Business

It behoves me to write this!

By Chrishan de Mel

What in the world does “behove” mean? That was my question as well when I heard it for the first time at Virtusa, possibly in 2002. As a definition, it refers to “a duty or responsibility for someone to do something”. It was spoken by CEO Kris Canekeratne to describe our attitude towards customers and the urgency to act.

When I saw the recent headline “Virtusa Founder and CEO Kris Canekeratne to exit after 25-year run”, it brought back many memories of a leader – a true trailblazer who has done more to grow and shape the IT industry in Sri Lanka than we would possibly realise. While Sri Lanka has been awarded the “Delivery Destination of the Year” in 2013, 2014, and 2019 by the Global Sourcing Association (GSA), the foundations to receive these accolades were built by industry leaders like Kris.

When I joined Virtusa in 2000, I had around 10 years of experience working in the local IT industry, mainly in the banking and financial services domain. I had no clue of what the global IT services industry was like. Suddenly, I had to ramp up, manage resource utilisation, ensure delivery excellence, maintain client delight, prevent revenue leakage, and practise process compliance. For anyone who has worked at a global IT services firm, all these terms are familiar, friends!

I would like to share some reflections on my interactions with Kris during my eventful, productive stay of 11 years at Virtusa. These lessons are applicable to any leader, whether you are in the tech space or outside.

Communicate the ‘why’

Quarter after quarter, Kris consistently communicated the company’s plans, progress, and priorities at a global all-hands meeting. This was a channel used to align staff, celebrate achievements, and answer the tough questions. The purpose of why the company existed was stated, repeated, and reinforced.

I remember an early phrase “to fundamentally change the way software is built” used to describe the purpose of the company, along with the differentiators, which enabled Virtusa to compete against much larger competitors like Capgemini, Accenture, and TCS. As a leader, communicate why you exist to give your employees a higher sense of purpose and bring out their best.

The power of a good story

Kris was a master storyteller. When Virtusa secured a new client, there was tremendous pride in the specifics leading up to each win, and Kris made the entire company join in and relish the experience. Once, it was about the challenge to make it on time for a meeting with a C-level decision-maker in London – a crucial meeting to seal the deal. The aircraft was not cleared to land and was circling Heathrow for 45 minutes. Kris let each of us relive that experience and his choices as the minutes ticked away. Maybe 20 years later, I can recollect the details of this story as if it were shared yesterday.

Drawing from his passion for F1, Kris used an illustration involving Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen to carve out his position on leadership and teamwork. This story was repeated at company events to align new employees towards his preferred leadership style, and the emphasis on teams and collaboration.

Maniacal focus on execution

“Maniacal” was another new word. While the word “maniac” was not new, our charge was to have a “maniacal focus on execution”. Edison said “vision without execution is just hallucination”, and driving a growth trajectory towards billion dollars year after year takes more than just a great vision. The focus on execution extended to all parts of the business, from delighting clients in every engagement through to internal process improvement.

Perseverance is the twin sister of execution. The ability to keep the vision and stay the course, despite the challenges of the day or season. Whether it was listing the company on NASDAQ in 2007, subsequent mergers and acquisitions or even during the pandemic, Kris has demonstrated the tenacity to deal with turbulent change.

Win trust through transparency

Kris won trust through transparency. Quarter after quarter, all employees were exposed to the company’s revenue, operating profit margin, gross profit margin, client delight scores, and new customer wins, as well as opportunities and challenges ahead. This created alignment within the organisation and the buy-in necessary when it came to making some tough choices. As a leader, make a choice to provide this visibility and, in some cases, even over-communicate to win trust of your employees.

Inspiration is contagious

While it is true that actions matter more than words, your words matter as well, especially as a leader. What you say, how you say it, and when you choose to say it also has implications. Kris communicated with a passion and intensity that left a lasting impression. He crisply articulated his message with phrases that inspired employees, often with a story as well. New client wins were described where Virtusa “snatched victory from the jaws of defeat”, emphasising striving and winning against the biggest and best outsourcing providers. Drawing from “Good to Great”, he challenged us as leaders to “look out of the window when things go well and to look into the mirror when they don’t”. Kris communicated these messages in very visual and inspiring ways.

Ask the right questions

To quote Benoit Mandelbrot, “asking the right questions is as important as answering them”. During the early years, I remember how Kris could home in on the root cause of a project issue in the space of a few questions. Whether it was to isolate an area to resolve the issue or encourage a team to try a different approach, Kris was able to connect the technical and business implications. This encouraged everyone to do their homework, to thoroughly investigate a problem, and to identify potential solutions instead of just raising issues.

Conclusion

The examples above are just snippets based on my personal recollections of a much larger story. These are neither the most important attributes of Kris as a leader nor the most comprehensive account of it. However, these thoughts are my tribute to an industry icon who has shaped Sri Lanka’s IT industry by building a billion-dollar IT company…and that behoves me to write this.

 

(The writer is the Chief Marketing and Corporate Affairs Officer at 99x and spearheads marketing activities while supporting business development and customer success initiatives. He is an accomplished practitioner with over 25 years of experience in the tech industry, with complementary roles in programme management and corporate consulting. Before joining 99x, he was the Executive Director of SLASSCOM. His industry experience includes banking and financial services and global IT services with Virtusa, Societe Generale [SOCGEN], Nations Trust Bank, and Union Bank of Colombo)