Sun, 25 Jul 2021 Today's Paper

Aruni Goonetilleke

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She is a Director of Tea Small Holder Factories PLC, Softlogic Finance PLC and Sunshine Holdings PLC. She was the Former Head of Corporate Banking, People’s Bank PLC, the Former Head of Risk, Commercial Banking, Standard Chartered Bank, Singapore, and the Former Head of Credit (SME), Standard Chartered Bank, Singapore. An alumna of Ladies College, Colombo and an LLB (Hons) graduate from the University of Colombo, she is also armed with an LLM (Masters in Law) from Harvard Law School, USA. She is a financial services expert, with over twenty years of regional experience working for international banks in diverse businesses and in multiple countries. She is a corporate leader with a proven track record for driving transformation change in complex and highly regulated environments with extensive experience in corporate banking, credit risk, operational risk and compliance. She is a mother to two beautiful daughters; Raya and Rika. Raya, a graduate in Economics from Fordham University, USA, is also a Post Graduate student reading a Masters in Fashion Economics at New York University, USA. Rika is a student at the Overseas School of Colombo.

Astute, assertive, diligent and ambitious; she is an empowered corporate leader. ‘She Can’ and she continues to shatter the corporate glass-ceiling in Sri Lanka; Aruni Goonetilleke.

1.What are the attributes of a successful leader today? I don’t think the attributes of a successful leader are very different today from before. A successful leader should be extremely competent, and have a core competency, rather than being a generalist, as popularly believed. You should be the “go to” person on a certain subject. You should remain relevant and that requires life-long learning and a willingness to reinvent yourself and change. A leader should be consistent and able to communicate effectively to convince the troops to align with the plan and strategy. Above all, a leader should have integrity and a moral compass. Today, more than ever before, leaders have to be fast, nimble and have the ability to look around the curve, due to the tremendous pace of change. Due to the human suffering Covid19 has caused, there is a need for the “humanizing” of leadership and we women have always had that empathy and human quality.

2.Where do you see the company in the next five years under your leadership and guidance? The world is changing in new and unpredictable ways. Every company CEO and Board is grappling with political upheaval, economic volatility, digital disruption and the impact of Covid19 on customer behavior and supply chains. Therefore, one has to ensure that the company has an adaptable business model including people who can adapt, be inventive and creative. This is the type of company that will survive and thrive. Going through an annual strategic planning exercise is no longer relevant, we need to adapt every day. Creating an adaptable business model, attracting and retaining talent, encouraging bold behavior and staying nimble is what we are hoping to achieve in the next five years.

3.How did you move forward when everyone kept saying that your suggestion or ideas won’t work? I am sure at one point during your career your ideas would have been shot down? People generally dislike when you question the status quo. Most people have set notions and you need to be persistent in order to convince. I generally give practical and live examples which people can relate to and demonstrate how they would be impacted by the change. Coupled with this I try to use data and facts to convince. There is so much data these days that one can analyze. Generally, I do not take “no” for an answer and ask for at least a trial period to prove that the idea is worth pursuing!

4.How did you reach your level of success, given the sector’s gender gap, especially among leadership? If you take the financial services sector, whilst overall there are many females, as you go up the ladder, the females get less and less and there have been very few female CEOs or Chairpersons of Banks. This is due to many conscious and unconscious biases, prejudices and outright discrimination. I have encountered these, but the main thing is not to let them hold you back. Whatever I do, I throw myself into it with passion and purpose and you have to be very good in what you do. I always felt an obligation and duty as I was given more authority and responsibility and felt it necessary to make an impact. This approach will keep you on track and you will automatically progress both personally and professionally.

5.Do you ever think- “Am I crazy”? Often! Here is where the passion and purpose come in. Your motivation should come from within. This is easier said than done and I have felt disillusioned and wondered why on earth I am making sacrifices and trade-offs; however, I always get back on track by remembering my personal vision and purpose.

6.How do you differentiate yourself? Do the job your given better than anyone else. Be tough, remain resilient in order to power through the challenges but also acknowledge when you are vulnerable. By working very hard and excelling in what I do, I make sure that my color nor gender is used to hold me back. I have found that women have to work twice as hard as men to be gain the same position and one has to be a super woman! I also found that its very important to connect on a personal level with your colleagues (and their families), I took a long time to realize this, believing the opposite, that one should keep a distance. Their families make sacrifices due to their jobs, therefore one has to extend that connection to families too.

7.What is your “why”? Why do I need to conform? Why do I need to be like a man or someone else? To hell with that, let me be me, the authentic me!

8.Who do you look up to for inspiration and mentorship? My husband and my daughters inspire me every day. My husband is my biggest critic, I get angry and exasperated when he tells me the truth, but I ponder on it in my angry corner and learn from it (but never admit that to him). My two girls, aged 18 years and 23 years, are my cheerleaders, they view the world so differently and are fair, just and inclusive; interacting with them is a continuous learning experience. They always tell me to follow my dreams and not care about what anyone thinks!

9.What is one decision you wish you didn’t make? Once I make a decision, I move forward positively instead of looking back with regret. In making life decisions, there are trade-offs and sometimes consequences that you may not envision, and once you make it, I believe in making the best of it or in turning direction if required. At work, I have made several lateral moves in order to learn and gain experience which has helped me succeed at a later date.

10.Your biggest regret? I didn’t learn several languages, that would have opened up so many opportunities, it’s never too late, I guess!

11.One mistake you have made in life? Many mistakes, especially losing my cool and saying hurtful and personal things to people. The main thing is to learn from one’s mistakes and try not to repeat them. Although, its useful to throw a tantrum sometimes, it gets the message across and shows that you are passionate! But never get personal.

12.How do you keep your team motivated despite conflicts and obstacle? By communicating why the company needs to do certain things, how it would impact the company, how it would impact them personally and how they can play a role. Once people understand this, its easy to overcome obstacles. Bureaucracy kills business and creates politics and competition within an organization and prevents collaboration. Collaboration does not mean that you have to always agree but it means that people work together and have a common objective.

13.What has been the highlight of your career so far? At the outset getting into my favorite department (corporate banking in my case), getting a promotion or a bigger paycheck was the highlight. However, as I became more senior, I gained satisfaction from the positive impact I was able to make to the company, people and the community, for example, providing funding to impactful and sustainable businesses, worthy entrepreneurs and by helping someone else progress and grow. Whilst separate CSR projects are necessary, the highlight for me was to do a job that helped the development of the country and help communities. I got an opportunity to do this in my last role with People’s Bank and I am very grateful for that.

14.If you could go back and tell yourself one thing before beginning your career what would it be? Be introspective, know your strengths and weaknesses and most importantly, respect others. It’s very important at the outset when you think you know it all, to respect and listen to others.

15.What was the biggest rookie mistake you made when starting out? It has to be when I went into the CEO’s washroom and started doing my make up! Other than that, when I replied at length (almost a thesis) to a rhetorical question that my arrogant and sarcastic boss asked, and copied everyone. I almost got sacked for that one since I was supposed to shut up!

16.Where do you see yourself 10 years from now? Still working hard and doing new, bigger and impactful things. Hopefully making my contribution in changing society and remaining relevant and useful.

17.Share with us a secret that no one else knows? I can’t sleep without the sound of a fan; therefore, I struggle in posh hotels! I hate chocolate and am scared of heights.

18.How do you stay motivated 24/7, 365 days a year? Stay with the plan and purpose. Have professional and personal goals and work towards them continuously referring to and revisiting them. Have a balanced life and have fun. Having a rewarding job, a husband and children with similar goals and good friends keeps me motivated.

19.How do you balance being a mother and professional? What have you sacrificed (both personally and professionally) at each stage of your career? A woman’s biological clock and career path are totally at odds with each other. When the biological clock is ticking, a woman’s career is generally peaking! There are trade-offs and sacrifices. I was often not there when my daughters needed me. They used to say ‘Amma you don’t need to do anything but just please be there.” I was often guilt-ridden and looked for coping mechanisms. You have to manage each situation as best as you can and believe that your kids will understand, emulate you as a role model and be self-assured women themselves. My girls continuously tell me that they would never want me to stop working, that I should follow my dreams and that they will be just fine!

20.What is the best and worst decision you have ever made? Some bad decisions but you must move on, make the best of it and change course if possible. One of the best decisions was to agree to work overseas which gave me invaluable exposure to different cultures, values and different perspectives; there is so much to learn from others. It truly made me a global citizen.

21.What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? You will have several roadblocks along the way, both conscious and unconscious biases, discrimination, harassment, stereotyping and practical hardships. But the biggest barrier is if we let these stop us. We need to be the best at what we do, not feel intimidated nor give up. This is easier said than done. One needs to build a support network around oneself; find a friend at work, a mentor, a supportive husband and children, family members and friends who will help you.


Raya, Aruni and Rika

 

22.What woman inspires you and why? Many women but one that I can relate to is Indra Nooyi, the phenomenal Ex CEO of PepsiCo. She brought in the concept of “business with purpose” and today PepsiCo has purpose, bringing in healthy foods which are also fun. She came from a conservative Indian family, was a rebel, moving to the USA, and going through several hardships. She mentions that she wasn’t the stereotypical, good looking white woman who looked good in a suit, but that didn’t stop her, her mantra was to be the best in whatever she did. She continued to maintain her Indian identity and family values. She is so modest, real and bold.

23.What is the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you? Equality for women is still a long way away and the next generation will continue to face the challenges that we faced although to a lesser extent due to the greater awareness of issues. Several unseen barriers exist, and equality is still viewed as “sameness”, that is being treated like a man or being like a man. But the issues and needs of women are different. Another challenge is garnering the support of other women. Women should support and empower each other starting with the basic principles of who we are; our morals, values and integrity. Show togetherness, passion and excellence.

24.How do you want to be remembered one day? She was outspoken, fun, a good friend, a decent mother and wife.

25.What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders? Whatever you do throw yourself into it with passion and purpose. Be highly knowledgeable and competent. Do not waiver in your morals and you should have integrity. You should be willing to work hard and make sacrifices. There will be suffering and collateral damage along the way but stay tough and committed. Build a strong support system around you and find a supportive husband or partner. People are beginning to realize that the value of so called “feminine” traits of empathy, fairness, diligence, humanity and hard work. Millennials want to work in places that care about them and where they are making a contribution to society, these are all traits that women have; therefore, do not change, embrace these qualities and be bold and confident, and never give up.

 

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