Grooming female corporate leaders | Daily News


Grooming female corporate leaders

Getting women on board

Profile: Aroshi Nananyakkara holds the positions including independent Non-Executive Director, Sampath Bank PLC, an Independent Non-Executive Director, Hela Clothing (Pvt) Ltd, Vice Chairman and Board Director, Sri Lanka Institute of Directors, Vice President, Rotary Club of Colombo and Educational Counsellor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA. She is also lined up to be the President of SLID in four years.

The Women Directors/Forum (WDF) of the Sri Lanka Institute of Directors (SLID) will roll out an ambitious plan to groom future women directors of public and private, listed and unlisted companies next week.

The WDF programme will coincide with the International Women’s Month, ensuring it gets the mileage it deserves and a clear message could be sent out to aspiring women as the focus on women during the time is much greater, the chairperson of the WDF, Aroshi Nanayakkara told the Daily News Business in an interview.

The WDF along with the SLID have been working on many projects to groom future directors over the last few years, aimed at encouraging more women representation on corporate boards. However this would be the first major program focused only on women, after a progressive quota system was recommended for PLCs to appoint women on their boards.

Aroshi Nanayakkara, who is a director on the board of Sampath Bank, has also worked with the policy makers in the past and was one of the key members of the Sri Lanka Institute of Directors to get a budget proposal done on making it mandatory for companies to allocate a quota for women directors. Female chief executive officers still remain scarce at the biggest publicly traded companies.

Quota system

The budget 2019 said, “The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) will introduce a voluntary target of 30% of women in director boards of companies listed on the Colombo Stock Exchange (CSE). All listed companies shall disclose the percentage of women on their boards in their Annual Report. By December 31st 2020 all listed companies that are unable to meet the 30% voluntary target will be required to disclose reasons for being unable to do so. By December 31, 2022 all listed companies shall have at least 20% of board seats occupied by women. By December 31, 2024 all listed companies shall have at least 30% of board seats occupied by women.”

Nanayakkara said, “We lobbied to get the quota system. The quota system was introduced, because if there’s no quota, there won’t be any progress at all. That initial impact and awareness is essential.”

“The countries which have made progress so far in bridging the gender gap on corporate boards such as the Scandinavian countries had a quota system. So we needed to start somewhere and the quota system was seen as an initiative to get it going and once the women are on board and they are included in board discussions, it becomes easier for more women to join. You don’t need to force it on anybody.”

Progressive quota

What Sri Lanka has proposed is a progressive quota. It’s quite a unique thing. “We haven’t seen it much in other countries. There’s also been an argument among women - ‘why we need a quota when we should be given the opportunity on merit’. But what about independent directors, we don’t fuss that there is a quota for independent directors and would happily accept the position. So I believe, women should not find excuses to exclude themselves. Rather they should take it positively and find avenues for inclusion rather than exclusion,” Nanayakkara said.

The WDF’s women director training program will focus on areas where women executives have not given priority to, such as career vision, networking abilities, influencing and getting your voice heard. Experienced and well-known chairmen and CEOs of the PLCs have agreed to back the program by way of mentoring and sharing their experiences. They will devote their precious time so aspiring female corporate leaders will gain exposure to successful company bosses, like a chairman.


“We’re also looking at a champion within the organization. For instance, we would ask a leading PLC to send five members of their top management team who are board-ready and who now can be encouraged to take a board position. And we will then, through the board Leadership Programme and women directors training programme, groom them to be appointed to board member posts. We will also ask these companies to name a champion who will champion the progress of this one woman within their organization which will again be beneficial to women. I believe whether it’s a politician or a board member you’ve always got somebody who’s championing you, and that’s an important aspect in this program. So, we are coupling all those elements - mentoring, sponsorship, training and exposure to the board environment - during the program,” she said.


“That is how we’re trying to build the pipeline for women. That’s our effort. All of us are doing this completely free of charge, in our own time; but it’s something that we need to give back. It’s going to be a trailblazer, so that it will be so much easier for women later on to come onto boards.”

In many cases, most women prioritize their husbands’ and children’s vision and they tend to look after everybody else and not themselves. “Women invest a lot in their education and spend a quite a lot of time in their job. But they should also start looking at themselves.

As a professional woman if you don’t have an aspiration, you need to find out that aspiration first. You should not work only for a pay check - you need an aspiration for your career growth. “That’s the goal we should work towards.”

Nanayakkara said women executives also should get their mindset sorted out to say, “we deserve a position, we are paving the way.” It makes business sense for companies to have the women’s perspective on the board.

There are no hard and fast statistics but easily, about 80% of household purchasing decisions in the world are driven by women; whether it’s apparel; whether it’s food; whether it’s kids; whether it’s household needs - all the key and common decisions are taken by women. And if you are missing that point at the board level, how can a company or a country benefit?

Talking about the attributes the board members should develop, Nanayakkara said that in terms of management, company leaders used to talk about leadership roles. “We no longer talk of leadership. We talk of situational leadership given the business environments which are volatile, uncertain and complex.”

Analytical mindset

What is important for a leader is to have an analytical mindset. “There is no point in having leaders who are going to sit down and take their time to make decisions on crucial issues. You need people who are on their feet; thinking on their feet and taking decisions with courage,” she said. Why would you not take a decision? “You don’t take a decision, either because you are not ready to take a stand or because you do not have the information. In today’s context information is freely available. So, having the courage to take that decision is sometimes what matters. That’s what you might lack.

So whether it’s a man or a woman, I think the traits that you need include a scientific background or a mathematical background. At the end, you are weighing pros and cons and thinking; what are the consequences if I do this, what are the consequences if I do that? So people with the scientific background, with the mathematical background have an advantage, and that is why you find, whether it is male or female, a lot of the people on the board are finance people. Then they are used to having that conversation. What happens if? Are we still in the process? People from other disciplines may not have the same rigour.

And at board level, you need that rigour. So that rigorous decision making is very important. Irrespective of your background, if you’re coming on to the board, you need to have a flair for finance. At least you need to do a finance course so you feel comfortable, and feel you can contribute successfully.

Hence, the worldwide acceptance is that the finance people would have a better opportunity to become board members.


Nanayakkara said, there are plenty of good women who can be trained to take future board roles. “There’s still a kind of communication gap between the companies and the Institute of Directors because they are not identifying suitable women. In our country, everything happens through connections.

But things will change in the future and we should be able to introduce well groomed female directors for the corporate sector with our programme.”

Flexi work

Referring to future work and flexi hours in the corporate sector which may support more women to stay in the labour force, Nanayakkara said, flexi hours will not work for every person and every job category. There’s research done about flexi hours and working from home in the US and they found out that is not for everyone. There is a certain type of personality among people who can do it - who have the discipline to sit down and do that work from anywhere. On the other hand there are other jobs where a person’s presence is crucial such as front end jobs.

So what about other facilities? “In general women in the corporate sector have more facilities now, such as taking care of their children - especially the companies which employ a lot of women already provide many benefits.

But then some of the other issues women are facing, such as lack of proper transport systems and security on roads, remain unresolved. The government needs to focus on those issues and create the environment for women to feel safe.”

Women’s contribution

Nanayakkara believes a lot of companies have realized the benefits in bringing women on board. But who to pick is still a problem, though. “We need a nomination system. In Sri Lanka, we jump on the bandwagon very quickly, whether it’s mobile phones or cars. That is because we are as a people, very intelligent.”

“So, we see a lot of companies actually thinking this is a good thing; we must get the women on boards and a lot of companies in the last year have actually put focus on this issue.

Research shows that there is some correlation between higher company profitability and having women on the boards of companies. It’s a definite correlation in terms of ethical practices and CSR and thinking of community. So you actually take your discussions to a broader level and taking more informed decisions as a board, if you have that diversity, and gender is only one aspect of it. I think that’s really the key. As a first step, it is that diversity that really matters,” she added. 

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