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Ronnie’s insights on professionals, managers and leaders

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Ronnie Peiris is someone with the ability to move around with kings and still not lose touch with the common man. An Executive Director on the Board of John Keells Holdings PLC (JKH) as its Group Finance Director, he is also a Director of several listed and non-listed companies. A very senior corporate executive and a financial stalwart par excellence, Ronnie has over 45 years of finance and general management experience, more than 42 of which are at senior management level, in Sri Lanka, Zambia, Zimbabwe 

and South Africa.

Prior to joining JKH, in January 2003, Ronnie was the Managing Director of Anglo American Corporation (Central Africa) Ltd., Lusaka, Zambia (Anglo), the Zambia-based subsidiary of Anglo American Plc, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange. As the Finance Director, and subsequently the Managing Director of Anglo, he served on the boards of many companies which were involved in a variety of activities ranging from manufacturing, brewing, milling, and hoteliering to real estate development and financial services. 

Ronnie has been an active member of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC) since 2004 and was the chairman of its Taxation Sub Committee for several years. He was a member of the main Committee of the CCC and served on its economic, fiscal and policy planning sub committees. He is also a past President of the Sri Lanka Institute of Directors.

In addition to holding a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) from the University of Cape Town, South Africa with specialisation in Marketing and Human Resource Management, Ronnie is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, (FCMA), UK, a Fellow of the Chartered Association of Certified Accountants (FCCA), Scotland, a Fellow Member of the Society of Certified Management Accountants (FSCMA), Sri Lanka and a Fellow of the Zambia Institute of Certified Accountants, (FZICA), Zambia.

Once he retires from JKH in December 2017, he wishes to share this accumulated knowledge and experience with the world with future plans of leadership coaching, executive coaching, mentoring and consultancy. In this interview with the Daily FT, Ronnie shares valuable insights on professionals, managers and leaders.

Following are excerpts:



Q: What are the challenges facing today’s professionals, managers and leaders? How important are values in an increasing-materialistic world? 

A: The disturbing issue is that there is, increasingly, a blurring of what is “right” and “wrong”. The question of “right” and “wrong”, admittedly, is relative and differs from society to society. But, thankfully, there is, great commonality of agreement, globally, on what is considered “right”. Irrespective of race, religion, ethnicity or language, there is congruency, across societies, of the positive values and morality which guide our interactions with others, with our friends and family, in our businesses and professional behaviour.

There is a subtle difference between morals and values. Morals emanate from the inborn values and from a system of beliefs evolving, over time, in a society. At a juncture, it is our code of conduct. The code which helps us to decide between good or bad. Values are personal beliefs or something that comes from within. Morals and values are emotionally related in deciding right or wrong and what is good for society. Business morals, for example, will include prompt service, excellence, quality and safety. Values, on the other hand, are the standards to judge the right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust. Unlike morals, values are not mandated by society. The individuals choose them.

Individually and/or collectively we feel contented, happy and invigorated when our thoughts and deeds are in sync with our positive values. Despite this being so obvious, actuality hardly reflects this. There is, presently, great discontent in many countries. Modern Sri Lanka is no exception. I attribute this situation to a bankruptcy of positive values such as respect, compassion, caring, dedication, honesty, integrity, listening, patience, tolerance, unity, discipline and commitment, just to name a few. Self-serving materialism has bred, and is breeding, negative values such as greed, hostility, indiscipline, anger, discouragement, jealousy and disinterest.

However, all is not lost. I believe that there is sufficient groundswell to halt the rot and retrieve the situation. Professionals, managers and leaders must show the way. They must walk the talk. Be role models. In the words of Gandhi, “If wealth is lost nothing is lost, if health is lost something is lost, but if character is lost everything is lost.” In Sri Lanka, there is an urgent need to build women and men of character.

Humans are selfish by nature. As stated by Adam Smith: “The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition is so powerful that it is alone, and without any assistance, not only capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity, but of surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often encumber its operations.”

It is only human to yearn for material wealth. There is nothing wrong in it. Unfortunately, the pursuers of materialism, obsessed by its lustre and power, appear to regard material values as their only values. This is the problem. Smith offers balance to this by stating: “How selfish so-ever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.” Collective happiness must be enabled. Not happiness for only those in power. There must be happiness for everyone. If not, there will be emptiness and poverty, despite the apparent wealth.

Professionals, managers and leaders have an important role to play. They must be the movers and shakers in re-establishing an education, upbringing and a way of life, which internalise in our citizens, particularly the Generations “X”, “Y” and “Z”, a sense of humanism and, most importantly, a concern for the well-being of others. We must instil in our children a sense of purpose and a commitment to the values and morality which are essential in resurrecting the spiritual and economic future of our country. 

There must be opportunities, and an enabling environment, for all persons must have a sense of pride, belonging and empowerment which lead to order, liberty, security and progress. This can only happen through a re-examination, and where necessary, a recalibration of our values and morals. 

Q: What should be the ideal role of managers and professionals in an organisation? 

A: It should be recognised that a professional could also be a manager/leader. The categories are not mutually exclusive. The key factor which distinguishes a professional from a non-professional is that, in terms of the conduct expected of his profession, a professional’s primary accountability/answerability is to the public/society.

Subject to the above distinction, a manager’s ideal role, as the name sounds, is to manage people and situations. In this role, a manager would, by and large, achieve his/her deliverables by, (1) Setting the overall vision and mission (2) Articulating a shared sense of purpose (3) Hiring the right persons (4) Establishing performance objectives in a team setting (5) Hiring the right persons (6) Delegating and empowering team members on the basis of trust (5) Coaching, measuring and monitoring performance of the team members (6) Giving regular feedback, recognising and rewarding the team members (7) Ensuring the availability of the appropriate resources (8) Building an effective team (9) Enhancing productivity and quality through regular process reviews (10) Facilitating free flow communications;- downwards, sideways and upwards and (11) Creating an enabling environment.

Whether one is a professional, a manager or the overall leader, the key is to achieve results. A successful leader will have many supporters. However, in the absence of consistent results, reputation, style and charisma won’t retain the support of followers for too long. A business leader’s key deliverable is to increase stakeholder value. It is not just shareholder value. Similarly, a public-sector leader must increase public value in terms of the quality of service provided to the consumer while contributing revenue to State coffers.

Given that a professional’s primary accountability is to the public/society, one could argue that, ideally, a professional, should be in a compliance or a watchdog role. But that would be narrow thinking in the extreme. A professional could, and must, apply his expertise to give the public/society the right product/service at the right cost at the right time. As indicated earlier I said that business morals include prompt service, excellence, quality and safety. Based on my own experience, I am convinced that a professional can be effective in either an operating role or in an assurance role without having to compromise his professional code.

Q: Are these characteristics prevalent in organisations today?

A: Based on my personal involvement in the John Keells Group and based on what I read, and know, about the other big corporates in Sri Lanka, I would say yes.

Time and again we refer to a professional’s pecking order of allegiance as; first the public/society; secondly the profession; thirdly the employer/client and lastly one’s self. I sometimes wonder why a similar code is not spoken about when we talk about managers and leaders. I see no reason why managers/leaders should not, almost mandatorily, display the widely touted professional behavioural traits of courage, honesty, integrity, objectivity, due care, competence and confidentiality in their business dealings. In short, we must insist that business is conducted ethically. If not done in that way, there will be questions regarding its sustainability. It is so obvious. It is common sense. But then common sense is not very common these days!

For a minute, just reflect on what significant benefits ethical behaviour and corporate social responsibility bring to a business. For example, they will: (1) attract customers to the firm’s products and services (2) make employees want to stay with the business thereby reducing labour turnover and increasing productivity (3) enhance the status of being a preferred employer attracting the best talent thereby reducing the recruitment costs, facilitating succession planning and strengthening the organisation culture and (4) attract investors and facilitate continued growth in revenue, profitability, returns and image. New capital also contributes to protecting the business from a non-value adding hostile takeover.

Needless to state, unethical behaviour or a lack of corporate social responsibility, by comparison, will damage a firm’s reputation and make it less appealing to stakeholders. Profits will fall as a result. Growth will be retarded. Investors will find the share unattractive relative to others.

Ethical behaviour must be demanded at all levels. Not just at top management level. The “tone from the top” is critical. The fish rots at the head they say. This is where our country has failed and continues to fail. Are our national leaders behaving as positive role models, particularly young children? Do they practise the right values and morals? Are they pursuing materialism? Or are they genuinely trying to create collective happiness? Are they selfless?

At John Keells, ethical behaviour is demanded at all levels. Employees are not given a choice. They must follow. It is a near dictatorial edict. Woe be unto those who do not abide by the codes of conduct prescribed. The performance management systems in the group are designed in such a way that anyone transgressing the codes of behaviour will be penalised. In instances, where the transgression is serious, the culprit will be shown the door. One can be a brilliant performer. But if he/she has not been ethical in his/her behaviour, he/she will get marked down. We have the tools, and mechanisms, to spot unethical behaviour; 360 degrees surveys, whistle-blower arrangements, skip level meetings, well-designed processes with the right checks and balances, data analytics and free/open communications are a few examples.

Q: How should or what can the leadership do to instil or facilitate greater professionalism in an organisation?

A: Managers and leaders must, unreservedly, allow professionalism to flourish in their organisation. Whilst this approach may result in tighter scrutiny about everything the corporate does, and possibly slower decision making, the consequent benefits are immeasurable and therefore worth the cost of time. It is ultimately all about reputation, reputation and reputation of a corporate. It is this reputation which attracts capital, attracts customers and attracts talented employees. It is the same reputation which breeds trust and, generally speed third party agreement and approvals. 

For professionalism to take root and be a part of the organisation’s DNA, managers/leaders must not, unless there are compelling reasons, interfere with set policies and procedures. Such compelling reasons should be more the exception than the norm. Where there is an exception, it is best that the raison d’etre gets documented. Meritocracy and equity must rise above everything. If a policy or procedure is outdated, then change it. However, once established, abide by it. A rule for one is rule for all.

We must remember that human values, morals, business ethics and professional values are mere extensions of the values and ethics learned from family, spiritual leaders, teachers and society. What one is taught to value when growing up will carry over in the business and professional world. Professionals, managers and leaders with upstanding values and ethical standards are easy to identify, as is the company that employs them. Values based business decisions and ethical guidelines adhered to by all are the benchmark for success. Those who accept less can have a detrimental impact on their company and maybe, the rest of society.

The professional value system of a corporate is revealed in its business practices; from its interaction with other companies to how it deals with its stakeholders and how it cares for its employees. Whether a corporate plays by the rules or wins or loses, the way it plays the game speaks volumes about it and, more importantly, the people who work there.

I have been blessed, in the main, to work with leaders and colleagues who have understood the value of professionalism and who have let professionalism prevail. Unilever, Anglo American Corporation and JKH are shining examples.

Q: What is your assessment of existing scope and offering of executive coaching and education in organisations?

A: This is my personal view. I believe that there is too much theory and too little practice. Whilst there must be structured learning and development, I believe there is no substitute for learning on the job. It is the least costly and arguably the most practical and effective. But still the most neglected. For any learning and training to be effective there must be a willing learner. For “on job training/coaching” there must be a conscientious superior who is mentor/coach minded. The big problem is that many managers/leaders complain about the quality of the work of their subordinates, but, do not take the time to mentor and coach them. In my view, one cannot ever become a great manager/leader without being an effective coach/mentor.

Most organisations nominate persons for training just to tick a box in corporate governance and/or HR management practices. Training has become a meaningless perk. Just think of the many persons who are sent on overseas training. Does this training have an end game? Is this training subsequently applied in his job role? Is there a follow-up by his/her superior or by HR? Very often such training is a joy ride. It is imperative, and it is more effective, if organisations consciously linked the training/coaching requirements to the human resources demanded by their medium to long term strategy. We must get away from this “must meet my learning and development KPI” mentality. We must be selective. We must pick “horses” for “courses”. We must acknowledge that there are only a few “Chiefs” and but many “Indians” in a hierarchical organisational structure.

A Performance Management System (PMS) is key to a value adding and benefit yielding training, developmental and coaching programs. A PMS should never be used solely as a basis for granting increments, incentives and deciding on promotions, as many organisations are prone to do. It must be the origin of learning and development plans. It must be the base for identifying talent and succession planning.

As stated earlier, an organisation must decide on its skills requirements to meet its medium- and long-term strategies. The PMS must, inter alia, be used to establish the skills inventory and, as stated earlier, identify talent, succession and developmental requirements. These developmental requirements must not follow traditions. They must be linked to a greater vision and mission. Training plans must become increasingly bespoke. For example, identify groups of people who require more broad-based training/coaching for a specific need. Identify bigger teams for training/coaching/sensitising on more generic matters. Identify individuals who require one on one executive and/or leadership coaching.

In the light of the above and based on 46 years of corporate experience, 42 years of which have been at top management level, I opine that there is great scope for more focused “executive” and “leadership” coaching in Sri Lanka’s corporate world of today. Such coaching must be for a selected few. It will generally apply to the second and third sections on the positive side of an employee performance rating bell curve. Coaching should be done by those who have walked the talk. Not the theorist who just talk the walk. If you take the time to plan, and execute, your training and coaching needs methodically, and deliberately, towards an ultimate purpose, you will certainly get a bigger bang for your training buck. 

Q: Can you comment on the quality of talent that is entering the corporate world?

A: In responding to this question, we must take cognisance of the divergent perspectives, and attitudes, of generations, these being, “Baby Boomers 2” (born between 1955 and 1965), Gen “X” (born between 1966 and 1976), Gen “Y” (born between 1977 and 1994) and Gen “Z” (born between 1995 and 2012). It is rather obvious that relations among the generations are at a low point.

Gen Y thinks Gen X is a bunch of whiners. Gen X sees Gen Y as arrogant and entitled. And everyone thinks the Baby Boomers 2 are self-absorbed workaholics. Baby Boomers 2 feel “younger people” do not have as strong a work ethic as they do. Gen X believe the “younger generation” lacks a good work ethic and that this is a growing problem. And Gen Y says the difference in work ethics across the generations is causing friction. They believe they have a good work ethic for which they are not given credit.

Further, the communication modes adopted by the generations are also creating issues. In a survey conducted recently, nearly half the respondents noted Gen Y’s preference to communicate via blogs, IMs and text messages, rather than on the phone or face to face, these being methods preferred by Baby Boomers 2 and Gen X, is sub optimal. They are of the view that technology facilitated communication lack feeling and is open for misunderstanding and must therefore be used sparingly.


As a generalisation, and empirically, I reckon that most of the top leadership spots in the corporate world, particularly the corporate world in Sri Lanka, are occupied by Baby Boomers 2 and Gen X persons. The challenge for corporate Sri Lanka is to retain and recruit the talent it needs to replace the Baby Boomers 2 who will retire shortly and the Gen X persons who are likely to move up the organisational hierarchy. The new entrants and replacers are likely to be Gen Y-ers and Gen Z-s. In addressing the workforce needs of the present and the future, managers and leaders must recognise the generational differences, and aspirations, in facilitating collaborative work.

Whilst many of my generation may not agree with me and that is based on conversations had with them, I believe that the quality of talent which is available to, and entering, the corporate world is appropriate, and relevant, to the current and emerging needs. They are educated and technologically more adept than those from previous generations. More specialists are emerging.

Speaking about talent management, very often when you ask CEOs and CHROs what their key priorities are for the coming year, talent management always is one of the issues high on the list. Talent management is an easy and safe choice. Nobody will argue that talent management is not important. Supervisory boards love to talk about succession and talent management. Talent management is generally seen as something long-term.

When you hear terms as “strategic”, “long-term”, “future” and “investment”, you must be careful. For talent management, this means: it is important, but not urgent. For the CEO, it means: I have ticked the box, but now HR can deal with it. Also, it does not affect my short-term performance indicators and incentives. “Of course, I will visit the final session of the senior management program, of course, I will personally mentor one or two high potentials, but please, do not bother me too much about talent management, I have more urgent matters on my plate.” This is what one hears frequently. A big challenge for organisations is to make talent management urgent, and to make it a priority of today, not of the future.

Q: How can Sri Lanka as a country address issues concerning quality of talent and overall human resources development? What can corporates do?

A: There is no denying that successive Sri Lankan governments have failed to formulate a sustainable Human Resource strategy. They have failed to link the talent and skills requirements of the present, and the future, to the country’s medium to long term strategic goals. Actions, if any, in this area smack of short-termism. They are unstructured, lack purpose, ad-hoc, silo-ed, and not a part of an integrated system. Just think of the current skills shortages in the leisure industry and the construction industry as examples.

It will take, I guess, in the minimum, another three decades to get the whole system working as a well-oiled machine. That too if we work with commitment. But, then, one must start somewhere. A day delayed is a day longer. Therefore, today is never too late.

We must work backwards from a future goal. Forward to the future and back to the present! The end goal obviously would be the achievement of Sri Lanka’s economic and other objectives based on its competitive and comparative advantages. Increasing the standards of life of all citizens. All actions must have a purpose. In short: Where do we want to go? Where are we today? What do we have to do?

The starting point, today, will be the education system from a Montessori/pre-school to the university and equivalent levels. In between will be the specific professional, skills and artisan training. Is our current system achieving the purpose? How must it change? Each stage of the plan must dovetail with the stage that follows. Ultimately, the Plan must deliver the requisite skills. The relevant skills. 

I have no doubt that the corporates in Sri Lanka will welcome, and gladly play their role in, such a program provided that a sufficient level of confidence is created re the consistency, and longevity, of the government policy. Credibility of Government intentions is key. Sadly, as we all know, Sri Lankan politics has been such, particularly in recent times, that the incoming government reverses the policies and strategies of the previous government even when such policies are logical and value adding. Even within the same government the policy of tomorrow is different to the policy of yesterday. The only thing consistent has been inconsistent policies. In a lighter vein, Sri Lanka can take some consolation that the USA is also doing the same! Waiting for consistent policies in Sri Lanka is like waiting for Godot!

Sri Lanka’s education has, unfortunately like most others, got politicised. We lack transformational leaders who have the vision, and the courage, to take the bold steps in doing what is right for the country and its people. Most of the political actions are aimed at short-term benefits. They are simply self-serving. If, and when, the Government makes its policies clear, there will be a very supportive private sector in this area. Looking to that day. Not only in education but in a lot of other areas.


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