AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Early this February, I had the opportunity to interview Kevin Wijayawickrama, Managing Principal at Deloitte who leads their work focused on the U.S. healthcare industry. Our conversation was about effective leadership. The prospect of a global pandemic impacting the U.S. was not top of mind.
Two weeks after our conversation, the CDC confirmed the first case of locally transmitted COVID-19 in the U.S. As of this writing, over 953,000 cases and nearly 54,000 deaths from the virus have been confirmed in the U.S.
Much has changed in such little time. But Wijayawickrama’s perspective on leadership was prescient. Then again, he isn’t new to struggle and uncertainty. Raised by his grandparents in Sri Lanka in a poor community he was never “sure what was going to happen tomorrow.” At sixteen, he came to the U.S. determined to create a better future. A brave move, yet he still recalls the many nights he ran the water in the bathroom to so no one could hear him crying.
Below are excerpts from the February conversation with Wijayawickrama. His outlook on leadership is as relevant now—if not more—than it was before the crisis deeply impacted us all.
Chaka Booker: What perspective did you gain from your early life that drives you today?
Kevin Wijayawickrama: Anything is possible…but you have to do good for people. You must be committed to human beings around you. You have to care. That was a big part of my success because I was very empathetic. I still always think about the other person standing across from me, considering what it means for them in the moment. Empathy and being consistent. Those were early lessons.
Booker: You’ve been talking about mindfulness at work for many years. Why is that increasingly important?
Wijayawickrama: Technology is isolating humans. So, the biggest opportunity for us to have a positive impact on society is to focus on creating experiences with another human being. To do that, you do have to slow down. Stop to make good eye contact. Be present with another human being. For example, I don’t wear a watch. It’s purposeful because I want to show I don’t always have an eye on the clock. I want people to know I care about them in the deepest way. I spend time in meetings to get to know them. I try to propose a change in venue, you know, let’s go for a walk around the building. It’s small things that shift you into the present.
Booker: Outside of mindfulness, what else helps promote wellbeing?
Wijayawickrama: Organizations have to help life not interfere with work. Life must be taken care of. Corporate benefits are very important. Whether it’s childcare or a hotline to a psychologist, those kinds of programs are critical. Because when life comes rushing in, that makes it hard to be present at work. Physical exercise and activity are very important. It brings the energy out. You also need an environment that creates trust. You can have all these programs, but if the organization is not trust-based, nothing works because people aren’t going to open up. Trust is an overlooked element of creating an environment of mindfulness. A key to building trust is inclusion. As part of Next Gen (Deloitte’s leadership development program), we have a mandatory program focused on inclusion for all our partners. It emphasizes the importance of not just diversity, but also points of view, geographic location, whether you’re physically in office or not, etc. Demonstrating that all perspectives matter encourages a trust-based culture.
Booker: Why does your work with NextGen focus on strength-based leadership rather than developing areas of weakness?
Wijayawickrama: I don’t have skills in accounting and finance. Early in my career, that made me anxious until my mentors helped me understand the notion of business chemistry. That’s a better way to think about it than just focusing on strengths. I can’t do it all by myself. An organization consists of partnerships. You don’t have to be good at everything. Focus on what you’re good at, contribute and collaborate with others who complete the gaps. This sense of partnership, again, requires trust within your organization.
Booker: What did you learn from your experience working with The Army War College?
Wijayawickrama: The experience reminded me that the fundamentals of leadership never change: fellowship, being a good steward, developing a team and focusing on them, leading from behind and embracing the concept of being a true servant-leader, understanding potential competitors, and helping your team compete. It boils down to being a consistent leader of a team, supporting strong relationships between team members, and the importance of buying into a common purpose and strategy.
(Given the evolving crisis, I recently followed up with Wijayawickrama for a few additional thoughts which are captured below.)
Booker: Given the current crisis, what should leaders be doing to support their teams and colleagues?
Wijayawickrama: We are in the midst of a fast-changing work environment, and we will face a new normal. First, now is the time to take into consideration the broader personal relationships among your team members. Think beyond each team member and consider their family and friends, and how they may have been affected by the pandemic. Investing in a deeper understanding of your team is more crucial than ever. Second, recognize the importance of well-being in daily schedules and be respectful of how and where the lines between work and life become blurred. Third, video technology should be leveraged to maximize the ability to spotlight many team members. Inclusion builds trust. Conference call agendas should include a purposeful distribution of team members with speaking roles. This should be a formal process to ensure everybody gets a relevant share of the conversation and agenda. Finally, in daily messaging and communication be very purposeful about incorporating acts of gratitude. That will be important.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Chaka Booker is a leadership development expert and author of Mastering the Hire: 12 Strategies to Improve Your Odds of Finding the Best Hire.