An Echelon Media Company
Sunday June 20th, 2021

Ramesh Shanmuganathan on originality, writing the playbook and courage to be different

Ramesh Shanmuganathan knew he wanted to become an engineer even as a pre-teen. Today, when he reflects on his life and career, amidst his numerous achievements and accolades, his greatest excitement came from choosing to write his playbook.

Between the world-changing pandemic and economic turmoil, leaders able to navigate the chaos and uncertainty towards a new normal will be more successful. The traits required of such leaders are different to what we have seen in the past.

Today, people confuse competence with confidence, charisma with narcissism, authenticity with surreality, humility with conceit and entrepreneurial mindset with a traditional mindset. Successful leaders must be competent, charismatic, authentic, humble, but counterintuitively, they must also have originality and entrepreneurial zeal to lead.

Leadership is widely studied but little understood. Visionary leaders must learn to be masters of great many things. Successful leaders pay attention to the goings on, they will determine what strategic action needs to be taken, set a new direction and concentrate the attention of everyone on it by asking the right questions – Why? How? What? Who? Where?

Ramesh Shanmuganathan, one of Sri Lanka’s top tech-entrepreneurs and corporate leaders, points out how ideas and lessons can come from the most unexpected places. Shanmuganathan is an Executive Vice President and Group CIO at John Keells Holdings (JKH), Sri Lanka’s largest company, founded 150 years ago. He is also Chief Executive of John Keells IT, a boutique consultancy and services organization as well as John Keells X, Open innovation & startup incubator of the group. He is also a Non-executive Director of Nations Trust Bank as well as Executive Director of numerous subsidiaries of the John Keells group.

Shanmuganathan is used to setting the bar high for his team as well as his children. The reaction of his children to that, however, taught him an important leadership lesson in life – empathy.

In an interview, Shanmuganathan discussed leadership, how he had to write the playbook for many of his leadership roles and what it takes to lead from the front and to be an original.

Digital technology is the single most disruptive force for countries, governments, and people. What are your predictions for the future?

We have witnessed enormous shifts in economies, communities, lives and work. Making sense of the future in such a dynamic environment is not easy. But we can establish themes and make some inferences by considering the dynamics and patterns that have shaped the present. Some of the key factors that would guide the future will be around five vectors of change – human evolution; technology acceleration and adaption, shifts in knowledge and power, restructuring of value chains and eco-systems and changing landscape of industries and businesses.

If what we have seen today is anything to go by, the above factors, cognitive and autonomous systems, artificial intelligence, blockchain and distributed ledgers, 3D/4D printing, mixed reality, digital twins, robots & cobots, drones, natural language processing, smart buildings/cities, quantum computing, genomics, nano-technology, cyber-resiliency, etc will become mainstream in the next decade.

At the same time mobility, cloud, IoT, big data, robotic process automation, digital platforms and 5G will become pervasive in the next five years. This means that every human being will have access to processing power equivalent to a super-computer in their hands. What they do with it will be purely up to their imagination.

Opportunity – mine came in a disguise, to set up and run a new Systems Integration unit at Keells Business Systems in the late 90s

My vision for the future is that everything and anything will be an interplay between humans and technology. Anything humans set their minds to will be achievable, and economic viability will be the deciding factor. The world will move to an auto-pilot mode with human intervention becoming an exception than a norm. Humans will be needed for leadership, research, innovation, and other distinctive roles that will complement what I described above.

A key determinant of how we co-exist, collaborate, co-innovate and co-create the future will greatly depend on who will hold ultimate power and how and to what end it is used, what it is based on, how it is sustained, and the checks and balances it is subject to. This will always be the fundamental determinant between Human-Technology and its adaption to leverage its transformative potential.

What’s your ethos and how has that helped you in your journey so far?

My personal ethos is centred around what Mahatma Gandhi once said, “You shall be the change that you desire”, and around core values that I live by – personal integrity in whatever I do, passion for what I do, building a team that complements you, continuous innovation to create value, always challenge the status-quo, walk the talk in leading the way, stay positive and create positive energy around you, expand your circle of influence, and never say or take “No” for an answer.

For me leading the change that I wished to see around me is key. From that point onwards it’s about why? what? how? who? where? that drives my journey. This has held me in good stead and has always created new vistas for me and my team from my early days.

I completed my secondary education at Royal College. As a teen, I interned at Bank Indosuez whilst waiting for universities to reopen. This was during the insurgency of the late 80s. That experience offered me an early opportunity to challenge myself and the status-quo, in a bank no less, and helped the bank modernize some practices during my six-month internship with the use of Tech.

I graduated with First-class honours in Electronics and Telecommunication from the University of Moratuwa. When most of my class opted to join Sri Lanka Telecom, I chose to join DMS Electronics figuring SLT was too bureaucratic to my liking. I always look for an organization and an environment that would give me the freedom and opportunity to further myself.

The early 90s were a revolutionary time in tech as the Internet was beginning to sweep the world. At DMSE I established the country’s first data communication practice. While at DMSE I also pursued an MBA at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura’s Postgraduate Institute of Management where I was one of the youngest in the class of over 100. The opportunity to challenge boundaries and learn from experienced professionals from all walks boosted my confidence and inspired me.

At this juncture, I was privileged to be awarded the Hayes Fulbright Scholarship grant for my Masters in Computer Science at Rochester Institute of Technology, in the U.S. This experience moulded me, honed my skills, boosted my confidence, and created that hunger to explore the untrodden path. Following graduation, instead of pursuing a career in the U.S., I returned to Sri Lanka.

The opportunities and challenges come to you in many shapes and forms. Mine came in a disguise – to set up and run a new Systems Integration unit at Keells Business Systems in the late 90s and to transform KBSL for the 21st century. I had the opportunity to lead the organization as its CEO within 2 years of joining them at the age of 33. It was an opportunity that I had eagerly awaited. We were able to restructure, transform and build KBSL, establishing it as a leading system integrator, something that we achieved in a short span of three years. I had accomplished this with no prior experience of leading such transformation and purely by believing in myself and my team.

My next break was unexpected when the then Chairman of John Keells invited me to lead the group’s IT function as the CIO and drive a much bigger group-wide tech transformation. Once again this role was not something I had played before but the only thing I had working for me is the belief, “I can do this!” and that too I wanted to do something different which will create sustainable value.

My role as a CIO came with the mandate to manage the Group IT as a function – a cost centre. But I challenged conventional wisdom by transforming it to a profit center, the first of its kind in the country, in 2008. We successfully partnered SAP & Microsoft in our journey to accelerate JKH’s digital transformation as well as that of our other customers.

I find the status-quo boring and challenges intriguing. So, I was always looking for my next challenge when I was offered the opportunity to take over the IT Sector of John Keells, in addition to my current portfolio, to drive a unified organization under John Keells IT to serve the group as well as our external clientele both in Sri Lanka and overseas.

Today, in addition to the above, I also drive our open innovation and start-up acceleration program, John Keells X (JKx), about which I am very passionate. Accepting these challenges has broadened my horizon. Sure, at times, it was overwhelming, but it taught me, tested me, enlightened me, helped me grow as a person as well as a leader and made me who I am today.

In all my roles I’ve accepted I never inherited a playbook. I had to write my own; establishing best as well as next practices. This was always a driver for me to push the boundaries to keep driving for the next wave of transformation across the group as well as for our customers powered by innovation.

How would you describe yourself, your childhood and your early motivation for your interest in the field that you chose to build your career?

If I had to pick a few words to describe myself those would be dynamic, adventurous, straightforward, intuitive, versatile, courageous, witty and a maverick. I have never been a conformist and always loved to challenge the status quo. For me, this laid the foundation for my originality.

I grew up with three siblings in a home where both parents were working. Growing up was exciting and eventful, with lots of fun, adventures, and of course mischief. All of us have done well in our own accord to date – my sister is a Chartered Accountant domiciled in the UK and my brother is a Maxillofacial surgeon in Sri Lanka and one of the few in the country.

I discovered electronics in my pre-teens as my uncle used to dabble in it. I used to watch him at work in awe, and tried to replicate what he did; disassemble working gadgets and putting them back together. That inquisitiveness, curiosity and passion for technology and electronics only grew over time. My academic proficiency, especially in mathematics and sciences, also gravitated me to engineering. Even as a teen, there was never any doubt about what I wanted to be when I grew up. An engineer.

What’s the one leadership lesson you learned the hard way?

Being the best does not always matter, but what does is being empathetic and gaining acceptance. I learnt this from my two kids.

I was talented at many things. I always had an excellent academic record, but my kids refuse, to date, to be taught by me. They tell me, “Dada, we are not you. You expect too much from us and we are not as good as you are, at least not yet. Allow us to learn at our own pace”.

It was a very humbling moment for me. It opened my eyes to the reality and the effect I must be having on my team. This forced me to reflect on how I approached and looked at things and give people around me more space to do things their way at their own pace.

What has been the most exciting and most challenging part of your career to date?

The most exciting for me, all along, was that opportunity I got to write my playbook every time I started a new role or accepted added responsibility. I wanted to truly create and do something different to set us apart and something never been done before. It’s gratifying to see that people chose to trust, learn, follow and replicate what you have done by adapting your playbook for their organizations. The most challenging part was to write a master playbook to balance my multiple roles & responsibilities to address the multi-stakeholders as well as multiple industries in a regional as well as in a conglomerate setting whilst finding time for yourself, for family and to enjoy life.

In all my roles I’ve accepted I never inherited a playbook. I had to write my own; establishing best as well as next practices

I’m sure that somebody who wants to launch her own business is reading this. What advice can you give?

Find the team which challenges you, but at the same time complements you. Look for a problem that is of interest to you and your team but is big enough and worthy of being solved. Validate your problem and the solution. Assess the business viability of it holistically. Articulate what the initial problem you are going to solve is and how; i.e your minimum viable product (MVP). Acknowledge if your initial idea was not good and pivot if necessary. Play to your core strengths and build the business model around it. Know when to let go. Don’t worry about the noise around you. Be ready to do anything and everything. Find the balance and don’t blame anyone else. It’s your company – you decide, you run with it. Have fun doing it.

As a leader, when you look back, what do you think will matter to you about your legacy?

I am not interested in leaving a legacy, but keen for people to understand what my guiding principles and philosophies are – that’s to be truthful to myself; challenge myself to be my best at all times; learn to unlearn; think anything is possible; treat everyone as an equal with respect; stay humble and grounded; walk the talk; inspire everyone to live their best; build relationships with people because they are humans not for what they can do for me; live my life and not of others; build myself to be a worthy citizen which is beyond titles and enjoy what I do.

Legacy is in the eye of the beholder and that judgement is not up to me. But, one day I may want to look back and be gratified that I have lived my life’s best to the best of my abilities, on my terms, on my own free will and have given back more than I have taken. A grateful heart is a contented heart.

What advice would you give to your younger self from ten years ago?

No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to live the life you’ve always wanted – do the things that you wanted; visit the places that you wanted; learn the stuff that you wanted; to make the mistakes that you have not made before; to push yourself off the cliff and still hope you remembered to wear that parachute you brought along; be an original and not a replica of someone else. Don’t let anyone say no to anything, but yourself. Live your life, the way you want it. Regret nothing.

What is your secret to keeping yourself relevant, informed and focused?

The lives I touch are my voice. My team is my power. Knowledge is my asset. Learning is my hobby. Change is my habit. Challenge is my adrenaline. Pushing the boundaries is my prescription. Never saying anything is impossible is my attitude. All of these collectively keeps me relevant, informed and focused.

Being the best does not always matter, but what does is being empathetic and gaining acceptance. I learnt this from my two kids