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A leaders guide to empowering employees from Talk the Walks

Whether it’s a startup or the largest corporate, businesses strive to create strong teams. But how exactly can companies and their leaders build such teams and encourage employees to go above and beyond? To find the answer to that question is why we attended the seventh Talk the Walks session.

Talk The Walks | Employees | Leadership

Chiranthi Cooray (L) – Chief HR officer at HNB & Roshanie Jayasundera Moraes – Executive VP of John Keels with Anura De Alwis (M) moderating the session

Hosted by Anura De Alwis this session hosted two female leaders. They were Roshanie Jayasundera Moraes – Executive VP of John Keells Holdings and Chiranthi Cooray – Chief HR Officer of HNB. Here’s what we learned from them.

Is it performing employees or employee performance?

This was the first question that Anura threw at the panel. Roshani was first to answer by saying they’re not too different. She explained saying, “When you have performing employees and take their combined efforts its employee performance.”

Chiranthi elaborated on this by saying it’s not simply about meeting goals and hitting KPI’s. It’s also about the qualities a person brings to the table. The qualities that help improve their own performance, that of the team, and the organization as a whole.

Later Anura asked, “Quality or Quantity?” Both speakers agreed to quality. However, an attendee disagreed saying it’s actually a mix. Depending on the circumstances the priority can change.

Chiranthi responded to this by saying, “In our business, we can’t take shortcuts. When we take a young person in, we need to train them. We are custodians of your wealth so quality is important. If we take a shortcut, then it can come back in a bad way later on.”

Roshanie also shared at Talk the Walks that employee satisfaction and motivation are interlinked. When employees are satisfied they’re motivated to do more. It’s a cycle where one cannot exist without the other. Chiranthi added that this satisfaction comes from ownership and having a stake in the business. This, in turn, encourages employees to perform to their best.

How is a culture built that encourages performance?

Roshani shared that it all starts with the climate. Employees need a climate where they work with people that make them feel comfortable and relaxed. Afterward, they need to feel as if they have a stake in the business. They need to feel that their contributions matter. This is the start of building such a culture.

Talk the Walks | Employees | Leadership | Performance

Employees need people they feel comfortable and open with to perform at their best (Image credits: Gotham Culture)

Yet in such a culture, the relationship leaders have with their teams is essential. “If people know you mean well, they’ll be willing to work with you. You have the relationship so that they know you have their back,” says Roshani. Thus, if leaders want things done then they need to treat everyone the same.

“It’s what you build for the future and if it’s doing well without you then you’ve done something well” – Roshani Jayasundera Moraes

She then went onto say that leaders are there to serve their employees. They shouldn’t be bigger than the organization itself. Of course, an organization would have people that act as its face. But if these people do it right then there’s equal exposure for the entire organization. Ultimately, if leaders have built the right processes then the business would continue without them.

Is punishment a part of this culture?

Such measures are and must be taken for a clear reason. But before punishments are doled out, there are other actions that can be pursued. As a leader, your team needs to know that if they make a mistake, you will understand and give a second chance. People will learn and move forward. It’s only when they repeatedly make the mistake that action needs to be taken.

“Nobody comes to work actively thinking of destroying the workplace” – Roshani Jayasundera Moraes

Anura later shared a story at Talk the Walks of an individual he knew. “He works at one of the biggest companies in the world so I can’t share names,” he said as a disclaimer. This person had a deal worth over $2 million. But he made a mistake and lost the deal. So he walked into the Deputy CEO’s office and said, “I lost the deal. I’m sorry. Here’s my resignation.”

The Deputy CEO had asked in response, “Why are you resigning.” The person said, “Because I made a mistake.” The Deputy CEO simply said, “You’re not going to resign” and that worked really well for the company. The individual went onto close some of the biggest deals for the company.

Talk The Walks | Employees | Leaders

With challenging employees its best to set expectations first (Image credits: Sandler Systems)

Yet every organization will have its fair share of challenging employees. They don’t’ see eye to eye and will cause friction. Chiranthi explained that prevention is better than the cure in such instances. “Even if it’s a simple assignment, you need to sit down and set the expectations,” she says.

When setting these expectations, it’s also important for leaders to ask how long the person would need and what resources they require. When they deliver, you need to make sure there’s also clear criteria to measure their performance. This ensures there’s a clear scope. So when criticism is required the focus is taken away from the person.

Ultimately, a company needs to ensure it has healthy HR practices. If so then termination is the last resort. This is because there are many other actions that can and should be pursued before this stated Chiranthi. Termination is the last resort. The only exception is for malpractices like a fraud.

The role of HR in modern business

“HR is very much part of the business. You can’t consider it to be a separate function. The head of HR needs to understand the business. Similarly, the business needs to understand what it needs to do with people,” stated Roshanie. HR is integral to a business because it’s all about how they handle, relate, reward, and evaluate people.

Talk The Walks | Employees | Leaders

Both panelists agreed that HR is an integral part of the business and its goals must harmonize with the overall goals of the business

Of course, HR can’t meet every person in an organization on a day to basis. Thus, HR exists in an advisory role to remind the rest of the organization what needs to be done. Chiranthi went onto state, “I don’t believe HR should be run by hardcore HR people.” This is why she brought branch managers, senior managers, regional heads, and union leaders into her team.

Ultimately, the goals of HR should harmonize with the overall business goals. Yet, an attendee at Talk the Walks argued that certain business departments like HR, accounting, and legal actually hold entrepreneurs and businesses from achieving their goals. In response to this, Chiranthi stated that such departments act as watchdogs for businesses.

These departments exist to keep the business safe. This is doubly so for corporates, which are responsible to their shareholders.  “So it’s about accepting risks but with responsibility,” stated Chiranthi.

Roshanie then stated, “If you think accountants, lawyers, or HR professionals slow you down then why would you hire them?”

She reminded the audience at Talk the Walks that entrepreneurs are the visionaries of their businesses. As such they are in charge. Professionals like lawyers and accountants exist for governance. “In our interest in forging ahead, we like to forget about a few things. But these people are there to remind us of these things. It makes the company a bit slower but also safer,” she said.

The importance of learning

Towards the latter half of the Talk the Walks session, Anura quizzed the speakers on their thoughts regarding the importance of learning. Roshanie stated that one should be learning every day on the job. This is integral for an employee’s performance and that of the organization as a whole. Additionally, investing in the learning of employees helps increase employee satisfaction.

“Whatever you learned 20 years ago won’t be valid for the next 20 years.” – Roshanie Jayasundera Moraes

Chiranthi later added that there’s nothing stopping you from learning on the go today. And the purpose of learning is not to simply get the job done. Rather it’s to become a better well-rounded person. She shared that HNB has formal and informal groups to share knowledge. They also encourage discussions between seniors and juniors to exchange fresh insights. Ultimately, “Learning is not a one-way street,” said Chiranthi.

The challenge of millennials

Later Anura touched upon a topic with the panel, which was one that corporates have been struggling with understanding for the past few years: millennials. On this topic, Chiranthi stated that it’s important for corporates to be open to the thinking of millennials. If they aren’t then it will be impossible to relate to them.

Talk The Walks | Employees | Leaders

Both Chiranthi and Roshanie agreed that organizations need to adapt to accommodate millennials (Image credits: Microsoft)

This is why leaders she states that the leadership has to be more relaxed and engaging. But at the same time, in the realm of financial services, professionalism and strict discipline are necessary. “There needs to a harmony between the two for organizations to succeed today,” states Chiranthi.

Meanwhile, Roshanie highlighted a Talk the Walks that most corporates and HR professionals typically talk of millennials in a negative manner. To this, she says, “It’s another generation. Our grandparents said the same thing about us when we were growing up. Now we’re saying the same about millennials.” She went onto describe millennials as curious and well informed. As such organizations need to make adjustments to accommodate them.

How leaders can buid self-sustaining teams

One of the final topics Anura threw at the panel at the 7th Talk the Walks session was regarding self-sustaining teams. “Is it possible to have them?” he asked. Both Roshanie and Chiranthi admitted that it was possible. However, such teams require a strong leader.  One that’ll make them self-sustaining and then leave them alone.

The attendees of the Talk The Walks Session 07

Image credits: Talk the Walks

As such, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. These leaders must know when to be in the front and driving the teams. They must also know when to be in the rear without interfering and allow the teams to stand on their own. This is where servant leadership comes in to create the necessary environment.

Ultimately, it’s not enough to simply get teams to be self-driven. This drive needs to be sustainable and that at times will require motivation from the leader.

Wrapping up

Following a quick summary of the key takeaways of the session by Anura, we saw an active Q&A session. One that could’ve easily carried on throughout the day. With the conclusion of the Q&A session, the seventh Walk the Talk meetup came to an end. If you want to check out the full talk, keep an eye on their YouTube channel here.

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