The Ingredients of Leadership – Imara de Chickera

Imara De Chickera – The Director of Communications at The Kingsbury.

“Leadership is an action, not a position”. Donald McGannon and Imara de Chickera never met, but his simple statement sums up her journey towards becoming one of the female legends of the Marketing industry in the modern era, not that she would ever describe herself as such. “To me a true leader shows humility, kindness, empathy, and integrity while being strong and firm with the ability to inspire and influence a shared vision among his/her team members.” The Director of Communications at The Kingsbury was recognized for her leading and contributory role in the Marketing industry as a Sri Lankan Woman Leader at the World Women Leadership Congress & Awards and was recently the recipient of a ‘Global Pioneering Woman Leader’ award.

Surprisingly, marketing was not Imara’s first career choice as she explains, “Well, I never really chose marketing; rather I accidentally stumbled upon it, only to realize that this is the field that allows me to feel an incredible sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. I am blessed to be able to utilize the skills that God has given me to the fullest. I joined a small advertising agency a year after my bachelor’s degree in arts, as a temporary stop gap and this is what shifted my path unexpectedly towards marketing. Until that time, I was drifting rather aimlessly, with a stint in customer service, not knowing where to fit in. My love for words, creativity and understanding of psychology, combined to help me grow in this extremely invigorating and exhilarating field. It’s funny how sometimes the seemingly most insignificant steps you take, lead you to life altering paths, and I’m glad that this opportunity was given to me.”

Narrating her career journey and some of the challenges she has overcome along the way, Imara explained, “My career has been a very colorful one. I have worked in the Banking, Apparel, Advertising, Insurance, FMCG, and Hospitality industries. I started working at 18, just a week after my Advanced Level examinations, and have been working ever since. Like I said, initially I worked in customer service, but then ended up building a career in the field of marketing. I have been blessed to establish and drive much-loved global and local brands. I was also extremely fortunate to have had some extraordinary leaders who took it upon themselves to coach, inspire, mold and eventually empower me to become who I am today. I have had bosses, such as Deepal Sooriyaarachchi, the former MD of AIA Insurance, Amal Perera, the former Director of Marketing at AIA Insurance and Udayan Dutt, the former Regional Director of HR at Unilever Sri Lanka, who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, and I am so grateful for their steadfast faith in my potential. I owe it all to this solid foundation that was provided by these leaders, who truly embodied and lived the principles of leadership. I would say the biggest challenge that I faced in my career was balancing being a mother and working in an industry that required putting in late hours consistently. I worked throughout both of my pregnancies, till the very last day of delivery. I continued to work long hours, and that was a big challenge with a son and daughter to take care of. But I did manage this to some extent, and through sheer perseverance worked towards achieving the goals of my family and those of the establishments I worked for.”

Voicing her opinion on what it takes to be a female leader in a competitive industry, Imara stated, “I think the criterion is the same for both men and women in this regard. It is comprehensive and in-depth knowledge, expertise, and adapting to and embracing change. Knowledge and experience are power, and the deciding factors on whether an individual is successful in marketing or not. It is not the gender that decides this. Therefore, to be a leader one has to know his or her area in-depth, and possess the skills and competencies that provide a competitive advantage, and maintain integrity at all times. Also, being strong yet sensitive is required, as in this role it is imperative to be able to work alongside very creative and flamboyant individuals, as well as many other establishments such as advertising agencies, production houses, event management teams, printing establishments, graphic designers and writers. You need to inspire and motivate these partners to deliver what you need. Marketing is a high-pressure field and often there is a large gamut of work required within a very tight deadline, handling all this while managing people’s emotions and keeping their morale high is key. Creativity comes from a very emotional side of one’s psyche, when critiquing this and trying to direct it, it’s important to value the creative mindset to arrive at the perfection and innovation that is expected.”

Addressing the topic of leadership, the Director stated that she believed a true leader was the one to say “Let’s go” rather than “Go”.  “It’s about making your team willing participants with you on the journey and inspiring them to passionately strive to achieve the collective objective. I believe in the old adage, ‘An iron fist in a velvet glove’. One has to be firm and fair, but also empathetic. Emotional intelligence is the key to good leadership and this is what allows long-term success and building a team that is loyal to the company. Leading through fear will only have short-term success. This means that employees will work because they fear losing their jobs and livelihoods or being reprimanded and humiliated. This will work for a short term, but the company will end up losing their best employees or those who stay will only work for a paycheck. But if you inspire passion, love and commitment in your teams, by making them understand the vision of the company and the importance of their role in achieving it, regardless of how small it may be, that’s when true performance takes place despite pressure and challenges.”

“This is true. Female bosses are stereotyped. Sadly, this is because of an element of truth. Women can be emotionally volatile. This can result in the typically unpleasant female boss. But I have been blessed to have had two female leaders in my career, Shazia Syed, the former Chairperson of Unilever and Christine Chevalas, the former GM at The Kingsbury, who have embodied the quintessential leader. Firm and fair, and able to push and inspire me to exceed their expectations and mine. I loved working for these women and they have left the most indelible mark on my leadership style and I have the highest regard and respect for them”, said Imara, expressing her viewpoint on female bosses being stereotyped and how she sees herself as a female leader.

When asked if she had ever faced a situation where she was not taken seriously on account of her gender, the veteran marketer replied, “I have been lucky to work for organizations that deeply value and celebrate the female employee. So, I have never ever experienced this in my career. Like I mentioned previously, it is your knowledge and expertise that will be judged and not your gender. Women are stronger than men in many ways. And I believe that subconsciously all men are aware of this universal truth. But if anyone is facing a skewed situation where men are valued over women, it is crucial to stand firm and strong, and continue to prove with consistency that your work is on par with or better than a man’s. I do believe that Sri Lanka is very much evolved in this regard, and most companies value gender equality and drive it fervently within their companies. We see more and more females in the boardroom and at the helm of companies. I am extremely appreciative of Hayleys for having given me multiple opportunities to grow and perform, and I am deeply grateful to our much-loved Chairman and Chief Executive, Mr. Mohan Pandithage, for how unbelievably encouraging he has always been. He has been extremely supportive of female leadership and has placed strong women leaders in many vital positions such as on the Board, and to head the Hayleys Group Companies. Our Co-Chairman and business tycoon, Mr. Dhammika Perera also staunchly supports female leadership with many women leaders being assigned to take on high-power roles in his business empire. I am delighted to work for The Kingsbury, which is a Hayleys Company under the astute and iconic leadership of Mr. Rohan Karr, the Managing Director of the Hayleys Leisure Sector, and have immeasurable pride in being part of the largest and most diversified conglomerate in Sri Lanka. I am tremendously grateful to our Chairman and Chief Executive, Mr. Pandithage and former MD, Mr. Lalin Samarawickrama for this beautiful opportunity to work for this magnificent hotel that I have grown to love so much, and being gifted with an amazing, creative and passionate team, who I consider my family.”

Speaking of the lessons female professionals can learn from her, Imara advised, “The biggest downfall of a leader, whether male or female, is thinking that they know everything. When one gets to a certain level, and acquires power and authority it is easy to think that your knowledge is far superior to those around you. But I believe this to be untrue. Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. As a leader one must be willing to listen and continuously learn from your teams. A leader who doesn’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who will have nothing to say. There is so much I glean from those who report to me and the partners who work for us. Having an open mind to the opinions and rich experiences of others and their varying viewpoints can be very helpful, and it also makes them feel valued, respected and heard. A respected employee is a happy employee who works with his or her heart. I believe that ego is the enemy of leadership. There is no room for ego when leading people. Humility and vulnerability as a leader can win you the long-term love of your teams. Ego is only self-serving. As a leader I believe that I am here to serve my company, and draw out the best in those who work with me and for me. As a leader it is your privilege and duty to develop and mold the teams, whose careers and development have been entrusted to you. You have been given a great responsibility and never forget to take it seriously, and act judiciously in all the decisions you make, as someone’s future can depend on it.”