs within the organization, supported by women-friendly processes and structures.
DE&I also extends to our value chain and communities, through programmes such as Elephant House “Dinannee” and “Diriya Upahara”, which recognize women-owned and women-led businesses in our supply chain. Overall, there is now a need for corporates to lead a national transformation in societal perceptions in that women can excel in non traditional roles and, as a society, we must support their career development.
How do you view female participation in conventional and non-conventional fields?
Most university graduates in Sri Lanka are women, attesting to the intelligence, skill and perseverance of our women. But to truly harness this potential, we need to push boundaries and look beyond stereotypes, all the way from the factory floor to the boardroom.
We find that certain roles in consumer foods sector such as sales, and other roles like hotel and warehouse operations, engineering, and tea broking, within the Group, female participation is low. It’s also roles like this that are considered to be non-conventional for women. As part of the ONE JKH strategy, each sector has now identified these roles and are setting up infrastructure and training etc to recruite and retain women in these roles and have targets set as well. However, we see higher participation in roles such as finance, human resources, legal and secretarial work, all conventional roles. So, we have clearly recognized a need to break through conventional barriers and let people do what they would like without fear of judgement.
Do women in corporates receive the necessary support they need to break the glass ceiling in their career?
Yes, but we can do more. Mentorship is crucial, for example. Women need support, encouragement and guidance, otherwise they have high probabilities of dropping out of the workforce, mid-career. Women also have many societal and external pressures that may push them to give up. Thus, we must be able to inspire women to believe in themselves. This can only be achieved through mentorship and sponsorship
We also know that seeing other women in high places at the beginning of one’s career, can inspire women to take up non-traditional roles and build worthwhile careers. Therefore, having female mentors at senior levels sharing their experience and providing advice on managing roadblocks and sensitive situations is crucial. Mentorship and sponsorship of female talent by male leaders has also been shown to be very effective. So, the takeaway is the need for structured mentorship.
The next important factor is addressing gender gaps and inequalities in a way that goes beyond simple non-discrimination policies. Therefore, we’ve implemented numerous policies based on best practices to augment our non-discrimination and equality framework, by providing additional support to women throughout their careers. This includes increased flexibility to balance home and work, focussed training on leadership development and mentoring by a female member of the senior management. There is also an ongoing deliberate effort to identify and deal with unconscious gender biases in both women and men. Understanding where these exist, and intervening to address them, is an ongoing and successful endeavour.
In terms of recruitment and people management, it is crucial to ensure gender diverse interview panels to provide fair and gender-neutral assessments. Then, there is a need to address promotions and ensure they follow an objective, scientific method, ensuring the best person for the job is always identified and selected. Furthermore, there is a need to engage in exit discussions, particularly for females, to understand why they are resigning, and whether any and all interventions to persuade them to stay and build a career within the group have been exhausted. It’s also important to mention succession planning here, which involves considering qualified female candidates to take up managerial or operational positions, even though they may not be the natural choice due to potential unconscious bias.
What steps does CCS/JKH take to support females and ensure they take up leadership roles?
As I’ve already explained previously, we have numerous mechanisms, beginning from recruitment and going all the way to succession planning. There is a huge focus on flexibility and ensuring that women can balance home and work, while eliminating unconscious biases, and creating a work environment where women can thrive. The need for structured mentorship cannot be overstressed and we go above and beyond to provide this. All of what I have previously discussed, we are doing everyday at the John Keells Group, to ensure a fair and equitable workplace for all.
What exactly is One JKH and how has it helped?
I’ve already provided an overview about the ethos of One JKH. But beyond that we are working on a 5-year plan to increase and retain female participation in the workforce of at 40% at least. In pursuit of this, we have addressed our parental leave programmes, promoted agile working arrangements, are making arrangements for employer-supported childcare facilities, are providing women-centric training, and are focussed on the all important mentorship programmes for women. We have also identified non-traditional roles for women within the organization and targeted recruitment and retention efforts to fill these roles.
We proudly display the ONE JKH branding on all our recruitment initiatives to emphasize that we are an equal opportunity employer. Plus, we have CSR initiatives like Project WAVE (Working Against Violence through Education), which addresses gender stereotyping and gender-based violence. Through “Praja Shakthi”, we’re also empowering rural women.
Finally, the ONE JKH Champions of change pledge that we in the leadership team have committed to, to end discrimination, and stereotyping and principles are adhered to strictly in all our external comms as well, especially advertising campaigns, to ensure that they are in line with our values, and demonstrate to society at large that we are against discrimination and stereotyping of any group or individual(s).
What’s an inspiring quote you’d like to share with upcoming generations of entrepreneurs?
Ordinary people can achieve extraordinary results through consistent, committed hard work, passion and a willingness to learn!
How can corporates retain women employees from exiting mid-career?
Make reasonable accommodations to support the for the additional societal
responsibilities and pressures that women often face at the mid-career point. Marriage, children, elderly parents, these are all the usual points of contention for women, mid-career. It’s actually really simple. If we address these concerns effectively, women will continue to build their careers.
At John Keells, we’ve put many policies in place to address these issues for women, for a long time now. These include flexible working hours, part-time work, work from home, employer supported childcare facilities and others. The pandemic had the unexpected positive consequence of helping us understand just how much more flexible we could be, and this has helped us and will continue to help us support our women. It has been
made possible for women to work flexibly without any negative impact to their quality of work and this has been transformational for us. By equalizing parental leave, we have also been able to further make it attractive for women to stay.
Ultimately, if we reduce the friction and pressure women feel, mid-career, there is no reason for them to not continue building their careers. Understanding women is the key to unlocking opportunities for them and letting them reach their full potential!