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Saturday December 10th, 2022

Buddhika Godakanda on fostering future leaders at Sysco LABS

Buddhika Godakanda Director – Operations, Sysco LABS

The Sri Lanka-based innovation centre of global giant Sysco thrives on a resilient culture and people-centric approach to innovation.

Buddhika Godakanda, Director – Operations at Sysco LABS, shares his insights into how the captive innovation centre of Sysco – a Fortune 500 company and the global leader in the food service industry – is navigating the unfolding economic crisis and global supply chain challenges, and building leaders for the future.

How are the unfolding crisis in Sri Lanka and other global economic challenges, impacting Sysco LABS?

The ICT industry, which generates around $2 billion annually, was comfortably heading towards the $3 billion export revenue mark by 2024. The Covid-19 outbreak accelerated growth to a certain degree; digitalization gained traction in the public and private sectors and demand for IT-related skills increased. The industry could have carried on that momentum had socioeconomic conditions remained favourable, but the recent developments in Sri Lanka have created a problem for the IT sector.

The problem has two aspects: One is the brain drain – tech professionals migrating to escape the ill effects of hyperinflation on their quality of life. The second is the probability that foreign clients may be concerned about the continuity of their business operations due to the socioeconomic crisis unfolding here. However, it is encouraging to see some stability with public unrest subsiding after the restoration of fuel and other utility supplies.

The Sri Lankan IT sector also faces headwinds from global economic challenges. Rising inflation and recessions in several parts of the world are impacting the profitability of most corporates. Rising pressure to cut costs and maximize profits can lead to cuts in IT and infrastructure-related spending resulting in new projects being shelved and a freeze on new hires.

Sysco LABS is the captive innovation centre of Sysco – a Fortune 500 company and global leader in the food service industry. Food is a basic need, and companies are constantly exploring ways to become more efficient, so there are several growth opportunities for us. Therefore, I believe that global economic challenges are a blessing in disguise. We are not 100% immune to global economic challenges, but we have made opportunities from these challenges, and we are confident of forging ahead.

How are you responding to these challenges?

We have responded to these challenges proactively. We offer our associates access to globally competitive, total rewards and benefits packages and numerous employee well-being initiatives. These include physical and mental health reimbursements, enhanced insurance, and loan facilities. Focusing on enhanced benefits has helped us to build and retain our workforce despite the economic crisis and the pandemic.

In addition, our hybrid work model has ensured that we didn’t face interruptions during the pandemic or amid the recent fuel shortages, and power outages. Despite the external challenges, our associates have continued to deliver cutting-edge solutions to Sysco without any impact on business operations. To ensure this continuity, we have a robust business continuity plan (BCP) for every Sysco technology operation in Sri Lanka. We have multiple layers to the BCP, like having reserve locations for operations and mobility options for our teams in case of prolonged power outages.

How have you built a culture of resilience and innovation that has enabled Sysco LABS to remain agile and strong and add value to Sysco?

Sysco LABS is a people-centric organization. Our associates and their well-being remain at the heart of everything we do, regardless of external circumstances. We have developed many processes and initiatives designed to look after their needs, including flexible working models for mental health support and a robust benefits program called Sysco LABS Elite, in addition to several hybrid engagement events. It is essential to do this because it is people who power us forward.

Innovation is at our core, and we remain committed to cultivating an innovation culture throughout the organization. We do this by organizing workshops and events which inspire innovation, including a weekly session we call Connect that helps innovators ideate and collaborate on new solutions inspired by the work and needs of the organization. We also recently started Sysco LABS Project SUMMIT – a six-month mentorship program on cutting-edge technologies of the 4th Industrial Revolution, such as AI, ML, IoT and Immersive Technologies. Even though most of our associates operate remotely, we organize team events, celebrate small wins, and appreciate the challenging work everyone is doing. It is our way of inculcating a sense of belonging so that everyone comes together to make us a resilient team

We empower our teams and let them operate as independent units so that they can achieve success together. I believe in a model where leaders share the overall purpose of the organization and ensure that everyone is aware of how they can contribute. At Sysco LABS, we follow this practice and teams are self-reliant and empowered to operate and innovate in line with our purpose of “connecting the world to share food and care for one another”. We have defined performance metrics for teams, and if there are signs of lagging, we work closely with every stakeholder to find a solution and encourage open communication across the company, helping leaders and team members to understand issues better and adapt to situations faster.

How are you nurturing the next generation of leaders who will take Sysco LABS to greater heights?

We prioritize thorough mentoring and training. We are empowering the next generation of leaders to act independently, take ownership and thrive in a culture of innovation and creativity so that Sysco can continue to do what it does best. The future looks exciting, and we are actively pursuing growth opportunities. Sysco is actively looking for ways to improve their offering – and we bring in the innovation and digital transformation that they realize is key to future-proofing their organization. We aim to remain resilient and continue to deliver value to Sysco and, by extension, the global food service industry.

In your experience, what are the critical ingredients to building a team of leaders?

Integrity tops my list of attributes that I look for in the next generation of leaders. As leaders, we should practice what we preach and own up to our mistakes. It helps build trust and respect in our teams. Leaders must aspire to be role models and show the next generation how to do things the right way. I am a great believer in openness. A good leader is open-minded about positive and negative feedback. Everyone loves positive feedback, but leaders love negative feedback more because it is a foundation for learning.

Leaders must also be willing to challenge the status quo. In today’s rapidly changing world, leaders must constantly challenge cultures, find better ways of doing things, become more efficient and innovative, and inspire others to do the same. These attributes make an impactful leader who strives to change the world for the better