Inside the Leader
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Inside the Leader

Understand the value of your team members’ work to achieve team and business growth — Devina S.

Photo credit: Devina Sivagurunathan, Design by Keller Design

I first met Devina Sivagurunathan in early 2018 when I worked as an independent UX Researcher and Content Strategist at MABECS to revamp their old website to a new one together with a designer and developer. As an independent consultant and writer for many years, I’ve worked with many clients who are kind (and then some), but very few are the type that you can hang out with regularly without an agenda. For me, Devina is one of them. From client to good friend, Devina has inspired me a lot in the way that she carries herself as a leader, client and a person. She is funny, bold, amicable, unpretentious, and always ready to learn from others.

This is her leadership journey and her thoughts.

Devina Sivagurunathan is the Executive Director of MABECS, Malaysia’s most experienced UK education agency. Devina has 20 years of student recruitment experience in Malaysia and the UK. She was an International Officer at The University of Warwick and SOAS, University of London. She had a short foray into the world of football when she spent a year as the International Marketing Manager at UCFB. She then spent two years as the Head of International Recruitment at the University of the Arts London before deciding it was time to move to warmer climes to helm MABECS in 2017 till today.

Hi Devina, thank you for being our first featured leader. Can you tell us about your first time being a manager?

Devina: The first time I became a leader in a work context was at a startup and I was very much thrown into the deep end from the beginning. It was a very difficult time for me because I hadn’t been a manager before and had to adapt really quickly because of the fast-paced environment.

What made your experience so difficult?

Devina: Honestly, up until that point, I’d always had great managers in all my previous jobs. I had good managers who were supportive, helped me out, and always allowed me to progress and worked on my strengths. And so when I went to this place, it was a complete shock to the system because the work environment was very toxic. There was this real culture of fear. The CEO would yell at people and had all these rules for how women should dress at work. My mind was actually really blown — I didn’t realise that places like this existed. It was kind of shocking to me. While this was going on, my manager was also very unpredictable. And I struggled to cope with that because, like I said, up until that point, I’ve had extremely supportive and predictable managers that you knew where you stood with them. But with her, you just never knew where you stood.

“So I had to completely change my plans. A lot of my relationships suffered during that period of time.” — Devina. Credit: Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash

It could be five o’clock and I was going to go home and then she’ll say, “Oh, I need this report.” I was like, “Oh, but I have tickets for the theatre.” She would say, “Oh my God, I don’t know, like I really need to meet these requirements.” So I had to completely change my plans. A lot of my relationships suffered during that period of time.

How has this tough experience been valuable to you?

Devina: It just taught me about the kind of manager that I didn’t want to be. It has forced me to be more consistent with my stuff, even when sometimes I feel like I want to completely change my mind for whatever reason, but then I remember what that feels like if you don’t know where you stand with your manager. That’s a very unpleasant place to be and it’s not productive, so you’d never produce good quality work if the thing that is the driver is fear. I always remind myself of that when I’m working.

What do you mean by being consistent and not ‘change my mind for whatever reason’? Why is this important to you?

Devina: I’m not saying that if we’ve agreed to do something that we definitely have to do it. I think we have to be flexible to understand that sometimes we do need to pivot from the original idea and do this other thing.

But what I mean about being inconsistent is when everything depends on your mood on the day, everything depends on how you’re feeling without taking into consideration what’s going on in other people’s lives, and you flip between opinions greatly — without explaining or giving your colleagues any basis for the decision-making process other than — I’m the boss, listen to me.

Why do you think a manager or leader is sometimes inconsistent or flips between opinions?

Devina: I think it’s often fear and uncertainty that drive the person.

Photo by Johnny Cohen on Unsplash

We always assume that someone who is in a position of responsibility should be there. But that’s not always the case, because some people are not cut out to be leaders and there’s nothing wrong with that. But they find themselves in a position of leadership. It is possible that the only leadership they have known is this kind of (inconsistent) leadership because no one has set them a good example or anything like that. I’ve caught myself doing it — whether it is imposter syndrome or not — where you just feel uncertain of your decisions. And all it takes is for one person to say, “Actually, I don’t think you should do it this way.” Then, because you’re unsure whether you’ve made the right decision, you agreed immediately to do it the other way. If you have a manager who is coming down on you hard, that could also be a driving factor for an inconsistent leader who is under pressure to meet their targets. I think it’s multifaceted and not just any one reason, usually.

What were other lessons you learnt as a first-time manager at the startup?

Devina: I learnt that one of the most important things as a manager is to protect your team. I didn’t always agree with the leadership of the startup and their expectations of my team so I would often intervene to ensure my team was protected. I learnt a lot about the type of manager I didn’t want to be as I observed the leadership of the startup put profits before people and I have vowed never to let that happen in any organisation that I lead. I’m proud to note that I am still in touch with the team that I led then, that they still come to me for career advice and have me as their referee for any jobs they apply for now!

What do you mean by intervening to protect your team?

Devina: There were lots of constant changes and moving targets, which were very demoralising. There were constant lies about remuneration and I would have to break the news to my team. Then there were lots of horrible criticisms about my team and it felt very pointed and unfair to them. I don’t mind criticism, if it’s constructive and helpful. In this case, it was not. It was just vile, so I just wouldn’t bother telling my team about such feedback. I will try to do it kindly and try to make sure that they will continue to be motivated. All of us left the company around the same time, and sometimes when we talk about this experience, we would say, “Wow, how did we live through that experience!”

How would you describe your leadership style now, after all these years?

Devina: In the early years of management, I definitely had a more democratic approach to leadership. I wanted to give everyone a voice and I still maintain that this is an important aspect of team management. However, as I matured as a leader, I have more confidence to make decisions without always gaining a consensus. I’ve realised that good leadership sometimes means making unpopular decisions in the best interests of the organisation.

What was the journey like, to reach a place where you have ‘more confidence to make decisions without always gaining a consensus’?

Devina: I think I had to overcome my desire for everybody to like me.

Was that hard?

Devina: Yes, for me, because I think that my personality is such that I want everybody to like me. But one of the key things about being a leader is that not everybody will like you. And that’s okay. They just need to respect you. They need to respect your leadership and your decisions.

So I think for me, moving past that came when I made a few good decisions that had a positive outcome. Then I was able to say, “Okay, right, there we go. I have proven to myself that I am capable of making these good decisions.” I need everybody to understand that, whilst I respect them and their opinions (and they can all contribute their opinions) but ultimately the decision making is mine as a leader. Because the other thing to remember is that if you are the CEO or the Executive Director, the buck stops with you. So if you go and make a decision, just to please the whole team, and it’s a bad decision, then the whole team is not going to get into trouble — you are. So you need to be sure that the decisions that you’re making are decisions that you’re comfortable with, even if it offends some people.

Then, in the case of your toxic boss earlier, what if she did what she did because the buck stops with her too? How do you ensure you practice ‘the buck stops with you’ in a good way?

Devina: I think it depends on what you want from your job. What is it that matters in your life? Work is important, I get it. I enjoy my job, I will do my job, but I’m not someone who does nothing else. I also don’t want to live a life that is driven by fear, or fear of failure. I don’t want that as a way of operating. I’ve tried that and it just doesn’t work. Maybe some people can sustain that for a long time, as the way in which they exist, but it’s not for me, I don’t want that.

I’m sorry if I brought back sad memories of the toxic workplace.

Devina: I still have stress dreams about that CEO where I’m screaming at him. The two things that I still have stress dreams about is SPM* and working with that CEO.

Let’s go back to the thought on making decisions without a consensus, but still making sure your team’s voices are heard. That would mean your decision-making process needs to be robust and reliable. What are some criteria in your decision-making process as a leader?

Devina: I think at the end of the day, this is a business, so we do need to make money. But how will our decisions affect others? I think that’s one of the things that I often ask myself.

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

For example, I would tell myself, “Okay, this seems like a really interesting idea. I get it. But at what cost are we making this decision? Is it going to impact others negatively? Are we moving away from our ethos? Are we being as ethical as we can and should be?” When I make decisions, I’m always driven by wanting to do cool and fun stuff. So at the end of the day, if someone brings me an interesting idea or I think it can help to elevate the business — those are the things that drive my decisions. Yes, we need to make money, but not at all costs. Are we being cool and fun, and doing interesting things that set us apart from everybody else? That’s always been something that I’ve decided on — to do things that are a little bit different than everybody else.

Devina hosting the MABECS Out of the Box event, where invited guests and speakers discuss matters ‘out of the box’ and unconventional paths in education and career.

So to summarise, your decisions are made by ensuring the company makes money meaningfully while staying true to the company’s ethos?

Devina: Yes!

I think that you have been privileged to be able to shape the company’s ethos as well, having been in the company for many years. What about people who have to hang on to their own ethos if they disagree with their company’s ethos?

Devina: I think the difficulty with that is if you don’t agree with the company’s ethos. There are two ways to go around that — either you bend and follow the company’s ethos or vision, or you walk away. I think that comes to a point where you have to ask yourself, “Is this worth it if I’m being asked to make decisions that I don’t agree with?” I feel like it sounds very privileged to be able to say, if you don’t like it, walk away. But I really do think that in the long term, there’s something to be said about walking away from something that is not good for you. And I think that applies to every part of our lives.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Tell us about a leader or mentor who made an impact in your life. How did this person make a huge impression on you?

Devina: I’ve generally had good managers during my career, with the exception of the time spent at the startup. Some of the best leaders were people who were empathetic and kind. One of my managers, N definitely led by example and this was one of the key learning points for me and I try to ensure that my leadership reflects this.

How was this manager leading by example? Can you share a memory of this manager?

Devina: I think he walked into quite a toxic situation himself. And we knew that he was always under pressure. Not because he would tell us, but we would hear on the grapevine that he was under pressure. But he never once let that show. He was always very calm and measured with us even after crappy meetings. He will never let it show, and I thought that that was something very admirable because we would hear about it later from other people, like oh my gosh, so and so said such and such a thing to N. He also would support us individually if anyone else (who were less informed) would criticise us for the work that we were doing. He will always defend us. But when you were not doing your job, he would also call you out on it. He would ask us point blank like is something wrong in your personal life or what’s going on, why you’re doing this. He would also encourage us to take a break anytime we needed to, which is what I really liked about him. He was just always very kind and took your needs into consideration. He would never sell you out and would rather take the blame for the whole department because the buck stops with him.

What were some of the highest points for you as a leader?

Devina: I think often what a leader wants is for her team to work cohesively towards the same goals. In my current role, being able to get the whole team to take a holistic approach to their work has ensured that colleagues are beginning to understand the value of each other’s work and how it contributes to the ecosystem of the organisation. This has resulted in a better work environment and business targets being met.

That’s amazing, because not many leaders I know talk about helping their team understand the value of each other’s work. Why is that so important to you?

Devina: The thing is, everyone in the team had been there a long time and some are very set in their ways. Some desire change more than others, and some really hesitant about change. In the early days, nobody actually knew what the other person is doing. When we started a new department, people would say, “We were doing fine before this, why must we make things more difficult?” Now, they see the value because they’re starting to see the growth in numbers and we would receive praises from our partners.

In the past, we never celebrated our successes together. If we don’t celebrate our successes together, we then perceive them as our individual success rather than recognising that we’ve done this together — we are all these different moving parts that have contributed to this bigger success. So if you don’t talk about it, who’s gonna know?

Devina all smiles with her teammate, Vincent at work, pre-pandemic.

What has been the single hardest thing for you as a leader?

Devina: To not let my emotions govern my reactions or responses to difficult situations. I’ve had to learn not to be reactionary and to be more thoughtful in my decision-making process.

Tell us about how the team adapted during the pandemic when we had to pivot to WFH in Malaysia from March 2020. What were your initial thoughts at that time?

Devina: My initial thoughts were, “Wow, thank goodness we moved everything to the cloud!” This was before the pandemic and a lot of tasks depended on being physically at the office.

I’m just impressed that everybody is on board — that we are smart, we are capable, and we can do it. Nobody has taken advantage of the situation. And we have done a lot better than our competitors, and they see that.

If there was something that you can tell the younger you when you first became a leader, what would it be?

Devina: I would tell myself to believe that I have the skills and abilities to be a good leader. Like most women, my early days of leadership were filled with imposter syndrome. I would tell my younger self to believe in myself more and to not be afraid of failure. I would also tell myself that it’s okay not to know all the answers and that one of the best things a leader can do is to be honest about a knowledge gap. I would also tell myself to surround myself with affirming and kind people as much as possible!

Lastly, the million-dollar question about work-life balance. So much has been said about it, and I know it’s even harder when you’re a leader. How do you maintain work-life balance, or what are your thoughts on this concept?

Devina: I feel that my work-life balance is out of sync because of the pandemic. In the past, I liked having flexibility. I practice what I preach, which is, I don’t care how you get the job done, just do it. If you’re gonna have a nap, have a nap. For me, it’s about good quality output. So that means in the past, let’s say I went on holiday, I will reply to stuff, I will take my time with it but I will respond to things.

But during this pandemic, it’s been quite difficult to switch off, because there’s no space to switch off. I don’t know how to get that balance right, because I think if you are running a business, things will always be on your mind. I don’t know if we can totally switch things off, can you?

Pei Ling: For me, it’s a lot easier to switch off because I am committed to a project and not to a company. The fact that I am not tied to a company helps me to switch off mentally. I know people with full-time jobs who are able to switch off, but I’ve found it difficult to do so. As a freelancer, once I am done with the day’s planned work, I move on to my personal projects and personal time. People with full-time jobs have told me they would keep thinking about what’s not done at work.

Devina: Yes, it always feels like there’s more to do. But I was listening to Richard Rohr recently about doing nothing. He’s always advocating it as: do your job, but it’s important to stop and just clear your mind. And I was thinking, “Gosh, that would be nice.”

I’m acutely aware that my circumstances in this pandemic are a lot better and a lot more privileged than most people. So I think that is an important reminder for me. I don’t really have time for moping and whining about stuff. I have also tried to include things in my life in this pandemic that help me manage my anxieties. I make sure I do some exercise every day. I make sure I try to eat as well as I can. I also go to therapy. Sometimes I drink. You know what I mean, so I think you’ve got to find the things that help you get as balanced as you can be in the set of circumstances that you’re in because the one thing I learned about the toxic workplace is my response to the stress was very bad. I didn’t create a positive space to myself. I just plunged headfirst into the negative.

So when it comes to balance, it’s just thinking about what that looks like. And trying to create things that allow you to be balanced.

So when you say that your work-life balance is out of sync, is that good or toxic to you?

Devina: I mean, we are all going to be put into toxic situations in our lives whether it’s in relationships, or at work. But how you respond is what counts.

I have been using this as my mantra. I’ve been reminding myself this:

“Between stimulus and response, there’s a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response, lies our growth and our freedom.” — Viktor Frankl, psychologist

Devina, being Devina :)

Thank you so much, Devina, for your time.

No problem.

*SPM is Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia, or the Malaysian Certificate of Education, is a national examination taken by all fifth-form secondary school students in Malaysia. It is the equivalent to the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland … It is the leaving examination of the eleventh grade of schooling. — from Wikipedia

Do you know a leader you admire for their leadership from the heart? Fill in this form to nominate someone you know to be featured here, and we’d be happy to speak to them if they fit what we’re looking for.

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Pei Ling Chin

Pei Ling Chin

UX Research Lead @ Axiata Digital. Portfolio: https://peiling.design

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