Fortitude to be the next leader in your workplace

Earlier this month Ambassdor Gonggrijp was invited to speak at the Leading Liyo Leadership Development Program inauguration organized by the Sri Lanka Institute of Marketing (SLIM). Here is what she had to say on, female participation in the labour force, work-life balance, to be good but not perfect, sustainabilty goals and leadership.

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, distinguished guests, Good Evening!

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak at this online inauguration, to formally initiate the ‘Leading Liyo Leadership Development Program’ at the Sri Lanka Institute of Marketing (SLIM).  

While I have been asked to speak about my own journey to an Ambassadorship on the topic of “Fortitude to be the next leader in your workplace” I would also like to take this opportunity to also say a few words on sustainability.

Looking at my professional journey, I realise I have been privileged in several ways. I am convinced that my journey has been less tough than it has been and will be for many of you.  But let me be also clear. The Netherlands is far from perfect with regard to female participation in the workforce and female representation in higher levels of governance and management. 

According to the World Bank, female participation in the labour force in Sri Lanka is slightly declining. It was 34 percent in 2019. In the Netherlands it was 59 percent. So we also have room for improvement there. But more important than knowing these numbers, is understanding why the numbers are low or not as high as they could, and should be. Women still face other challenges when compared to men, some challenges are seen and some are unseen.

Our journey does not start with entering the labour market. Not even with school. It starts with our upbringing; what was expected from us when we were little girls. Which roles do we get in the family from an early age? Is there access to good education and are we stimulated to develop ourselves, to develop our talents? And when we enter the labour market, do we work in a conducive environment? And when we might decide to have children, do we have supportive husbands and do we have access to proper child care? These questions are also relevant to boys and men, but less determinative and less restrictive. 

I realise I had an easy start. The biggest challenge in my career has been combining pursuing a career and being a mother. So the lack of work-life balance, Thilanka referred to.  I remember these difficult days and nights when I had a new job and was working till 2.00 am in the morning and at 5.00 am my youngest son would wake up crying. Long days, very short nights. Looking back I do not even understand how I managed. Probably because I was very motivated and loved my job.

If you allow me to give you some advice I would definitely advice you not to do this. Because I really wonder whether it was necessary for me to work so hard. And ladies, do not try to be perfect! Research shows that women, more than men, feel they have to outperform to be able to go to the next level. And unfortunately they sometimes have to, to be noticed and considered. And let me be honest, I still try to be perfect every now and then, knowing I am far from perfect.

The reality for many us women is that, our personal and professional journeys are at times intertwined, sometimes collide or could just take us in different and opposing directions. I believe this is true regardless of cultural background, professions or level of seniority. So it is important to remember that we cannot please everyone all the time and that is OK.

For me personally it helps a lot to be very open about the fact that I am not perfect. There are things I am good at, things I know, but there is more I do not know and I also have a lot of flaws. Remember this goes for everybody. The flipside of your strength is your weakness. Do not hide that, accept it and be open about it. For example I am a very enthusiastic and open person, which as a manager helps me to encourage people to do their work and to reach higher. The flipside is that I can be overwhelming, that some people will not share their ideas, and worse, will no longer engage. I am creative, and I hate planning. Be aware of your strengths and be proud of them, use them. But be also aware of the flipside, because your awareness helps you to behave differently in certain circumstances. It helps you to ask others for help. It helps you to look at situations from the other person’s perspectives and it will make you a better person and leader.  

It also means that you will and should allow yourself to make mistakes. In my first months here I found out this is easier said than done in Sri Lankan context. I remember an all staff meeting which I started with the words; “Colleagues, I have made a mistake.” It was very silent and many SL colleagues clearly felt uneasy. But for me it was a relief. I explained why I took the decision and also why I now- - with the current knowledge -  realized that it was a wrong decision.    

I have embraced not knowing everything and learned that my confidence is really built on learning from my successes but also from my mistakes. I have learned that my strength comes from my vulnerability and openness to simply say: I don’t know! Or: I need assistance!

I also realise this takes a degree of self-confidence. But you will create a more relaxed working environment, with more trust and this encourages creativity in a team.

Back to you: I am sure there have been and will be moments that you wonder: why am I doing this, trying to combine everything, why do I want to be a leader with all that responsibility?

The answer is very simple, because we women need to. Your participation is necessary. Thilanka already referred to this.

In 2019, a majority in our parliament voted for a quota for women in business. This law now says that 30 percent of the boards of directors of a public listed company have to be female. Personally I was happy with that outcome. There was a lot of discussion on this topic, which is understandable; why is it fair to legally favor women over men? There are many answers to this question, but let me give you a quick answer: because it turned out to be Very necessary…. We tried many other measures in the past, all based on good intentions and voluntary principles. But as long as boards of directors exist of mostly men. And people in general prefer to work with people who have similar characteristics; it means men will be choosing men. This situation will not change without clear regulations. This is part of the unconscious bias, Thilanka referred to.

This measure was necessary, not only because it seems fair to have women represented in the boardrooms. Not only because women need to earn a living and work on their professional development. This is not just necessary because we have all committed ourselves to the Sustainable Development Goals, which include creating equal chances for all genders and providing decent work opportunities for everyone. It is also necessary because it is simply a business case. Women contribute to the economy and we cannot leave out half the population.

While I am not judging men - Women have an essential added value to the sustainable economic development of a country. Today we have many examples on different levels. Research has shown that women – besides men - in leadership bring better business performance. A more diverse management improves business outcomes and makes it easier to attract talent. More than 54 percent of the 13.000 companies agreed on the fact that more gender inclusivity resulted in improvements regarding creativity, innovation and openness within the company. These findings are confirmed by an earlier study of McKinsey concluding that companies with women on the executive boards lead to higher returns on investment, lower debt to equity ratios and higher average net income growth. 

I know that SLIM has many outreach programs. Extending marketing expertise to sustainability and inclusion is hugely important. And I would like to take the opportunity to stress its importance. I already mentioned the Sustainable Developments Goals. Actually I make a point of mentioning them in every speech I give.

Dr Fernando mentioned appreciation for science, a triple bottom line mindset and the three emergencies and disruptions of 21st century leadership. I cannot agree more. We have to redefine the concept of leadership and development, or economic growth.

As leaders you have an obligation to contribute to reaching these goals by being aware how your company or organization can mitigate the negative environmental effects, or even make a positive contribution. How your company or organization takes care of its employees and contributes to their wellbeing. 

In the short term this takes extra time, energy and often money, but in the long run this will pay off. A happy workforce is more productive, creative and dedicated. Saving energy and water, will cut costs. Moreover, and this is where the real long term vision and marketing comes in, you will be a reliable partner to Western companies and brands (Global MNC’s). They are pressured by Western governments and civil society to make their value chain more sustainable and adopt responsible business practices. To know who they source from and under which circumstances. If Sri Lankan companies and organizations show they are producing, manufacturing, doing business up to the SDG standards and adhering to these responsible practices, then you can become the preferred sustainable choice for Dutch and other Western trading partners and investors. Sustainability and inclusion should be the core of your business and marketing.

As you can see, gender equity and women’s empowerment is something I feel strongly about, and I am glad to learn of SLIM’s Women’s chapter and the new courses provided to address the skills needed for leadership and the knowledge to tackle sustainability issues.

So in concluding, I hope that following this course will develop you into a role model for your colleagues – both men and women around you - and for the Sri Lankan society in general. And last but not least, for the world to see that Sri Lanka is the professional, diverse, sustainable choice.

I wish you all the success in following this course and ask that you apply what you learn, share your knowledge and keep seeking out more.

In closing I leave you with the words of Maya Angelou which I believe are appropriate for the student’s embarking on their new course – “Do the best you can until you know better, when you know better, do better!”

And I will add to that: do not try to be perfect.

Thank you