Leading by ideas

NB Preword.  What does it take to be a man? What does it take to be a good man? What does it take be a good manager? These three questions were not questions anymore for me as I went out of Sanofi’s office in Almaty that grey but warm day. To be honest I haven’t expected to receive this kind of light and inspiration out of a Head of pharmaceutical company while I was preparing for an interview. Open sources gave me not enough understanding how to extract true faith and open talk out of this mysterious person. All I knew – he’s from Sri Lanka, spent almost all his career in Sanofi, worked in all corners of the world, has a young family and that’s it. Nothing else. What benefit I could bring to the readers? It might be a poker game or a reconnaissance by battle, I thought.

He entered the meeting room brightly smiling and something in his eyes told me that there will be no battles or games. So, started the interview from the point that we wouldn’t talk about the market shares or the company’s behavior and statistics, but we would rather speak about truly personal and professional management issues. My objective is to bring benefit to our readers. And he said that he was not sure if he could. Modesty is the rarest thing in managers and businessmen I’ve met for last few years.

So, a man, a good man and a good manager. Which one of these are you, my dearest reader? Why Ranga is all in one? He saw a war and still believes in humanity, he spent a lot of time as a volunteer building shelters and feeding children in ruined Haiti and, finally, he’s openly sharing ideas with his team – from interns to directors.

 
Interview with Ranga Welaratne, General Manager of Sanofi Central Asia and Caucasus

By Denis Kulkin, editor-in-chief, National Business
and Nadia Labodovskaya, Head of communications Sanofi Central Asia

 

D.K.: Now it’s been fourteen years working in the company. Looking back to the year 2003, you had been working as a consultant all around the world and you switched to working for Sanofi Australia.  So, please, compare the visions of your future in 2002/2003 and today.

R.W.: So, my personal career vision? (smiles) That is a difficult one. Ok. As you know, I was born in the island nation of Sri Lanka. I grew up there until I was 18 years of age. I studied in my local language Sinhalese in a public school. We were a middle-class family. My father was a small business owner in construction and my mother was a nurse. I am the second of three boys. My parents’ only wish was to educate us and give us more opportunities than they ever had.

When I was growing up Sri Lanka was a war-torn country so every parent wanted to send their kids to a place where they could have a safer life with better opportunities.

When I turned 18, I was fortunate to get the opportunity to go to Melbourne Australia to study Engineering. I still remember that day as if it was today. It was January 24th 1993, and my first time on an airplane and my first trip overseas. So to answer your question, in early 90’s my ambition was to leave Sri Lanka to get an education in a Western country. When I was young, my ambitions were simple and the path to get there was straight forward; I wanted to go to the university, get a degree, and then to find a job. And that was basically it.

During my university years in Australia, I experienced things, both good and bad, that I never imagined possible during my life in Sri Lanka. Even more than learning engineering, I had a true crash-course in surviving as an adult, which to this day was the most challenging time of my life. Once I got it, a big world opened up for me, a big range of both professionally and personally possibilities. Of course, I never forgot that I was one of those fortunate people who could leave Sri Lanka and get an education.

So back to your question, I think my expectations were very low when I came to Australia in 1993, but then they started to grow as I matured personally and professionally. 

During my university days, I was really struggling financially.  I was working long hours at several different low-paying jobs.  Even with all these jobs, I was still barely able to pay for my expensive tuition and humble living expenses. Hence, I was not the best student, nor did I have a fun and relaxed university experience. However that all changed after the university when I landed my first job as a consultant. Overnight, I went from barely making it to having a decent income. It was an incredible feeling to be able to buy my first suit, travel, eat at restaurants and just enjoy life.

Of course, I was working very hard, but never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that life could be so good.

I worked as a consultant from 1998 until 2003. Then in 2003 I was introduced to Sanofi. I first started working for Sanofi as a consultant for their vaccine business (Sanofi Pasteur).  Right away, I noticed that this company was different from all the other companies that I had experienced through consulting. There was a certain passion in the people… When they offered me a permanent job, I quickly accepted it.  I knew that Sanofi was a good fit for me.

I started working for Sanofi Pasteur Australia as a Systems and Operations Manager. After this role, my career started progress quite rapidly. After Australia, they moved me to China as an expat. Then I was moved to France and then to South Korea as General Manager for Sanofi Pasteur. I spent 10 years in Sanofi Pasteur. Hence, now I can say I know quite a lot about the vaccine business. So back to your question about my personal vision, at this point I wanted to experience the bigger pharma (Rx) business world. In 2014, I moved from the vaccine business to the pharma (Rx) business of Sanofi in Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg).  After 18 months in that role I was offered my current role as GM/Country Chair of Central Asia and the Caucuses.

It has been quite a world-wind experience. I came from Sri Lanka to Australia as a young lad, studied engineering, and started working in consulting and pharmaceuticals. Now, today I am in Kazakhstan. I don’t know [laughs] if I answered your question, but it was not expected. The answer is that none of those opportunities were expected. None of these things were planned. I just worked hard, got a little lucky and doors opened for me. Therefore, if you ask me about my vision or five-year plan in 2003, I probably did have one.  However, I can assure you, it is not what I am doing today. It has changed a lot over time.

D.K.: And the Future. What is your vision of the future of today?

R.W.: As far as my vision today, well, the more I work in this industry, the more I see how our products directly affect our patient’s lives. These are not just customers, they are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children; they are my family, my wife, my son and my friends. So now, my vision is to do everything that I can to guide my team to help enhance these people’s lives. Luckily, this is Sanofi’s vision too. The company culture is focused on serving the patient, not just making a profit. I think this is one of the reasons that I have stayed at Sanofi for so many years.

You know, at the end of the day, when you are old and retired, you forget all these numbers and businesses; you remember the lives you affected and the impact you have made on your community.

Therefore, that’s why I really enjoy the work that we do at Sanofi. Beyond that, being the General Manager of Central Asia, there is a real purpose for me. This type of leadership role is a place where I can develop people, propel the business, drive ideas, collaborate with people and build a strong and passionate team. To me, this is a lot of fun and it is very rewarding to see my team grow, mature and accomplish their personal and professional goals.

D.K.: So, management is an international study, but it differs in details and methods, such as traditions, environment, and history of the country. So, what are the unusual things you have faced in Kazakhstan? And criticism is preferred.

R.W.: Well, I don’t have much criticism. You know I’ve now worked with Sanofi in seven very different countries.  Each of these countries’ cultures is extremely different, so I really don’t find Kazakhstan unusual in that way.  However, I think that maybe my team finds my management style a bit unusual to them.  The way I manage is maybe a bit different from what they are used to from other leaders in Kazakhstan or Russia. I manage by ideas.

I manage by ideas of the people. I talk to Nadia about communications; I talk to others about their ideas. I will talk with a twenty-one year old intern about his or her ideas regarding the business. I will talk to a fifty-year-old man or women about their ideas.

I am happy to get the ideas from everybody in the organization. I do not believe that the management team or myself have the monopoly of the knowledge.

I am one individual in the management team and the management team themselves is a team among the larger environment.

In an ideal situation, if we can get ideas from people in every aspect of the business, then we can debate about it, discuss it, and have a very diverse platform to make more informed decisions.  This does not mean it is a democracy.  It means that I consider everyone’s ideas. It empowers people to speak up and foster their ideas. This actually changes the company culture to one of empowerment.  When your team is empowered, their passion and their ideas are a powerful machine to move the business ahead. I believe that what’s difference between me and another leader in KZ.  I think here in Kazakhstan, or in this part of Asia (Eurasian culture) it is a bit of hierarchical culture. In this part of the world, it is usually the boss who makes a decision and then he drives that idea forward to get things done. I am not saying that is bad and I am not criticizing this approach. Business needs a strong leader who is a decision maker. Ultimately, as the GM, I am the final decision maker, but there is different way I would like to run the business. 

D.K.: Well, you are totally correct. This is a perfect sense of our reality of management in Kazakhstan.  You have worked in Benelux, in Korea, Australia, France and China – everywhere. You must have a very high level of adaptability index. What is your secret?

R.W.: I do not know if there is a particular secret [smiles]. I never thought about that. You know, I am a middle child of three boys. As a middle child, you need to have lot of listening capabilities. The elder brother is usually the leader and the youngest brother is the baby, so they have lot to say. As a middle child, you end up listening a lot. That is probably my secret [laughs]. I try not to have any preconceptions when I go to a new country; I just try to listen and respect the culture and my team.

I also do not put myself on a pedestal to think that I am better than someone else is, nor do I think I am below somebody else either. Mentally I put myself on equal footing with people everywhere.  

So maybe that makes me more adaptable.  I don’t know.  However, I do know that being able to adapt and to change quickly is paramount of the work that we do today. Even if you work in the same country or culture, you need to be able to adapt quickly to the ever-changing business environment, to different crises, policies, competition, needs of your customers. They are always changing and changing fast. If you can’t adapt quickly then you won’t survive let alone win. It is pretty much the idea of evolution. Species evolve to fit their changing environment.  The most adaptable will survive and the ones who can’t adapt, well, they don’t always make it.  The same goes for businesses.

Therefore, I do not have a magic secret, but I have enjoyed all the countries where I have worked and lived. I respect the people and I do not believe myself to be above or below anybody in any environment.

N.L.: Can I add something? Ranga builds good relationship with people. They can come to him, can share ideas, can discuss easily.

During the first week Ranga had meetings with all of us. We had only a chat at our 1st meeting; we did not show any presentations, graphics, we just spoke. Moreover, after that time the door is always open. If one has new ideas, if we want to change something in the organization, we can easily come and have a discussion on that. I think this helps Ranga to be close to the team and to have a discussion floor to exchange the ideas. This is also a kind of adaptability, because when you come to a new country, to another environment, people help you to know better the place, to know better the country.

R.W.: Yes, my door is always open. I am always available for everybody on the team, not just my direct reports. I enjoy talking with the people I work with, even if it is: “How are you doing? How is your day?” When I start my day, I try to walk around the office and have a bit of small chat with everybody. I think this helps people to know that I am accessible to them. 

N.L.: Ranga manages eight countries. Nevertheless, he finds time for everybody.

You know, we have an internship programs for new graduates in the company and Ranga allocates special time in his busy agenda to talk to interns and exchange the ideas with them.

D.K.: This is empathy and agility, when you work face to face with your colleagues. That is great.  So, let us go further. Every manager has his own level of Incompetence. Every employee, every worker, all men and women in the world have their own level of Incompetence. It happens when an employee meets challenges that he can’t manage and then hits the wall. Moreover, he can’t learn how to manage this problem, because he ran out of neurons of his brain, so that’s it. This is a hypothesis of Lawrence Peter. He said there are three things to do. First one is to move horizontally or a downshifting. Second one is the “kick up”, when the employee is promoted, but has no powers to make harm to a company. Third one is “the new beginning”: own business, hobby or a new industry.  Which one do you prefer and why? If we can imagine that someday, you reach your level of incompetence.

R.W.: Which one of the three will I choose?

D.K.: There might be the fourth.

R.W.: Well if you talk to my wife, she might be able to give you a long list [laughs]. But seriously, everybody has incompetencies. I am working in the pharmaceutical industry, yet I could never succeed as a Medical Manager or an IT specialist or so many other critical positions in the company. So I fill my team with people who can cover all of my incompetencies in these areas. This is just teamwork.

As far as incompetencies affecting my role as a General Manager, well, of course we all have our strengths and weaknesses.  As you questioned, “Do I think that there is a situation that I cannot manage?” and the answer is that there are definitely situations that I choose not to manage exclusively by myself.  That is when I discuss with my team, my peers, my boss, and possibly even a consultant.

The worst incompetency for a manager is having too much pride or ego to ask for help.

Back to your hypothetical question, if I did reach a point where I was no longer effective, I would choose a “new beginning”.  However, I am a fighter. I believe in fighting hard for what I believe in.  If it was something that I wanted then I would first raise the bar, work harder, challenge myself to think differently, and learn new skills.  In short, I would adapt.

D.K.: What is it? What are you passionate about apart of management?

R.W.: Well, I consider myself a people person, so I hope I am good at human interaction. I love solving problems by working with a group of people. Whether it is a business or any other problem.  It is especially rewarding if what we do makes an actual impact. I sometimes think what will I do when I leave business and retire, still long way to go for that.  Nevertheless, I think I would love to work for an NGO, or a UN agency, or something like that. Because I think, I can make a real contribution, do something good for people and really contribute to enhance the quality of life of the people.

In the past I was a part of a couple of those NGO’s. I do not find time to do it these days because I have a young family, but I love working in that area and find it very rewarding. If I think a little bit more about it, probably my favorite work experience was working for charities. To be honest, you get much more than you give. One of the charity that I volunteered which is called Hands On. 

The first time I volunteered with them was in 2010 while I was working in France.  I had decided to take my summer holidays to go to Haiti where I worked in a camp after the earthquake.

The country was in the direst conditions; you wouldn’t believe how serious it was. The whole place was dark. There was no running water, no sewage, there was nothing! Have you heard about apocalypse? Well, when I went to Haiti after the earthquake, that’s was my impression. Actually, I wrote an article about my three-week experience to a paper, which was published.

I also volunteered in Sri Lanka after the tsunami and in Japan after the earthquake/tsunami.

I think this is a kind of environment where I would like help when I retire, but I hope I still have a long career before that.

D.K.: When you retire, please let me know and I’ll do anything to help you. However, the leadership and management. In Russian language and tradition, there is a proverb – “Whip or Gingerbread”. This whip and gingerbread approach is about the management and there is a balance. Which sort of the balance do you have?

R.W.: I don’t think I neither whip nor give gingerbread. What is important is to be assertive. I have had managers who scream and yell at their employees.  The employees work because they are scared [smiles] not because they respect their manager. This type of management style completely crushes all creativity of a team. I have also seen the other type of manager, the gingerbread. This extreme also fails because the team does not have a leader. I believe my team deserves a leader who is confident and firm yet approachable and emphatic. 

I try to be nice yet straightforward with people. If they are doing a good job, then I let them know.  If they are not performing, then I also let them know it with constructive criticism. I also try to help them through mentoring or finding a job that is a better fit for their skills. 

The harder situation is when you have an employee who is not responding to mentoring or just has different values. 

In these situations, of course, it is best for everyone to let them go.  However, this should always be done with compassion and respect. But it’s never easy. It is actually one of the toughest parts of my job.

I do not know if there is a particular style that I can categorize myself, but I know it’s not whip or gingerbread. I want to be a strong leader that can drive a business forward and still be compassionate and caring about the people.

D.K.: Asking someone to leave is the hardest thing, you said. How do you overcome it?

R.W.: I don’t know you ever overcome it.  You know I remember everyone whom I have asked to leave (fired). Even when I know it is the right thing to do for the company, it doesn’t make it easier; it’s one of the toughest aspects of being a manager.

N.L.: Once you told us, you fired your best friend.

R.W.: It was not my best friend but I have asked someone very close to me to leave once.  I think it’s a good self-check to ask yourself:

“if this person was my best friend or my brother, would I still let him go?” 

I do this before making the final decision.  If the answer is “yes” then I know it is a good decision and justified. 

Still it is hard.  Most people need their job to pay their mortgage, feed their kids, etc.  Well, we all do. However if the person isn’t performing and unable or unwilling to change, then I truly believe it’s in the best interest, not only for the company but also for the person, to find a job that is a better fit for them. It is an even worse situation when a person has been allowed to stay in a job that he is not good at for 10 or 20 years and then be fired.  It is much better for the person to leave sooner so he can recreate his career around something he is better at and more passionate about.  I believe there are no bad people; there are just bad actions or situations.

D.K.: I am not sure if I should ask this question, but I will try: do you believe in strategies? Do you feel that strategies are something old-fashioned? On the other hand, the tactics are more important nowadays in the supersonic environment.

R.W.:  Of course, I believe in Strategy. It is important; actually, it is crucial to know what I am trying to accomplish.  However, tactics or the execution is to me far more important. It is how I am going to accomplish it; it’s the execution.

At this level, I think we all pretty much get the strategy right. We all read comparable reports and hire similar consultants: BCG, McKinsey, A.T. Kearney, etc, and pretty much everybody is smart and well educated.  I can tell you we are all getting the strategy right.  However, execution is not the same.  I think people fail today at the execution level.  Therefore, in today’s environment, I would say Execution is more important.

There are thousands of books and classes on strategy, yet there is almost nothing on execution. But 90% of time what we do is “execution”.

In the big picture, the executive board level sets the strategy. We adapt it to the environment of the country we are in, but most of the time, what we do is execute – execute – execute.

So, what I would say to people, yes, Strategy is important. But excellence in execution is far more important. 

D.K.: Fair point, a very fair point. And about the execution: do you believe in MBA’s, which you hire, and not only you, but any other company…

R.W.: I am an MBA also [laughs].

D.K.: Do you believe they are prepared; they are ready to run the business after they graduate even without the experience?

R.W.: There is a simple answer – No. (laughs)

An MBA helps get your foot in the door, helps you get your CV into the hiring manager’s hands. After that, experience is so much more important. MBA, or the degrees gives you the structure. To me, education is like an index in a library. When you are looking for a management book, you go to the letter “M”.  That is what a degree will tell you. Then, what you read and learn there is like experience.  Like different readings will give you different contexts, every environment in real life is different and the context is different.  Therefore, there is no substitution for experience, and I’m not talking about just work experience but life too. Having work-life balance is important. Today I am a much better manager because I have a son [smiles].  It has helped me learn how to listen, make compromises, and how to support my family better. That is why most of the senior managers are tend to be older in age; they have more work and life experiences.

D.K.: What five qualities must a leader have today?

R.W.: I do not know whether I can give you five qualities per say, but I will tell you what we at Sanofi believe the right values at our company. They are: teamwork, courage, respect and integrity.

I think the first two values, teamwork and courage, are the critical values for a businessperson. Of course, integrity and respect are important values too.  However, it does not matter whether you are a businessman or just a human being [laughs].

To be a decent human being, you must have respect and integrity.

I always tell people, if you do not have integrity and respect then I don’t want you even entering the door of my company.

On top of these key values, I also believe you need to be authentic as a leader of a company. People need to see your true self. I think this occurs naturally, as you gain experience and self-confidence as a leader.  I see some young leaders and I feel like they are trying to emulate others. Maybe they think like “I want to be like that guy” or “act like that GM”, “I want to be tough.” People can see right through this.   When you go to these town halls, people need to really believe in you, so you need to be authentic.  You need to be who you are. The values, which has got you thus far, keep them, and be true to yourself.  So, what I’m trying to say is it’s very important not to copy-paste someone else’s style and convictions. You need to have your own way of doing things, your own convictions. This is what I believe.  Well, I do not know, whether I gave you five? [Laughs]

D.K.: You gave four, but they have the value of five.

Does the culture of Sanofi give you a chance to be a visionary?  How many business strategists are here, can you choose yourself, make the decisions by your own, without going to your bosses?

R.W.: Yes, as GMs we are very empowered to make decisions and to run the business. However, this also means that we are expected to meet our goals and perform at the highest level. 

D.K.: I believe that you delegate very easily. Are there any difficult things to delegate?

R.W.: Of course, I delegate quite a bit, but there are things that I definitely don’t want to delegate.  I need to stay close to the business, keep my finger on the pulse of the company.  In order to do this, I have to attend the meetings, dig into the numbers, financial decisions, etc. 

I also want to stay involved in the people side of the business. Developing people is a very big part of our company and it is important to me. I like to be involved in deciding how we develop people and how we look after our talents in the company. 

In addition, I like personally to keep the team updated, to speak to the team in the Town Halls, to write blogs on the company page or send out updates in emails, etc.  I think the teams need to hear many of these things directly from me.  

Therefore, those are few of the things that I don’t like to delegate.

D.K.: Do you believe in intuition or fact based decisions. Can you evaluate your level of intuition?

R.W.: Again, it is another question for the external people to judge, if my leadership is working (laughs). But I feel I am pretty intuitive, especially on the people side of decisions.

D.K.: There is an online service that you can use to write a letter to yourself and receive it in 20 years. Then, when you read, you analyze whom you were, and who you are. You can ask questions etc. this interview is almost the same. In twenty years, I hope you will remember of this interview and read it to make the evaluation of your intuition.

R.W.: You are right. I think that people change all the time. I look forward reading this in 20 years (smiles).

NB Afterword. The article which Ranga wrote in 2010 about his volunteer experience in Haiti can be read here. Earlier it was published in English, and we asked for permission to translate it and publish at NB. It is worth reading, you will find the inspiration to live and build.

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