Partner, Global Chief Compliance Officer and Board Director at SBIA – Kalika Jayasekera


Determined and self-confident, Kalika Jayasekera isn’t afraid to take a seat at the table and we want to know how she does it.

Determined and self-confident, Kalika Jayasekera isn’t afraid to take a seat at the table. Just a year into her role as Global Chief Compliance Officer at SoftBank Investment Advisers (SBIA), she went to the CEO and said : “You know, I think I should be on the board.” A bold move – and it worked. Kalika Jayasekera has a presence that immediately fills the room.

After studying Law back home in Melbourne, and then obtaining her Master’s at London’s prestigious LSE, Kalika pursued a career in compliance, working for some of the biggest names in the banking industry. Unphased by the historical male dominance of the sector, she worked her way to a c-suite position, where she intends to set an example – not only in how to ask for what you want, but also in how to look after yourself along the way. We couldn’t wait to hear her secrets to success.

Kalika, you were a MD at Blackstone and later became Partner, Global Chief Compliance Officer and Board Director at SoftBank Investment Advisers. You asked for the board seat one year into the job, which most people will consider as pretty bold. What made you dare to ask?

As the Head of Compliance for SBIA globally, I take on the responsibility irrespectively and am involved in all important decisions. So, to me, it just made sense that I became a board member, and so that’s what I asked for. I remember saying to my boss that I feel like I have a lot of the liability so I should have some of the responsibility, too.
Luckily, the CEO and senior management team embraced me joining and I feel like I can be myself at SoftBank. It’s extraordinary to be in a place where you are constantly intellectually and professionally challenged, but you do not have to conform to a particular style to be heard. When your surroundings encourage individuality, you dare more.

To me, it just made sense that I became a board member, and so that’s what I asked for.

What is your secret to being so open and speaking up in situations where others might feel uncomfortable to do so?

I am ok with being wrong, and I can admit when I am wrong. To me, that is a strength. If ego gets in the way, it can affect the decision making in a negative way. I have strong opinions because of the experience I have, of course, but I think it’s really important to acknowledge that you can’t know every little nuance and if someone has a great idea, it’s ok to change what you’re doing. When you are open to input from your team, you get the best results. I always ask for other people’s opinions, because some people don’t always feel confident to speak up, and I make sure that we have good relationships and a really collaborative dynamic as a team.

 

I’m ok with being wrong, and I can admit when I am. To me, that is a strength. If ego gets in the way, it can affect the decision making in a negative way.

As one of the first/only women in your position how did you do that?

It’s taken a lot of trial and error. It might look easy now, but I’ve put in the hard yards. Working through the financial crisis gave me such a strong foundation in how to deal with difficult situations and adapt. What’s more, the environment is supportive of who I am, which is so important in being able to speak up. I’ve definitely had dynamics in my workplace where my direct approach has been misinterpreted, so I’ve tried to learn from the mistakes and share them with my team, as nobody tells you these things early in your career. They will learn faster that way and that can only be a good thing.

What would you say is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt so far professionally?

First, the truth of people is not what their CV says. When you interact with someone you need to understand who they are, why they think the way they do and what has led them to think that way. If you understand that, you can achieve more together, because you are not just coming from a place where you see your way as the only way but are open minded to finding solutions together.
Second, to become more senior in your role, particularly in the industry I work in, you have got to move into strategy eventually and leave the execution to others. That is the inflection point in your career. Moving from being part of the execution to having to stand back and be entirely strategic – thinking about the ‘why’ and not just the ‘what’ – was something I had to get used to. I’ve had executive coaching throughout my career to help manage these shifts but it’s still a process.

You mentioned in one of our conversations that you need an extraordinary team to succeed. How do you build such a team, what is the most crucial part?

Yes, I couldn’t do my job without an extraordinarily strong team which is what I’ve got. And that’s taken some time to reorganise, get people into the right roles and inspire them. When you all work well together, everyone grows, and everyone benefits.

That is your priority when you’re managing people – even over the technical substance of what you do. If you don’t manage people properly, then you actually undermine your own path. And if you’re responsible for helping someone to advance in their own career, you’ve got to take that really seriously.

When people can manage others well , execute what they need to and think strategically, it’s a sign of well-rounded leadership.

Do you think your naturally direct approach is helpful in a male dominated environment? And also, did your environment accelerate that behaviour?

Yes, indeed. You need to be very strong when you are in the minority in any situation. While the gender balance is getting better overall, it’s still very male dominated in the senior positions – particularly in the industry I work in.

The women you often find in these senior positions are strong personalities with strong opinions and they’re like that for a reason. What you find as you progress is that it’s harder for a lot of men, subconsciously, to accept a strong female voice versus a strong male voice. They tend to have a subconscious perception of what a woman should be like, and so many women at my level get feedback that they are too aggressive and need to tone it down. I think it’s always well-intended but if a man were to behave in the same way, it would be seen as a strength.

The problem is the perception here – the perception of how women should be. But it’s really hard to change that and, even with a company’s best efforts, it’s a challenge to make sure women’s voices are being heard in the decision making of firms. So yes, that has influenced my direct approach.

How do you think women’s voices could be heard better in these instances?

Well, for example, I attended an event  where men were talking about allyship and there was a discussion about who sits at the table. You know Sheryl Sandberg’s concept about ‘taking a seat at the table’ that she describes in her book ‘Lean In’? I’ve always taken a seat at the table and I advocate this hugely, but I also pointed out that the business decisions aren’t always made at the table.
Business decisions are often made in the informal conversations that men have. Yes, you have formal decision making, committees and boards etc, but how do you influence the discussions where somebody has a new business idea and they pick up the phone and ask for a colleague’s opinion? It’s largely people picking up the phone to someone they are used to working with or bumping into someone in the corridor. We need to make sure women are part of these conversations.

What do you think stops women from being included in discussions?

Well, something I’ve found really interesting in the discussions this year since International Women’s day is that since the Me Too movement, many men are actually scared to spend time being with, and mentoring women professionally because of the perception that it might be inappropriate. There’s a real concern about whether women are going to miss out on being included in discussions or being mentored. It was really eye-opening listening to that and listening to men’s concerns about it. It’s something really valid that we need to think about.

Definitely. Although I think during the pandemic this has obviously been less of an issue...

Yes, but then it goes back to the previous question about how we get women involved in the casual conversations – that is more important than ever.
But awareness is the first step to changing things, and as a senior female in my workplace, it really matters to me that I can help. I try to raise things in conversations that I believe in myself but that also represent views of the broader population that may not feel like they can speak up. I think I have a role to speak up for women but I’m not on a gender crusade (laughs). You don’t want to just be bringing things up for the sake of it, but if I feel there’s a need to, I will.

How many women are on the board?

In our part of the organisation, it’s just me. There is one female who is a managing partner at this stage. The company is very aware of that and we actively look for women to come into these roles, but we need to do better.

 

Let’s talk about your private life for a bit. You mentioned that you go on retreats – is that something you build into your lifestyle to unwind?

In the last 4-5 years it is something I’ve prioritised. Looking after your health and your mindset is so important if you work at a fast pace. The way for me to balance things is to take some proper time out. I’ve found some great places where you can switch off from technology, read books, meditate, do Yoga and eat really good food. I try to go by myself, too, as to me that’s essential to switching off. Also, it’s really important to be comfortable with being on your own, and comfortable in your own skin.
Looking after yourself sets you up to work better, so I try to set an example of doing that.

The other big thing is adventure. I used to be a lot more adventurous in my twenties, but I got quite set on my career. That’s not a bad thing but I wanted to get some of that adventurous spirit back. And so, something I’m really proud of, is that before I was 40, I decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. I’d never hiked, I didn’t even own hiking boots. But a friend said she’d do it with me and so we trained, and we did it. Physically and mentally, it felt amazing.

It was also a reminder to myself that I’m not just defined by my career, I have an adventurous spirit too. Also, as we live in a very privileged bubble in London, it’s good to remind yourself of the way other people live and what’s going on in the world. You can get sucked into your career, so you have to build travel or breaks in to maintain balance.

Looking after your health and your mindset is so important if you work at a fast pace. I try to set an example of doing that.

What does authenticity mean to you?

It’s about being yourself, speaking your own voice and not modifying it for others. Even if it’s not easy, being ok with who you are is so important.

It is also about who you surround yourself with. In my work and in my friendships, I haven’t kept relationships with people that aren’t good for my life. I want to surround myself with people that I love being around and that are kind, interesting and doing their own thing. Having true friends, maybe less of them, but real true friends, makes a better quality of life.

Finally, it’s also about following your path, being open to the world and knowing what’s right for you. In doing that, you’ll be accepted by the people that are worth being accepted by.

What do you think makes you a real Hedoine?

I am a woman who thrives on her independence whilst also appreciating the energy and strength she gets from family, friends and colleagues.

You can keep up with Kalika Jayasekera on LinkedIn here. While you’re here, share this article with someone who you think it might inspire or sign up to our newsletter to be the first to know when the next Real Hedoine lands on the blog.

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