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Vidya Sivaraja on ambition, passion and building high performance teams

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Vidya Sivaraja’s career evolution is one of hard work, passion and above all, growth. She recently became the first Sri Lankan to lead one of Fonterra’s country markets with her appointment as Managing Director for the Malaysia and Singapore business. Vidya began her career at the dairy co-operative in 2004 as a Group Brand Manager, and has acquired a wealth of experience, business knowledge and networks through various regional growth opportunities in Asia. Apart from her drive to break her own records in delivering Fonterra Sri Lanka’s business strategy, Vidya leaves a legacy of having built a high performing, passionate team that can tap in to their unique potential. Here, Vidya speaks on her journey and the progress 

in her new role:   



Q: Can you define any turning point(s) in your career that contributed to your current success?

A: Soon after joining the team, I realised I had the opportunity to achieve many remarkable things at Fonterra. I saw how Fonterra encouraged and expected each person to step up and make a difference in their authentic way, not only to the business in Sri Lanka, but also to the wider co-operative. I also experienced how such efforts were appreciated and recognised, with the company providing many growth and learning opportunities across Fonterra’s markets around the world. In such an environment, it was natural for me to push myself to achieve the best that I possibly could.  

I must especially mention my time based in Singapore and working in the Fonterra regional and global team. This opportunity exposed me to multiple cultures and countries; it gave me an appreciation of how similar we all are, despite different geographies. It helped me appreciate cultural nuances and led me to find ways in which to motivate different teams from different cultures. 

It also showed how resilient as a person you can be when you live away from home, family and all that is familiar, and having to adapt to a new country and lifestyle. The exciting thing throughout this whole process was to take the learnings from one place, adapt and translate it to another place and then make it work.

Q: What is your focus on ambition and what is in your agenda going forward?

A: In today’s world, I cannot imagine that my interests would remain the same. Rather than tying myself down to either five-year career plan or an ambition of a position or title – my interests evolve as the world does. My ambition is not measured in numbers but in the scale by which I believe I am making a difference and being truly passionate in whatever I do. 

My ambition has never been measured by a time period. I am always aware of becoming too comfortable for too long – comfort breeds complacency. It is always about excelling in what I do and delivering the best results, constantly improving myself and leaving a legacy behind of making a positive difference in business and people. 

Q: What is the key to building a team that can achieve something extraordinary?     

A: For any job to be extraordinary, each person should have a passionate belief in their own strength and everybody needs to come together for a single-minded purpose. The team at Fonterra Sri Lanka has different strengths and personalities – and I strongly believe that when we can cultivate that diversity, it brings different points of view and fresh perspectives – with an ultimately brilliant outcome. 

When building a high performance team, it is important to break norms, think differently, disrupt for growth. For example, I actively sought people with exposure in engineering, accounting along with marketing to join us because of the new thinking they could bring to the role. It’s important to look for attitude, ambition, drive over age, experience, gender or qualification on paper. 

Leadership means fostering a sense of connection and belonging, and I don’t believe in hierarchy and title. For example, when compared to a desk bound senior manager, an intern is just as likely to have a truthful insight into what a consumer is thinking or which media is more effective for a particular campaign. 

We often believe age and years of experience is the only path to knowledge. I want to challenge that status quo. I see our young team having diverse knowledge in certain areas that many others do not have, including relevance to millennials, and thus successfully operating in the digital era.

More and more, I find satisfaction in seeing the teams I build emerge as leaders in their own right. Each person is a leader. Leadership is not defined by titles and positions but by actions.  

Q: How do you keep such a team motivated and focused? 

A: As a leader, you need to get to the bottom of what makes each and every team member tick. When you understand their passions and then figure out how to connect it to what we do at work every day, you will start to see performance soaring. People term it as a form of being emotionally intelligent, but to me it seems like the obvious way of working. 

I am constantly energised and inspired by the team who surround me and their pursuit of excellence – there is nothing like that glint in the eye you catch from an intern who has just nailed a presentation of solid work to the Board of Directors, or that extra spring in the step of a Category Head who has just seen their market share go up after some sleepless nights of outstanding work put in to a creative marketing campaign. 

Q: What role does ‘passion’ play in taking such a team towards success?

A: We have one life and we need to be passionate about what we do. The more we differentiate our work life from our personal life, the less we are likely to achieve this nirvana we seek - the perfect work life balance. The terminology of work life balance is often too narrow. There is one life we have – we choose our priorities at work, with family, with friends. End of the day – the choice is ours.

I’m a strong proponent of choosing “shared passion projects” – be it at work, with friends or at home, you should choose at least one project you are truly passionate about, something beyond your day-to-day routine. Focussing and exercising your passions in this manner will really inspire you, and enable you to practice the same behaviours and learnings on the areas at work that you are most passionate about.

Knowing the value of pursuing your passions, I’m constantly encouraging my team to do the same. Some of my team members’ individual passions include: going on outdoor adventures with the goal of visiting every single one of the 100 major waterfalls around Sri Lanka in a year, learning drums, starting to cook more, etc. – which is coupled with passion projects at work. 

At the end of the day, it is about living every day passionately, and learning how to use those behaviours in working hard and putting 210% into what you do – and for me, that is how I have achieved all my success.

Q: What is the genesis of your work ethic and competitive spirit? 

A: A strong work ethic was instilled in me very early on by my father and mother. I truly believe that “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” Challenging boundaries and beating expectations are both beliefs that drive my behaviour of no excuses when it comes to what is entrusted to me and what I take on – giving only the best and a little bit more in the delivery.

Within Fonterra itself, there is a solid platform of company values and leadership principles that are instilled in all of us. Deep consumer understanding is the crux of all we do as a FMCG business – that is why I mandate many consumer immersion sessions and continuous research to stay close to the ever-changing needs of the consumer.

My team refers to me as a ‘tough cookie’ because I always ask my team to raise the bar and encourage them to do the same. When you are obsessed with excellence, when your benchmark is not about beating someone else but your own stretch ambition – extraordinary results are achieved and great leaders are nurtured naturally.

Q: What has your focus been for Malaysia and Singapore and setting up the stage for others to succeed?

A: The opportunity to lead this business as a Managing Director presented a truly exciting journey, especially in working with a fantastic team of people in both Malaysia and Singapore, to unleash the energy in the business.

Coming in to a new role, I’ve always taken the time to look at things differently and identify fresh opportunities.

When I first arrived, rather than spend all of my time in the office, I took to the field, spending extra time to grasp nuances in the marketplace. This helped me identify and understand the granularity of growth.

Secondly, I engaged with multiple team members from different roles – be it in office, factory or trade. This was enriching and insightful. It helped me understand the different motivations, key drivers and each person’s perspective on business growth.

This approach helped us recognise the true growth drivers that can propel the business forward.

Armed with these insights – we began a deep dive in our strategic planning sessions to map out an inspirational plan for our legacy and the future of our business. Developed by the team, for the team, we have identified growth and efficiency areas, as well as set up an incubator to explore new opportunities we can implement in the future. Most importantly, the team are united behind one big ambition that will strengthen our leadership position and enable us to continue developing high-quality dairy solutions that delight and nourish our consumers.

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