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  • Writer's pictureTharindu Ameresekere

Transforming Raw Potential into World Class Talent at Singer Sri Lanka PLC

Today on BusinessLoungeLK’s journey to bring you the voices of business professionals in Sri Lanka, we are honored to have Ms. Amalie Abeysundara on our Liyo Leaders segment. Ms. Abeysundara is the Head of Learning and Development at Singer Sri Lanka PLC, one of Sri Lanka’s leading holding companies.

1.) How did you commence your professional journey and what are some of the key lessons that you learned throughout your career?

I joined my first job just after A-Levels, I am from a very small village in the Matara District. When I joined my company, it was a multinational company, there were a few key requirements to join; the language (English), they were serving the “star customers of the country” wealthy people and such who could afford things like a landline at that time, and so on. I was just twenty years old when I started, and I had an aim to become successful in my life. I wanted to do a job and I wanted to be independent. I saw my mother, she was a teacher, because she had a job she could look after her family and that made me want to become someone who is very independent and supporting her family and because of that, I never gave up. I pushed myself really hard throughout the challenges, in the initial stages making friends was difficult, mostly because our cultures didn’t match and they didn’t really understand what I was saying sometimes. This was around 2004, I didn’t really have people to guide me through the process and tell me what to do and what would be best for me. The company actually gave me the opportunity because they saw potential in me, and I didn’t want to disappoint them either, and somehow, I managed to become the best “Telemarketer” of that company. After 5 years of successful career, I ended up being the Quality Assurance supervisor in the same organization. It was a big achievement for me comparing how I started.

What I have learnt throughout my career is to never give up. What happens nowadays is, if you come home to your parents and tell them that you are really disappointed with the people whom you work with, or that your work is really hard, they might tell you “Don’t worry, stay at home, we will look after you”, even my parents said the same thing, they were teachers, at the time they could look after me. But I knew that I had to improve, I didn’t want to quit because I am a failure. If I had quit at that time, I would not have improved like I had. I did a lot of research, back then social media was not popular like it is now, but I did my research, I used to google and such. I had a card phone and I didn’t have much money, only to call my family, so when I was at the office, when everyone had gone to lunch, I would get permission from my supervisor to google various things on etiquettes and various other important things which have helped me improve myself.

The next thing I learnt was that its not always the most educated or intelligent people who climb up the ladder, but the people who are smart enough to grab the opportunities.

The other thing is, you should never compare yourself with anyone else, I knew people who compare themselves to others even though they were already disappointed in themselves. We have our own journey, we have our own pace, everyone can’t walk on the same path. I have given eleven years for myself to develop, I never pushed anything or myself for higher positions, I just wanted to improve myself and aspire the career that I contribute most, perform well and make me happy at the same time. Therefore, I gave myself enough time to do that. The last thing is, everyone has a different version of success, for some its fame, wealth, the car you drive, for some it’s the house you have built or how many children you have, its different from person to person. If you think you are successful, if you believe you are successful you don’t have to worry about anything, you shouldn’t be comparing yourself with anyone else.

2.) As the head of learning and development at Singer group, what type of work does that entail?

Normally, the department of learning and development used to be a department where they execute the learning and development interventions in order to support the company strategic initiates. So, if u assume that the company decides to go from A to B, they would access what the key competencies that are required in order to achieve this, and they would design a learning intervention using blend approach. The department head would ensure that they are delivering all these interventions on time. However, now the learning and development function has become more of a strategic role rather than just execution. Now head of learning and development is a strategic role where the head of learning and development is responsible of devising overall development strategy and show that there is a return for the investment. The learning and development function started to evolve into the strategic side during the 80’s and 90’s, although in Sri Lanka, we didn’t take to it very quickly, only a few companies including Singer took to the evolving of the learning and development function.

3.) The pandemic had a ripple effect throughout multiple industries all around the world. How difficult did reskilling and development become throughout the pandemic?

In the initial stages of the pandemic, people got really disengaged. The most important thing people need to have when navigating learning and development is the mindset, when people are driven with a negative mindset and negative thoughts, they can’t really engage properly in the learning and development interventions. At that time (pandemic), everyone was going into survival mode, trying to find food, trying to figure what to do and such.

One of the key challenges we had as a country was that we never believed in online training. When I was training to be a trainer, I took a course on different gestures and delivery and how to do performing and such, and we never really believed in delivery online. Coming to an agreement with the participants that online was the best forum to do learning and development interventions was also a difficult step initially, but when people saw how it was happening, ultimately, they also started cooperating. And specially it translated the learning responsibility to the participants at least by 50% where earlier it used to be 100% the trainer effort.

The technology, the lack of data, the tools and the methodologies, even the trainers somewhat ignored the methods and tools to keep people entertained. Now of course we know that we can have a whole online engagement activity as well, so we as trainers are also learning. We were never prepared for it, since we have never tried it before, so that was one of the key challenges.

4.) We have seen (especially in the last two years) how much of a useful tool technology is for education. How is technology being utilised today to upskill our workforce?

Nowadays, a lot of companies are trying to digitalise their learning processes, and we see that learning management systems are coming into play for most of the learning and development cycle. I am also seeing a lot of assessments and engagement events are happening online. I think, when comparing to two or three years back, we have improved the utilization of technology and tools. There was a time where we didn’t entertain the idea of trying out new things, we had a lot of faith in our old systems and methodologies, but now there is a shift. Now, people want to try new things, trying new tools and technologies, it’s a good thing.

Specially technology plays vital role in sustaining the knowledge that we gained from any form of education. And it enables personalized learning experience also

5.) On the other side of the spectrum, there is an inherent fear of technology in the workforce especially when it comes to automation as people fear that their jobs will be lost to robots. In that respect, how important is upskilling in not just developing your own knowledge, but also learning to work with emerging technologies to be even more value adding to a company?

Those days there were a set of competencies that we believed a person should have in order to become professionals; proper communication, negotiation skills, customer service skills. Now there are a new set of skills that we believe people should have; among them are, agility and integrity, because unlike those days we are mostly working alone, working from home, if u don’t have integrity, you will most likely not work. So, there are new skills coming into play. If you carefully study some of the profiles in companies, you can see that some people have shifted their career into different dimensions, HR people have gone into Marketing, some people in Marketing have become entrepreneurs, those are the people who utilised the pandemic period to access their skills and reskill themselves in order to stay competitive in the market. If you take a HR professional, when you take the prominent HR institutes in the country, we actually have more than 2000 people graduating from those institutes per year. So, if everyone wants to become a HR assistant, there is a huge competition.

According to “Future of Jobs” Report issued by the World Economic forum in 2020, skills gaps contains to be high as in the demand skills across jobs change in next 5 years, According the same report the pace of technology is also expected as there is a significant rise in the interest of humanoid robots and AI. As a way of facing the challenges of pandemic now companies focusing more on automation opportunities to ensure that their production line or any other processes are in place and running smoothly. As a result, demand for new jobs like data analysists, scientists, AI and machine learning specialists has emerged while the demand for traditional jobs like administrative secretaries, accountants and auditors continue to decline.

Because of these reasons if you fail to take proactive efforts upskill or reskill yourself, most likely you wills struggle to stay employee by 2025.

6.) How do you engage the millennial workforce on upskilling themselves and teaching them the importance of continuous learning at any level in their careers?

When you look at the profile of a millennial, I would say they are more engaged than any other generation. They are very active in social media. Some would say they are more reserved, but they are engaged when they see the relevance, you just have to convince them that it is working for them. They are also more family centric, back in those days, in my generation, people used to work really hard and sometimes they leave for work around 4 o’clock in the morning and come home around 11:30, 12:30 at night and then just sleep few hours and go back to work. However, a common characteristic of a millennial is that they would forgo an offer just for flexible working hours. Millennials are achievement oriented; they seek feedback and are team oriented, they would not be scared to change their jobs when the opportunities arise. So, understanding their profile when you are working with them is important.

In my opinion, they are the most resilient generation when coping with challenges in a company, they are people who can develop fast. The only thing is that you need to keep up with proper communication, they will not work for your agenda for sure, so you will have to talk to them and develop an agenda with them. Normally I ask them to develop their personal development schedule and then we have a discussion and see where they want to go and what they want to do. I know for a fact that if you do it that way, they would be the most contributing generation of the company.

7.) Singer won the SLIM People’s Brand award for the 15th consecutive time last year as well as the SLIM People’s Youth Brand of the Year as well. How vital was the role of learning and development in contributing to achieving these accomplishments?

Two years back when the senior management of the company had this strategic meeting, they redefined the company vision and mission statement and what they wanted to achieved in the long run. They decided on some key strategies to achieve that, we did a survey as well. We understood that we can be the best trusted, prestigious brand in the country but there is a challenge winning the hearts of young people in terms of expectation as they might not see us as an exciting, innovative young brand. So one of the objectives of the company was to become a trusted brand for the youth was to make some changes. It was a holistic approach, so you can see the outlook has changed in most of the branches; the interiors the colors and placement of items and a lot of other things have changed. We have introduced products that are more attractive. Aligning with that Learning and Development ensured that we upskill our staff to ensure the best service delivery at all customer care touch points. We have conducted base surveys to understand the service delivery standards and aligned our goals and KPIs with them.

You know it is a journey. I think from where we have started we have come a long way and there is lot to improve. We are constantly challenging and pushing ourselves to perform and serve better for our customers. So, this award is a symbol that we have been successful so far.

8.) When it comes to millennials entering the workforce sometimes it seems overwhelming the sheer number of skills that are on offer to learn. What advice would you give to young upcoming business professionals about how to invest in learning the right skills for their development.

When I was small, my parents used to ask me who I want to become when I’m older, I used to tell them I want to become a doctor, everyone has that moment. So, my relatives and everyone believed I would become a doctor. Now that I have aspired a different career, I think I’m successful. Nowadays, there are a lot of opportunities for people to learn and develop themselves, there are lot of online platforms, a lot of free courses offered and such. I see a lot of individuals doing degrees just after O-levels, and they do MBS, and they stress themselves to become managers, and when they are offered the management trainings and the management posts, with time, they struggle. It’s because they don’t possess the actual work-based knowledge. What I would say to anyone who starts a career, is it start somewhere, whatever opportunity you get, because if you learn while doing the job, you understand the mistakes that you do, that is an unforgettable learning experience. No matter how much you get scolded or you think you aren’t good enough, start somewhere and don’t wait till you get a post or whatever, just start somewhere and work really hard. Give your best, and with time you will understand what you are good at, what you can do, what you can’t do. So, in the meantime, you can use these platforms (such as “Bill network”), and you can talk to people, and listen. In my opinion, role models don’t work, someone else’s story doesn’t work for me, but you can see how they made decisions in their career and incorporate that knowledge into your own decisions (if useful and relatable), and learn lessons from them. You can try to study something new, with all these free learning platforms available. You may not know where you are going to use them, so don’t limit yourself to one area, start learning anything you take a liking to.

9.) In a recent article you wrote “Believing there is a glass ceiling for ladies in the corporate sector is disfavor as it stops women from trying”. What advice would you give to young women who aspire to become our business leaders of tomorrow?

Like I said, don’t let yourself believe that there is a glass ceiling, because its your mindset that takes you there. As Lord Buddha had once said, “depending on what you think, your actions will align”. So, everything starts from your mind, so if you think there is a glass ceiling, your body will react to it and it will stop you going there. so don’t believe that, there are equal opportunities, I’ve seen people coming from small villages like me, coming up the ladder.

I don’t have any relations who are supporting me to become a manager or a director, I always have recommendations from my previous bosses. If you have worked hard, if you have done your job properly, that will help you get to where you want. Sometimes I see, after a certain age, when you are married, have children and have family responsibilities, people are tired at home and so they don’t give their best at the office and they complain that they are stagnated because of gender, but that’s not true. If you give your best, performed well, and shown the required skills, there is an equal opportunity always to go up, if not in your current organisation, then somewhere else.

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