Kris Canekeratne: “Create a psychologically safe environment in order to create a fantastic work culture”

Create a psychologically safe environment. Much has been written about this term. It is the critical characteristic of high performing, innovative and happy teams. It means that the people within your organization trust and feel trusted, and do not fear speaking their mind, sharing their ideas and being completely transparent. My experience is that creating […]

Thrive invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

Create a psychologically safe environment. Much has been written about this term. It is the critical characteristic of high performing, innovative and happy teams. It means that the people within your organization trust and feel trusted, and do not fear speaking their mind, sharing their ideas and being completely transparent. My experience is that creating safe environments requires aggressive action against politics, hierarchy and ego-motivated behaviors.

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kris Canekeratne — Chairman and CEO at Virtusa.

Kris A. Canekeratne, one of the company’s co-founders, plays a key role in defining the company strategy and using technology and innovation continuously to maintain its leadership in the industry. In 1997, Kris Canekeratne co-founded eDocs, Inc., a provider of electronic account management and customer care, later acquired by Oracle Corporation. In 1989, Kris Canekeratne was one of the founding team members of INSCI Corporation, a supplier of digital document repositories and integrated output management products and services and served as its senior vice president from 1992 to 1996. Canekeratne obtained his B.S. in Computer Science from Syracuse University.

Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Coming out of university, I was both in love with software engineering and convinced that it was an industry ripe for radical transformation. A few years later, I was sitting around my kitchen table in Westborough, Massachusetts, with some of my engineering friends discussing the inefficiency of legacy IT systems and the need to move from on-premise to off-premise, online models. Those early conversations, a chunk of personal savings, and at least three maxed-out credit card accounts, ultimately turned into Virtusa. The big idea back then was to help big companies deal with their IT legacy systems by not just cutting costs, but by actually adding value. While competitors were fixated on cost arbitrage (delivering the same services from lower-cost geographies), we focused on software engineering arbitrage — providing clients with the transformative and sustainable benefits of software engineering best practices such as application rationalization, consolidation, and modernization, to reduce costs and increase innovation velocity. The business model and approach were fraught with risk, but with tremendous upside. The early days were tough, creating awareness and educating the market on the business value of this approach while having to build a significantly higher level of engineering rigor to deliver on the promise. Add to it market factors like the dot com bubble bursting and the financial crisis, and the journey was, suffice to say, challenging.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

One of my favorites involves a meeting with the CFO of the largest telco in the UK. It was 2007, Virtusa was ~$120M in revenue and in the midst of filing our S1 registration to go public. I’m flying to London to try to convince him to sign a five-year $200M deal that we really needed to get over the S1 hurdle.

I had never met him, so I was a bit apprehensive about the whole thing. My flight to London is scheduled to land at 6 am, and my meeting is at 9 am. My plan when I land is to shave and shower in the Arrivals Lounge and grab a cab into the city. I should have plenty of time. And then the pilot announces that our landing is delayed due to congestion and we won’t arrive until 7:45 am. Oh no! I ask the flight attendant for a shave kit and head to the bathroom to learn the painful lesson that those little plastic one blade disposable razors are actually dangerous weapons. I ended up shredding my face to the point that I can’t put my shirt back on. We finally land at 8 am, I get through immigration, run through the terminal, leaving my luggage in baggage claim, and jump in a cab, only to hit the worst rush hour traffic you can imagine. I end up showing up at the CFO’s office at 9:25 am, twenty-five minutes late, to have his assistant tell me that he has another meeting at 9:30 am. I have five minutes to convince him to give me $200M…

He turns out to be incredibly gracious and understanding. After a tiny bit of small talk, he asks me what I have on my mind. I explain the S1 registration situation and that it would be really helpful if we could sign a five-year $200M deal, pretty much immediately. He looks at me and says, “Kris, I like what you are doing, I admire your tenacity. I have also heard that your team is doing great work for us. I will work with you to make it happen.” I walked out of his office, went back to the airport and spent two hours trying to find my luggage. And ten days later we signed the deal, just a few days before going public!

Are you working on any exciting projects now?

Given that we are at the center of digital transformation in virtually every industry out there, we are surrounded by exciting projects. One of the most important is the work we are doing with ASEAN, the association of southeast Asian countries, on how to use technology to significantly increase financial inclusion across the region.

How do you think that will help people?

A large percentage of the population in the 10 ASEAN countries and the southern hemisphere is unbanked, meaning they either have no access to financial services or they have to pay exorbitant rates to participate. For example, the cost of a wire transfer can be almost as much as the amount being transferred. The inequities of the system are perpetuating the economic divide.

We are working on technologies to solve that, technologies and platforms that ultimately will give more people the low-cost capacity to send money, save money and access low-cost capital, resulting in more opportunities for economic gain.

According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

It’s a simple data point that reflects a complex picture. The workforce is not a homogenous proposition. It’s made up of a wide range of workers, from Gen Z and Millennials in their first jobs to Gen X assembly workers working in manufacturing plants to 65-year old Baby Boomers who thought they were going to be able to retire at 60 but can’t. The sources of unhappiness are equally diverse. They range from disillusion to exhaustion to frustration, and my sense is that it’s all made darker by a subconscious comparison to the illusory “American Dream,” this idea that we are all guaranteed a happy and contented life. It’s possible that the history of the American Dream is what fuels the unhappiness across the board, that we are holding up the current reality to a standard that no longer exists if it ever did.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

The ability of any organization to create value is a function of how valued (and happy) its employees feel. People do their best work when they feel their best. They have more ideas, better ideas, are more attentive to the task, less inclined to waste time and more focused because they are happy. Being unhappy disables progress in virtually every form. Health and wellbeing are a major part of the equation in that mind, body and spirit are all facets of happiness. I am thrilled to see that more and more organizations are beginning to get this and make investments in benefit programs that really address the wholeness of the people who work for them.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

Let’s start by defining what culture is. In my experience, culture is a derivative, meaning it is the consequence of policies, decisions and most importantly behaviors. And particularly, the behaviors of leadership. If you want your organization to have a more open culture, leaders need to be more open. It all starts with you and your willingness to emulate the behaviors that you want the organization to exhibit. Four other things I would do:

Focus on alignment. Aligning everybody in the organization regarding the vision, mission, goals, priorities, strategies and critical tasks necessary to get from where you are to where you want to be. And using the annual planning process to create that alignment.

Create a motivating context. People don’t get excited by strategic plans; they get excited by the potential of positive change. At Virtusa, our motivating context is called the Journey to 5. It’s our roadmap to 2025, becoming the de facto leader in our industry and the best company to work for.

Commit to learning. The pace of change in the world is only going to accelerate. To survive, every company must get better at changing, which means their employees must get better at changing. A culture that is committed to helping people change, develop and grow their skills and capacities will inevitably create a positive culture. And by the way, the learning task includes leadership. We have to keep learning too.

Create a psychologically safe environment. Much has been written about this term. It is the critical characteristic of high performing, innovative and happy teams. It means that the people within your organization trust and feel trusted, and do not fear speaking their mind, sharing their ideas and being completely transparent. My experience is that creating safe environments requires aggressive action against politics, hierarchy and ego-motivated behaviors.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

That’s a big, big question. I see this from at least three angles. The first is from a top-down approach, which means leadership is sending the right messages, exhibiting the right behaviors and trying to steer the organization to a place that is fair, humane and supportive. The second is a bottom-up approach, which is how well our education system is setting the task for the next generation and how well it is preparing them to participate, manage and lead in a more balanced and equitable way. The third is a global view. Our culture is no longer discrete. The melting pot that is the US is really a global melting pot, made even more heterogeneous by technology. I think there’s a shared societal question of how we should address some of the not so positive consequences of an ever-accelerating and demanding world.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I grew up in Colombo, Sri Lanka, playing every game you can imagine, including Golf and Table Tennis at the highest national level. I like to compete, and I like to win. My early years taught me the value of teamwork, the importance of perseverance and the fundamental realization that passion, hard work and grit are the essential determinants of almost any victory, on or off the field. I like to think my leadership style is inspiring, honest and fair. I have very high expectations of myself and those around me and am a strong believer that one must be resolute, never wavering, even when the challenges appear insurmountable.

I also believe that today’s leaders must combine strong analytics with solid intuition. The truth is that no one knows what tomorrow will bring. In today’s world, the norms of centuries and decades are seemingly disappearing overnight. No amount of data will give you the answer. You have to apply what you see based on the facts available. I think I’m pretty good at that.

Lastly, I firmly believe in the importance of recognition. Growing a company takes lots and lots of people stepping forward, and it takes lots of leaders. I work hard every day to acknowledge contributions from across Virtusa and encourage people at every level to raise their hands, to offer solutions and to do whatever it takes to meet clients’ needs or our own.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

This is like an Academy Award moment, and I have so many people to thank. My board and leadership team have definitely been huge contributors to the success of the company and my success as a leader. Many of them have been by my side for over ten years, serving as strategic partners, sounding boards, cheerleaders and, on occasion, gentle challengers of my thinking. One specific board member, Martin Trust, who served as Virtusa’s lead director from 2007–2017, had an incredible knack for pushing me, expanding my thinking and getting me to reimagine the contours of what was possible. Before we’d even hit the $100M revenue mark, Marty was sowing the seeds of a billion-dollar business in my mind. He passed away last year, and I miss him.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’d like to think yes, in a couple of different ways. First, we work to bring goodness into the lives of the nearly 25,000 people who work at Virtusa and their families. We strive to create a work environment that is motivating, supportive and full of opportunity for personal and professional growth. In response to the needs and expectations of our 21st-century workforce, we invested in the creation of a first of its kind workplace social engagement platform, vPlus. It’s a proprietary platform that allows employees to work as they live and to live as they work, integrating social collaboration, video learning, advanced search, peer feedback and gamification. It helps people realize a better work-life balance while also developing their own capabilities. I think that’s goodness.

The other way we’re bringing goodness to the world is through the work we do. I mentioned earlier our efforts with ASEAN and developing technologies that can significantly increase financial inclusion for the millions (and globally billions) of people that have no access to cost-effective financial services. The downstream positive consequences of “banking the unbanked” are profound.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A favorite quote is tough, I have many. One that comes to mind is this from Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the Major League Baseball.

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

I think that’s right. We are here not for us but for others. Whether others are our families, our employees, our clients, our fellow citizens, or strangers in need, it really does not matter. The more people who embrace the importance of we over me, the better off we will all be.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I’m of two minds. One movement would be about education and getting our society to elevate the importance of education for life. As I mentioned earlier, the pace of change is only going to accelerate, and the only way we can keep up is to keep learning. And the only way we can deliver lifelong learning is for both the private and public sectors to work together to create the systems and incentives to motivate and enable that learning.

The second movement harkens back to my “we” versus “me” comment. I’d start a movement focused on helping more people understand that we really are in this together, that the issues that face some, in fact, face all. We are all connected, and the only way we can improve the picture is to move forward together, helping one another, finding middle ground, learning to compromise and to care about the whole, both today and in the future. All the big issues we face today, from climate change to economic inequality, are we issues.

You might also like...


Trish Bishop On How We Need To Adjust To The Future Of Work

by Karen Mangia

Alyssa Phillips On How We Need To Adjust To The Future Of Work

by Karen Mangia

Alison Lindland On How We Need To Adjust To The Future Of Work

by Karen Mangia
We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.