“I am an amateur wildlife photographer,” says Surajdeen Seiyad when I asked how to describe him in the Diyunuwa Blog. Of course, I knew that he was also a Director at A B Mauri Sri Lanka & Pakistan, a global business of Associated British Foods Plc. Suraj has also held many positions in the Sri Lankan business sector before that.
Here’s how Suraj explained the link between his photography and his corporate and personal life:
I see many parallels between wildlife photography, my professional life as a leader, and of course in my private life.
The Four Pillars
Let me explain using four pillars or principles that I have to value and practice in wildlife photography. I am sure others would have their own experience.
The first is a passion for what you do.
It eaches you the ability to focus and stay on course. If you want to get the next best picture, you must be willing to put the time and effort.
For example, we have to get to the location before sunrise, often leaving home at four o’clock, every day, every time!
The second is planning.
There are many uncontrollable factors in photography, just like in business, particularly when your subject is wildlife. Timing, knowing your subject thoroughlly, and getting to location early are critical to your success. Further, you have to have the right tools. You also need to constantly learn of new skills to become a good photographer.
The third is patience.
Once you are on location, you have to learn to be patient and wait until the animal appears! This is because like in life you have no control over many things despite your planning. Especially, in the case of wild animals, you have no control over how they behave. We have had to wait for days on and sometimes we have had to go to the same location repeatedly to get a single picture.
The fourth is positivity.
You will fail time and again. Circumstances will keep changing. You will miss a shot despite all the planning. If you have experienced the three pillars above you are likely to stay positive and tell yourself that “ I’ll nail it next time”.
These four principles are universal. You too can apply them in your professional as well as personal lives. I do!”
Has COVID-19 changed the way you look at life?
Yes, it has, from a deeply personal sense! The realization that in an interconnected world we are vulnerable and containment of diseases such as COVID -19 is going to be increasingly difficult has had a devastating impact on many leaders.
I believe that leaders have come to realize that, despite our disaster preparedness, we are not infallible, This was definitely a reality check for me. However, we must remain positive, learning from the pandemic and using the vast amount of data available on the speed of transmission of the disease to develop strategies that should help us at being better prepared.
Has COVID-19 changed the way you work? How?
The way we look at the world and our work environment has changed. I have learnt that this unforeseen pandemic could have been managed and controlled, had the Chinese leaders listened to the young ophthalmologist Dr Li Wenliang, the physician at Wuhan Central Hospital, who brought it to the notice of the authorities. Had the political leadership listened to him, this mysterious respiratory illness could have been contained within the city of Wuhan.
As leaders, we have to remember that the choices we make every day have an impact not only on our businesses but on our people as well. Therefore, how we treat our people too has changed. Among changes in our ways of working, I would rate the need for empathy and concern for people as a key priority.
Has the way people who work with you changed? How?
I think one of the biggest changes to the way we work has been not having staff members within the confines of an office, and trusting them to work independently with the least amount of supervision.
Managers have had to learn to let go, and co-workers have had to learn to take responsibility for the work assigned to them.
What changes did you have to make in the workplace to let people work from home?
The changes had two aspects.
First, we had to critically evaluate and understand jobs that could be executed from a remote location. The outcome of the process was that some jobs had to be combined.
The second, we had to take a compassionate and humanitarian perspective to ensure that vulnerable employees were shielded. For example, we had to give special consideration to young mothers, and employees who were caring for elderly parents.
We had to also ensure that we stationed at least two managers, who played strategically important roles, were on the premises at any given time. We had to develop a roster so that everyone took turns to be at the office while others worked from home.
We have also had to create paperless processes, provide connectivity tools. and rely on video conferencing etc in a big way.
A lot of people have extra time on their hands…
I am not sure if people had too much time on their hands. The time to commute was perhaps saved. For example, the order generation and credit approval processes were handled remotely. My understanding is that there was no reduction in the workload. However, we had to invest time to retrain staff on their new roles and in most cases used online training to get them up to speed.
What is your advice to potential job seekers?
Potential job seekers must be open up to the idea that their careers will be very different from the ones that their parents had as automation, machine learning and AI become pervasive. The skills that would be most in demand would be the ability to show empathy (EQ) and to learn (LQ- Learnability Quotient).
In addition to these two soft skills, confidence, ability to persuade, to think creatively and analytics would be sought after. Start working on these particular skills.
Look back at your life. Do you have regrets of what you did or did not (career and education wise) when you were 18 or 25? What are they? What would you do differently?
Reflecting back on my life, I am not too sure if I would have done anything differently. However, here are a few things that I might have done to enrich my work life.
I would have learned some of the soft skills as early as possible in my career. I think being multi-skilled is also bankable. It is also important to strike a good work-life balance. Developing at least two hobbies, or investing time on projects that you are passionate about will help you hone your skills such as creativity, agility, and leadership among others.
What advice do you give to job seekers today who want to find success?
My experience with young job seekers is that they are not prepared for the corporate world despite spending time on gaining technical skills. Very often a good degree will get you a seat at the table. However, if you don’t excel in some key soft skills such as curiosity, the desire to learn, the willingness to take on responsibility, interpersonal or people skills and commitment, likely you will not be able to outshine others.
What advice do you give to a person who gets their first job about success?
One trait valued by employees is “visibility”. Let me explain.
Are you the first one to come for a meeting, have you prepared in advance, and do you ask thoughtful questions? Your managers would be quick to notice when you are visible, articulate confident and willing to contribute.
Can you recommend some good books, blogs, websites that you feel would be useful to our viewers?
I would recommend two books as essential reading.
The first is “The First time Manager” by Jim McCormick. The second would be “On Managing Oneself” by Peter Drucker. These two books should provide you a good grounding into understanding what employers expect from first-level managers.
Cousera offers free courses for those who wish to use online tools. They offer degree courses as well at very affordable rates. Do check them out.
What do you read on a daily, weekly basis?
Make reading the local newspapers a daily habit. The Daily FT published by the Wijaya Newspaper group provides good local insights. LMD is another affordable business magazine.
There are many online resources such as the Fortune, Harvard Business Review and the Economist that offer limited access free of charge. Both Harvard and Stanford have many YouTube videos on leadership that are very useful.
You should aim to read at least 10 to 12 business books a year. There are of course voracious readers who claim to read a book a week. You will need to set your own pace. But do find time to read!
How do you work on personal development (physical, mental, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, technical)?
I rely on peer feedback, and introspection (self) mostly.
An executive coach, and a mentor are other sources of support I have. It is important to develop the ability to accept feedback with humility.
When you set development goals make sure that you are comfortable that you can achieve these goals over a defined time period. Have your mentor support you and give you regular feedback.
What do you think about the COVID-19 related lockdowns?
The economic impact of the COVID -19 pandemic is already being felt. Many businesses that are not healthy will fold up.
Those businesses that will tide over the downturn are businesses that can boast healthy cash flows, that have built resilient supply chains and have an efficient route to market.
What is your advice to small businesses and entrepreneurs?
You must have a unique business model that is difficult to be replicate. You must be customer-centric and focused on a core competency.
These are three pillars on which successful businesses are built. Two businesses that come to mind are Sidhalepa, and Link Naturals Products, the company that markets Samahan.