Purpose as happiness
Psychology has traditionally dealt with what is wrong with the mind, but these days the positive psychology movement focuses on wellbeing and human flourishing. What is happiness? Well, a positive psychologist will tell you there are two types: hedonia and eudaimonia. Both from Greek words, hedonia is about feeling good, enjoying life’s pleasures and comfort. And eudaimonia, which more people are now realising is necessary for mental wellbeing, is about flourishing and living a life with purpose and meaning. Companies are also cottoning on to this idea, and some are really embracing it.
One such company is Aitken Spence, the Sri Lankan conglomerate whose business spans multiple sectors. On its website, it carries the motto ‘Eudaimonia: a shared purpose’, and it also has this emblazoned across the front page of its most recent annual report. The company explains it believes in the power of a purposeful existence: “Inspired by a spirit of people-centricity and innovation, we are structured to endure and deliver longstanding value – for it is in sharing our achievements, and in helping others to flourish that we realise our true joy and success,” its website reads.
And the company seems to practise what it preaches. Its homepage carries some colourful and inspiring photographs and, unusually, gives the photographers credit. It also publishes the headshot and details of the staff member who took the photo – a simple way of recognising its people and giving them credit where its due.
Such clarity of purpose, satisfaction and flourishing, also extends to Nishedha Gunawardena, General Manager – Treasury at Aitken Spence. He has been very purposeful in his career and has reached his current position through hard work and being clear on what he needed to do for self-improvement and to flourish.
99% hard work
Gunawardena started his career as a banker, after being hired straight out of school by Citibank when he was 19 years old. He remembers vividly his reaction on his first day when he saw the treasury department and its Reuters and Bloomberg screens. “I was breathless and I thought ‘This is where I want to be’,” he says. And he kept focused on that goal, working with purpose to get where he wanted to be.
He started as a contract employee and knew that he would have to work hard to prove himself and secure a more stable position. He did just that and within ten months he secured a permanent job. “It was brilliant – I was really happy about that,” he comments, explaining that this moment was a major milestone in his career.
He changed roles and worked in various departments at the bank, starting as an associate in international trade services, becoming a bank teller, then a senior bank clerk. He soon got to be in treasury and had a role in treasury operations. From there he headed the FX processing desk and was an authorised signer in the fixed income, currencies and commodities operations.
“And then an opportunity came up at Aitken Spence, I applied, and the rest is history!” he says. Moving from a bank to a corporate, he crossed to the other side of the fence; instead of being the one providing the solutions, he was now the one who needed them. “It made my life much easier having worked in the bank. When I looked at our requirements – I knew what the bank could do and think about it from that angle,” he says.
He joined Aitken Spence as a manager in group treasury and was responsible, among other things, for cash flow management for the company’s dozens of subsidiaries and a fund manager for a fund over LKR3bn (US$8.1m). He then became Assistant General Manager – Group Treasury, and these days he is the General Manager, having been appointed to that role in July 2022.
This current role is diverse and interesting, and includes cash and liquidity management, such as liquidity monitoring and the optimisation of bank relationships, cash pools and liquidity plans. Also, there is the risk management which involves reviewing and reducing overall risks by optimising counterparty limits and natural hedging opportunities. He is also involved in corporate strategy and engages in troubleshooting, problem solving and finding solutions for subsidiary-level working capital management, cash cycle improvements and policy implementation for group treasury. There is also relationship management, and he is the primary functional point for all banking activities of the group. And if that isn’t enough to keep him busy, he is also a member of the company’s Group Corporate Communications committee.
During his last year at Citi, In the early days, soon after he secured the permanent job at Citibank, Gunawardena was shortlisted for the bank’s global leadership programme, a remarkable achievement when the bank often didn’t select candidates from Sri Lanka, and for someone who started so young. What does he put this success down to? “Securing the permanent job was purely hard work. I was 19 years old – I hardly knew anything – and I worked so hard. I lived what I was doing. Citibank was really helpful in the early stages of my career and all those things came together. It was 99% hard work,” he explains.
As part of this career journey, he realised that he needed to get professionally qualified. Again, he was purposeful in continuing his education and has since acquired a number of qualifications. For example, he has a certificate in treasury operations, foreign exchange, money market and fixed income operations. He is also a certified treasury professional, and completed a Masters of Business Administration (MBA), demonstrating how single-minded he is in setting himself a goal and achieving it.
A dynamic role
In his current role, as the General Manager of Aitken Spence’s treasury, he has to keep on top of the many subsidiary companies and respond to their individual needs. “It is always changing. In a conglomerate’s operating environment, the job itself is very dynamic, there is a lot of learning on a daily basis on the job – I find it exciting,” he says.
And does it take a certain type of temperament to thrive in this environment, and enjoy working with the markets? “Some days it can get overwhelming and sometimes the markets feel like they are crazy and you get tired. Then you take a break and rejuvenate – that’s it,” he says. “Your personality can help or can make you want to have that kind of job,” he says. He comments that he has observed throughout his career that some people thrive by spending time with other people, for example with clients on the sales side. And then there are the traders who like the numbers and the nature of the markets. “I’d like to think I cross both those types, but I tend to be more comfortable with the numbers and markets,” he says.