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Nov 2010

Case study: Lakmali Nanayakkara: Ernst and Young

Lakmali was the first woman in Sri Lanka to hold the position of partner in one of the international accountancy firms.

Lakmali Nanayakkara, partner and head of tax

She has served in many corporate boards of listed and unlisted companies in a non executive capacity and held leading roles in professional institutions, including being the first elected female council member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka. She talks about how she has achieved her unique success.

Balancing, planning and sacrifice

I qualified as a management and chartered accountant in my mid-20s and had a brief break overseas in [the] USA. My early career period was a very stimulating as well as challenging time when I had increasing work and family commitments and other growing interests. So the challenge was balancing it all.  

I learnt early the benefits of planning and time management in all areas of life which was important to me and became adept at multi tasking – I also got support and confidence from family members whom, without exception, always respected the path I chose even when the challenges were high.  

Despite all the will, and support, you need to have a plan A, B and C when you’re a woman. I don’t think that men in general need that level of planning or support. When you have dependants who you care about uncompromisingly – usually close family or children – and take such commitments seriously, you must always have a backup. That level of planning enables women to be fulfilled on all fronts, including the workplace, which I think is fundamental to her well-being and performance.

Women need to both understand and believe in what it takes to play these multiple roles, and most importantly feel that it’s all worthwhile. That feeling of worthiness enables you, more than anything else, to meet the challenges. 

‘You need a plan A, B and C
when you’re a woman’

Lots of women in their mid-career face conflict in discharging their varying responsibilities. They have children and family dependants at the very same time the career demands are at peak and the balancing act may become stressful. As a result they may neglect at least one important person – i.e. themselves! – which inevitably leads to abandoning some part of a purposeful life. 

We do not have the infrastructure in place in Sri Lanka where women can work and have other responsibilities simultaneously and not feel guilty about neglecting some job or someone. In many instances the consequences are not mere guilt but a sad exodus of women from the community of productive and self actualised citizens. 

Having a demanding career entails sacrifice. Not having a career also involves sacrifice. You can’t have it all. It’s important to know that – so you must prioritise and select what’s important and right for you. It’s important to know what to say ‘no’ to, rather than what to say ‘yes’ to. Women especially have this problem – sometimes they feel guilty when they say ‘no’ – and most women fear to move from safe harbours although deep inside they are not happy just being in a comfort zone. 

Finding new challenges

Later in my career, I frequently ask myself what my role is or should be and whether I could do something differently or better. I didn’t move around a lot – I have technically worked only for one institution, although in many different roles over the years, which I have no regrets about – but every two to three years, I have needed to move to a new platform.  

I have so far managed this with the help and influence of a lot of other people, for example my family, friends, colleagues and mentors. I have a tendency of not being complacent and to some extent being restless with the status quo. 

For personal growth I also read a lot of books that deal with the development of the human spirit and continue to stay inspired by the writings and experiences of great human beings whom have blessed our world. I am a strong believer that everything that happens to a person is meant to be a positive life experience and that life itself can be fulfilling only when you live it in your own skin. 

‘Women lead differently and men perceive this
negatively; that’s where the glass ceiling is’ 

A mentor helps you find answers

I have been privileged to have had good role models both at work and outside work. Strange as it may sound, I have experienced that the role models outside work can heavily influence my work ethic and vice versa.  

Good mentors or role models don’t tell you what to do. You learn by watching them and talking to them. Good mentoring is when the person leaves you to decide on your own. They enable you to find your own answer. You are free to agree or disagree with a good mentor and both parties are richer by the experience.  

It is not easy to find good female mentors or role models; you need to handpick them. In my case I have also used as role models people whom I have not met but only read about in depth, and those readings have had a powerful influence on my value system. 

Female networks

Women have a natural ability for networking but they network differently from men – they are more cautious but also more direct, open and genuine and more intuitive of undercurrents.  

Women are more selective about who to network with. This means the network takes longer to form but they are strong and less fickle – the women-to-women relationships is a bond that can strengthen in a challenging situation. Therefore when these networks work they can be very powerful and effective. 

The role of women 

It is sometimes difficult for women who are strong willed and principled to adapt to the established corporate sector since such women find it difficult to shrug off or be passive players in the game-playing that is an inevitable part of the establishment. That’s why many successful corporate women have started their own businesses or have left lucrative careers to follow very different dreams.  

I think women lead differently from men and the latter generally perceive such differences negatively, since it does not conform with the established norm and may seem to them too passive, too confrontational or politically incorrect. Some may see these differences as weaknesses and an inability to do certain things. That’s where the glass ceiling really is.  

There should be more women – women from all walks of life – leading institutions big and small, more women on corporate boards, in parliament and in public office. Neither of these roles needs to undermine her traditional roles as mother, wife, daughter or sister – instead they should enhance such roles.

However, every woman who gets there must earn her respective seat, for example by acquiring a competence or a specialist expertise, and be a dedicated player. Once a board meeting starts people should forget what gender the directors are.  

‘Once a board meeting starts people should
forget what gender the directors are’ 

In the final analysis I have complete faith in the inherent abilities of women not just to meet or beat the competencies of the opposite gender, since that is surely not the purpose of our life. All women, in whatever role they chose to play in life, should be leaders of families, communities, countries and the human race.