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Excel in what you are good at

President - Group HR and Legal, at John Keells Holdings



-Dilani Alagaratnam

First, tell us about your early career. How did you join John Keells Group?



I joined in 1992 as a legal resource for the group, to assist the organization as it ventured to diversify its portfolio.


As an individual, how did you build your own personality?



I believe that one’s personality will evolve over one’s lifetime based on the environment you are in, be it school, university, home or the workplace. I have not consciously attempted to change who I am. I also believe that certain traits one carries with, cannot be changed.


Have you ever believed that your inborn talents help you enhance your qualities as a leader?


I believe that as a starting point, one will be considered a leader if the person has a strong grounding in values. I won’t call them talents but the qualities that will set you apart when wielding influences a leader or leading a team or influencing others without wielding any power over them.


What do you like most about your profession?



I am a lawyer by profession. I believe that a degree in law, like most degrees, is a very versatile degree giving you a conceptual framework which can be applied in any situation. Thus as a lawyer, I believe that I can fit in to any role, other than in very technical spheres. Also as a lawyer, I have the ability to work on my own. This gives you the strength to follow your heart.


If you look at it as what I like most about my current work is the fact, my work transcends the immediate needs of a business; It helps people to achieve their potential; It helps the community to grow with the organization; It opens doors for me to undertake work that captures the society at large and contribute to the country in many ways. To name a few, given the role I play at John Keells, I have had the privilege of contributing to policy, to laws and their implementation in this country in quite a few areas and that has been a humbling and rewarding experience.




John Keells is one of the largest listed conglomerates in Sri Lanka. Becoming one of the presidents of JKH must be harder and challenging. What actually did take you to the place where you stand today?



Becoming one was not hard. In that, I believe that I was recognized for the work I do and the potential I can bring to the table. When I was appointed to that position, we had just come out of a grueling work of negotiating the concession with the government of Sri Lanka, for the BOT project for South Asia Gateway Terminals. Hard work, ability to cope with multi-party negotiations where the interests were not common, keep at it despite odds and for a long length of time, possibly my practical approach to Law learnt from my seniors in the profession and exhibiting the ability to work as a team may have been the contributing factors. But coping with the challenges that the job brings on a daily basis and meeting the expectations of the job requires you to always be on top of things. That is the challenge. At John Keells, we do not stay still, we always strive for excellence, raise the bar – what was good today and not good enough for tomorrow. To be in control and perform at the expected levels, requires you to have a competent and committed team, a willingness on my part to embrace change and guide people through change, a willingness on my part to learn every day and appreciate that I alone cannot meet the expectations that the office demands, but I need to work with and tap into the wealth of knowledge of expertise that the organization has provided you with. Having people around me who bring different skills and expertise to the table, but grounded on the same values I subscribe to, has helped me stay the course.


Sustainability has become a business buzz word lately, but many people don’t know what it means. What does Sustainability mean to you?



To me, Sustainability means doing the right thing by all stakeholders, direct and indirect, all the time and this mindset pervades everything we do, from the mundane to the complex. This requires one to balance those interests every day. If we get the balance right, the world will be a better place today and tomorrow.


Why does an organization need to become sustainable?



Every organization has to do its part to achieve the sustainability goals that have elaborated in many forms and shapes so that we keep focus, moving away from the utopian state I mentioned in my earlier response. What is important to realize is that this is not mere cliché, but a more holistic triple bottom line approach, in fact enhances one’s bottom line in that this approach results a reduction in transaction costs, operational efficiencies, enhances brand image, creates a positioning in the minds of its significant stakeholders such as employees, customers, suppliers and community, for the long term. The organizations that have and are approaching their businesses in this manner, not with a mere bottom line, only will remain relevant in this rapidly changing, connected world.


How do you integrate Sustainability into John Keells?



Sustainability is integrated within the John Keells Group through a multi-pronged approach of policies and strategies, structures, measurement, benchmarking and setting goals, gap analysis and reporting, education as well as awareness creation. Key factor that integrates the group, is the tone set at the top where Sustainability is considered as a business imperative and the structures, monitoring and reporting that has been put in place. The function is overlooked by the Group Executive Committee and Group Sustainability Committee, while each business unit has a dedicated Sustainability Champion responsible for sustainability initiatives and overall sustainability performance, under the overall supervision of their respective sector.


From your experience, what are the challenges organizations face when they try to become sustainable?


The biggest challenge we faced few years ago was the lack of awareness of a concept. Being a relatively new concept at that time, creating that understanding at all levels internally, as well as with every significant external stakeholder group was a challenge. Ingraining the concept within the group required us to have a top-down approach as well as a participatory approach – a pull-and-push strategy. Thus,mandating that all businesses of the group, demonstrating triple bottom line aspects within its strategic planning process and financial annual plan cycle, gave necessary impetus to think of everything we do, all processes, from a sustainability lenses. This 2-pronged approach worked well in aligning principles of Sustainability within the group’s operational strategy.


Can you explain us what Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) is?



Enterprise Risk Management in the context of John Keells Group, is a strategy which establishes formal mechanisms to ensure that best efforts are taken to appropriately identify risks of all our businesses, from the perspective of likelihood of occurrence, velocity and the impact or severity of the risk and upon identification of the risks maximize any potential opportunities arising from such risks events, as well as to mitigate and minimize the adverse effects stemming from those identified risks. This is operationalized through the embedding of Risk Management in business operations and strategic decision-making process.


Why is ERM important for an organization?



ERM is an integral part of an organizational process as it ensures sustainable growth of the company, whilst improving the probability of achieving its strategic and operational objectives.


Are risks purely negative, or do they also hold opportunities for the organization?


Certainly they do. An organization should make best efforts to ensure, to not merely identify and mitigate risks, but also to maximize any potential opportunities that may arise from such risks.


Do you think that companies pay enough attention to ERM, presently?


Each company’s risk appetite or the amount of risk which it is prepared to accept in pursuing its strategic objectives, will defer, based on its key value drivers. While most companies do focus on risks which could occur from the external environment to one’s business organization, equal attention should be given to the risks which could emanate from within, which could sometimes be irreparable. At John Keells Group, given the intensity with which risk identification is pursued, especially with it being driven from a specialized unit at a group level, we believe that all attempts are taken to identify the risks in a manner that makes decision-making on such risks appropriate.


Does Risk Management give your organization a competitive edge?



As described above. Whilst being an integral part of the corporate governance process of the John Keells Group, by all indications, it has also been a contributing factor in the sustenance of the group’s long-term success. We are mindful that it will continue to give the organization a competitive edge, based on the horizon scanning and frontier risk identification which takes place within the group, on an ongoing basis.


Being a woman, what are the challenges you have to go through when interacting with different types & levels of people?



I am sorry to disappoint you, but none. This is probably because fortunately for me from my formative years, I did not see women being treated as lesser beings. I love being a woman. At the same time, when it comes to work, the fact that I am a woman, paled into insignificance in my own mind. This may have contributed to the fact that I was never made to feel that I am lesser than the next person, man or woman. At John Keells, we are gender-blind, there is an equal opportunity for all.


Do you have any special message to give out to the younger generation who are about to start their career?

Work hard, excel in what you are good at, do not stop learning, set stretched (but realistic) goals for yourself.

©2016 Department of industrial Management,University of Kelaniya,All rights reserved.