‘Excellence in Action’by Royal College Class of ’72 takes the stage for 5th consecutive year
Top speakers share how they dealt with challenges and obstacles, motivating and enlightening audience
By Shannine Daniel
The Royal College Class of ’72 once again hosted the ‘Excellence in Action’ seminar for the fifth consecutive year, on 10 February at Cinnamon Grand, Colombo.
The main objective behind this seminar is to inspire leadership and success among Sri Lanka’s young professionals from varied career fields and thereby take Sri Lankan society as a whole to great heights.
This year’s panel of speakers featured Supreme Court of Sri Lanka’s former Acting Chief Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane, Ceylinco Life Insurance Ltd. CEO/Managing Director R. Renganathan, European Parliament Member for South East England Niranjan Deva Aditya, University of Kelaniya Chair of Medicine and Senior Professor Janaka De Silva, Ceylon Beverage Holdings PLC and Lion Brewery PLC Director and CEO Suresh Shah and Olympic Silver Medallist Susanthika Jayasinghe.
Sharing their past experiences, specifically how they dealt with challenges and obstacles that were thrown their way, these six presenters sought to motivate and enlighten an audience of about 340peoplewho are engaged in a various professions.
Equality among genders and a change in attitude
The first to take the stage was Justice Tilakawardane. In the first part of her lecture she addressed the gathering on discrimination, focusing on a widespread issue in our country which is sexual harassment, and gave her opinionon the lack of equality among genders as well.
“Sexual harassment is a human rights issue, hence the focus shifts from women’s rights to human rights and it becomes gender-based violence,” Tilakawardane declared.
She added that itwas a very complicated topic and most people were unaware of what constituted as sexual harassment. A few examples include unwelcome physical advances, suggestive remarks and any other form of unwanted verbal or physical behaviour that makes women feel uncomfortable, disgusted or ashamed.
She professed that sometimes it was done unconsciously as well. Males still tend to look at women as ‘service providers’ and even in the workplace most of the time they are relied on to do things such as making the tea or coffee at board meetings. It is not done purposely, but it is still a form of sexual harassment as they are asked to do it based on their gender, stated Tilakawardane.
She went on to say that many of these things could be happening to the women in our lives, but most women tended to avoid the subject because they were stereotyped into thinking that if they talk about it, people would judge them and say that they did something to provoke it, that maybe they should have covered themselves up from head to toe to avoid this behaviour.
“It is the duty of those holding power and responsibility to provide a safe working environment for your employees,” declared Tilakawardane.
Another thingthat is quite common, especially in work places and universities, are offensive jokes that make women and girls feel uncomfortable, she revealed. Even though women feel somewhat disgusted or angry, most often these are taken lightly because they are meant to be humorous.
“This is bad as taking Seya on a palanquin and handing her over to the rapist, because it is these little acts that encourage disrespect towards women,” stressed Tilakawardane.
She stated that there was a dire need to change our attitudes, especially in South Asian countries, because it was these narrow-minded beliefs that led to the destruction of girls like Seya.
“We all want this nation to develop but it will never develop unless you have the right attitudes,” she pointed out.
In the second part of her lecture, Tilakawardane spoke about self-empowerment. Looking back on her own career, she encouraged everyone gathered to follow the concept of SHARP – Sacrifice and sacrificial love, Hard work, Authenticity, Resilience and Presence. Tilakawardane added that staying SHARP in general meant being alert, smart and succinct.
“When you want to excel in something, you be able to push past your boundariesonly if you have sacrifice or sacrificial love within. Whether it is your relationship, your children or your job, the sacrificial love that you have is what motivates you to work hard and commit to it,” she stated.
When it comes to hard work, she elaborated that it meant working in an inclusive and non-discriminative manner, working with courage and the correct attitude and realising that unless knowledge is implemented with understanding and wisdom, you will never be effective.
Stressing on the quality of being authentic, she spoke about how this was taught to her through an experience she had as a student and she cited Charlie Chaplin’s death as an example to highlight the importance of this.
Speaking on resilience, she stated that it was important to remember that no matter what is thrown our way, we must learn to make the best out of it. She added that even though we all make mistakes, itwas important to make sure that we did not make the same mistake again.
In conclusion, she spoke about presence, specifically sayingthatwas necessary to have courage as we all go through very painful experiences. She revealed that even though shehad thoroughlyenjoyed her job, she had had to undergosome very difficult times as well.
“When I was made Judge in 1988, my first station was Matara, and at that time Matara was burning. There were bodies put outside my gate which the Police had to come and take away, but I was never dependent on the Police or anyone else. I had the strength of the divine presence and I believed that as a Judge of the High Court, I was not going to hide under a bench while the underprivileged came looking for me. That was not what I was supposed to do,” she declared.
After those inspiring words, taking the stage was R. Renganathan, who spoke about the challenges that Ceylinco had faced and how these issues were overcome, especially in order to motivate the business community.
The first challenge he spoke of was the Golden Key issue, how it took place and what happened as a result.
“The Golden Key effect could have been minimised if the Central Bank at that time took it under its purview and supervised,” opined Renganathan.
Furthermore, Renganathan revealed that five to six years prior to the collapse, a few businessmen including him had realised what would happen, since there was also a siphoning of money from the group’s companies under the guise of group expenses.
Since they were aware of the siphoning of money, Renganathan and his co-Directors chose to fight against what was happening in order to protect their business. When the collapse started, in the last quarter of 2008,Ceylinco decided that if its policyholders called over at any of its branches to get the money back for their policies, it was to be given to them.
Renganathan stated that there was tremendous pressure on the company to change its name. But as establishing a brand is very expensive, they obtained the services of a market research company to conduct research island-wide.
“The research findings told us very clearly that Ceylinco was a household name,” he commented.
Renganathan revealed that the next challenge that they had to face was an effort to use the Golden Key issue to take control of Ceylinco.
“We decided that we would not be intimidated. We briefed our employees who offered us their unfailing support and obtained the services of many leading counsellors as well. Incorrect orders were reversed and today the shares are safely in the hands of the advised,” he acknowledged.
By sharing his experiences, Renganathan wanted to emphasise thateven though people have gone through professional courses of study, what they faced in their careerwas something completely different.
“You will have to adjust your knowledge and be a street fighter. Whether you are a CEO or a head of a department, you’re a leader, a facilitator, and not a know-it-all. You have to stand for what is right, be willing to withstand intimidation andyou have to have the support of your employees. Success is bound to bring about challenges,” he concluded.
Perseverance and courage
The next to take the stage was Niranjan Deva Aditya,who enlightened the gathering with his life story, which is indeed a testament to tireless perseverance and determination.
“Time is the only resource that we have and it is up to us to make the best out of it,” he declared.
Speaking from experience, he went on to highlight the necessity of being brave enough to speak the truth, regaling the audience with a life-changing incident during his years at Loughborough University.
Aditya stated that he took the opportunity to speak the truth concerning a speech given by a visiting Conservative Parliamentarian at the university. This was what paved the way for his political career, and he became the first non-white post-colonial Conservative member of the British Parliament and the first Asian to be in government after World War II.
“I went to 126 Parliamentary meetings in 126 seats before I got my first seat in Hammersmith and then to 48 interviews in 48 seats before I got Chiswick in Brentford Islesworth, who elected me to the British Parliament,” revealed Aditya.
He recalled that he had to face the mockery and scorn of a multitude of people who disregarded the fact that he would be elected to the House of Commons, yet he persevered, ultimately becoming the first Asian-born member of the European Parliament.
In conclusion, he opined that he was quite satisfied with the work he had done in his political career and more specifically with the time that he had been given to ‘take money from the rich and give it to the poor,’ thus providing for millions of people in need.
Setting our own goals
Relating his life experiences, Professor Janaka De Silva inspired the audience with lessons about perseverance, independence and having faith in ourselves.
De Silva revealed that from a young age he was taught by his parents to be independent and it was one thing that helped him achieve his goals on his own because he never felt the need to rely on anyone.
“Set your goals; do not compete with others, only compete with yourself – that is the quality of being independent,” he asserted.
He confessed that he was rather rebellious during his school and university careers, which resulted in him being dissuaded by many of his teachers and lecturers.
“Everyone has a burning desire to be remembered,” acknowledged De Silva. “And this made me want to prove my worth.”
It was through this desire and perseverance that he achieved his MBBS, although he confessed that he had to repeat the final exams to obtain his MD; however, through hard work, perseverance and courage, he was able to succeed. He used this to illustrate the need tobe determined and have faith in oneself and thereby encouraged the audience.
He also stressed on the importance of doing our work at our own pace, so as to deliver the best results and emphasised that we should not be forced to conform to the beliefs and attitudes of others in order to please them.
Furthermore he went on to say that everyone faced disappointment in their lives, stating that he too was immensely let down at one time when he did not receive a post that he was fully qualified for, yet it was no reason to become discouraged and lose faith in himself.
“You will be overlooked for many things in life, but it doesn’t matter, as long as you keep up the hard work and don’t give up,” declared De Silva.
The importance of being ourselves
Following that uplifting dialogue, Suresh Shah spoke about the importance of understanding ourselves and being comfortable with who we are, as this could take us to greater heights. He also stated that it was important to be ourselves, and not someone that our parents or society wanted us to be.
He went on to say that understanding and accepting our flaws was important in being comfortable with ourselves. He acknowledged that this was important in a business sense as well.
“Sixty per cent of your time is on work. Imagine what it would be like if you were doing something you didn’t like…” Shah challenged the gathering.
Highlighting the importance of courage regarding our careers and jobs, Shah urged all members of the audience to be unafraid of speaking out.
“Have the courage to speak your mind. If you’re an employee and your boss says somethingwhich is not correct, do not be afraid to speak up and point it out,” he stated.
Shah also emphasised thevalue of team work and encouraged all business officials to build a team that would challenge them and support each other. Building a good team that would execute brilliantly, address weaknesses, be determined to win, be willing to discuss vital issues and be brave enough to take calculated risks was necessary, he further stated.
He also elaborated that was important to have team members who would use their intellect, share their ideas and openly speak their minds as opposed to merely following instructions and sitting quietly on the sidelines.
“Unless the whole team cooperates and puts ideas on the table, a good decision cannot be taken,” Shah revealed.
Shah also accentuated the significance of having ambition, courage, determination and a clear vision for ourselves as these were more imperative than academic qualifications, “because books won’t teach you these things”.
Commitment and determination
Last of all, renowned Olympian Susanthika Jayasinghe inspired the audience with her story of hardship and suffering and how she overcame it all to win her way to becoming an international athlete.
She admitted that even though she felt ashamed of her family’s status when she was young and had to undergo many difficulties within school, she has realised that it ignited a fierce courage and determination within her to overcome these challenges. She added that her upbringing played an important role in shaping her character.
“I am very proud of my humble beginnings because it gave me the strength, courage and determination I needed to win,” declared Jayasinghe.
She went on to say that her family’s severe lack of money deprived her of attending school on a regular basis, yet she did not allow it to become a barrier in her journey to become an athlete. She began by competing at school races and her talent and commitment took her to bigger and more prominent competitions. She was fortunate enough to receive an opportunity to compete at an international level and this was her stepping stone to success.
“Despite all my flaws, I had a burning desire to bring my family out of poverty and suffering, and I wanted to show everyone what I was capable of,” she stated.
This perseverance allowed her to partake in the South Asian Games, the Asian Games and then finally the Olympics. She went on to say that despite not knowing the English language and the many challenges that she had to face on her first trip to the United States after the 1997 World Championships, she did not allow it to become an obstacle in her training.
She added that the obstacles she faced were worth it because she was able to overcome them and achieve her dreams. She said it was her experiences, commitment and courage, the faith she had in herself and the sacrifices she made that led to her success.
Jayasinghe also revealed that her mother was a positive influence in her life, as she was a role model in teaching her the value of hard work and commitment.
“Regardless of what your field or career is, it is important to believe in yourself to achieve your goals. Even though you don’t get what you deserve, this is no cause to lose faith in yourself,” she asserted.
Pix by Daminda Harsha Perera