Microsoft Services Asia Architecture and Industry Services Lead Vajira Weerasekera explains how running makes him a better leader.
By Ingrid Green
What do ultra-running, palliative care and cutting edge technology have in common?
When I sat down with Vajira, it was immediately clear that he is passionate about all of them.
It was intriguing to learn how he has managed to combine all three with his role as chief technology officer with Microsoft Services Asia and is also a father of two.
At work Vajira leads a team of architects who create innovative digital business transformation solutions for customers across Asia. He revels in being at the leading edge of the industry, the challenge of working with complex projects, and finding ways to simplify and deliver them successfully.
Leaders are shaped by many life events. It was clear that Vajira's leadership and coaching styles have been honed through his running experience among others.
Several years ago he could barely run 5km, yet he managed his first marathon in 2015.
He has since completed eight marathons and four ultra-marathons – the longest an 83km race in Canberra at the Australian Institute of Sport track.
How can someone who has never done long distance running get to this level of endurance and mental motivation? I found that’s where we can all learn a lesson.V
ajira got into running with a friend. After two years he finally managed to run a half marathon, but every time he tried to go beyond the 21km distance he had pain and injuries. He was ready to quit until he read a book by one of the United States' elite ultra-marathon runners. Dean Karnazes’ book 50 Marathons in 50 Days changed Vajira’s perspective, and he set out to learn all about the science of running.
He re-adjusted his approach and training resumed. This time, he managed to break through the perceived barriers.
“Once I managed to get to 35km in training, I knew that the 42km distance was within reach. It was at that time I decided that I need to find a bigger cause to help through my running”.
Leading up to the Canberra marathon, a good friend of Vajira, Dr. Suharsha Kanathigoda (founder of Shanthi Foundation) approached him looking for help in raising awareness and funds for the not-for-profit organisation.
The focus of the foundation was to build the first ever palliative care hospital in Sri Lanka.
Vajira decided this would be a great cause to support and dedicated his first marathon to the foundation. The decision to put his running efforts towards helping a bigger cause proved life-changing. Three-and-a-half hours into the Canberra run, on a lonely road, knowing that the pain of running was to help someone else provided the boost he needed.
“It occurred to me during the marathon, I’m no longer running for myself, I’m now running to help someone else, so keep going and don’t stop. "To push yourself beyond what you think is your limit, you need a purpose bigger than yourself.
"If you can find that, you will get pulled towards your dream and purpose rather than having to push. It’s an amazing experience.” After this running experience, Vajira decided to write a book that would capture his life experiences with success and failures in building high performing teams.
In Motivating Mavericks, The Secret to High Performing Teams, Vajira reflects on everything he’s learned about leadership and team building, and combines it with insights from other business leaders and high performing coaches.
His altruism continues – he’s donating all proceeds to the Shanthi Foundation and towards the work his wife Kali is doing to help children in need through letkidsfly.org.
What does mindfulness mean to you?
It’s about finding a way to be present in the current moment, without judgement. There’s a subtle difference between being present and trying to figure out everything that’s going on. You don’t have to figure out everything that’s going on – just be there and find a way to connect with whoever you’re with or whatever you are doing. It’s your presence and listening that matters – listening to yourself as well as people around you.
What are the biggest challenges people face in the workplace?
I believe the number one issue is people not feeling safe in the work environment. People need to feel safe to be able to make mistakes, learn and grow.
People try to be someone they’re not, because often they may be worried about whether they are going to look good, or if they will be judged if they put ideas forward. The moment anyone gets feels that way, it will limit their ability to perform at their peak.
Over the years, I’ve had leaders who made me feel really safe. I’ve had the opportunity to voice my opinion freely and not be worried about being judged.
I’ve also had some leaders who have not provided that safe environment to be open and honest, and I’ve felt miserable that I was not performing at my best. If you can create an open, trusted and safe environment, you can get the best out of your people and create an opportunity for people to learn and grow.
What can organisations do to create a safe environment?
I’ve been with Microsoft for over 22 years and have been fortunate to see three CEOs in action; Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and now Satya Nadella.
Each CEO bought a different and unique style of leadership and culture to Microsoft. Each of these cultures brought different innovative skills of people and leadership styles. Different times require different styles of leadership in any organisation.
At times you need a directive leadership style to drive a company from A to B, while at other times you need a different style of leadership that may be less directive.Ultimately, it’s about creating the right culture that can foster growth and innovation.
If you look at the transformation that Microsoft is currently going through, at the heart of it is creating a culture of growth and innovation. At Microsoft we talk a lot about the growth mindset in how we develop our culture. Our CEO, Satya [Nadella] is fostering the notion of moving from a know-it-all culture to a learn-it-all culture. He talks about this in his book, Hit Refresh. It isn’t until you truly listen that you see a different perspective. The number one priority in any organisation should be creating a culture where people can freely express their views and feel they are being listened to.The second priority is establishing a clear sense of purpose and a mission.
For Microsoft, our mission is to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more. It’s not just a statement on the wall – everybody lives by this mission and believes in what we do every day. If a company can create a clear sense of purpose, mission and culture where people are being creative, not afraid to fail and learn from those mistakes, they understand the learn-it-all not know-it-all culture – you then have a learning organisation where people love coming to work and feel safe in that environment as it provides an opportunity to learn and grow.
Satya was once asked in an interview how he handles meetings. His response was: “I talk less, I listen more, and am decisive when it comes to my turn”. That goes back to learn-it-all, not know-it-all culture. To learn it all, you’ve got to listen and understand, then make your decision.
Do you believe in work/life balance?
I don’t. I believe work needs to be life-enhancing.
You have to find work that you love doing, then you will find meaning in it. If you say work/life balance then it feels like it’s one or the other, but it’s all about how you combine the two.
It’s not easy, depending on the job you have, the demands on you at work and at home.I try to make sure physically I have something to do that I enjoy that can balance with work – long distance running is that passion for me. I find a way to combine it with what I do at work with other activities that complement and support my personal passion as well.
For me, my book about building high performing teams and articles I write aren’t directly related to work, but they give me satisfaction and complement the work I do. If you can do things that you love, enjoy and help you grow, you will find excitement in what you do.
How important is meaning in work?
You have to find meaning and purpose in what you do and it needs to be fulfilling. Often people tend to measure success in their work through numbers.
I believe success without fulfilment is the ultimate failure in life. Work is not just about succeeding in the job, we need to find ways to ensure we have fulfilment and meaning in what we do.If your organisation's mission and purpose is aligned with your own, that’s a great place to be.
What’s the single most important thing people can do to improve the quality of their lives?
Without a doubt it’s got to be the attitude you develop and bring to the table.
To me, everything comes down to the energy and the attitude you bring. If you bring the right attitude to whatever you do, everything else can fall into place.
I talk about three habits in my book (confidence, attitude and recognition). Whatever the problem is, if you look at it in a positive and a constructive way you will find a way to solve the problem.
Attitude and energy combined creates a great platform for teams to perform. Sometimes you see it in teams where people are bright and smart but if they bring negative energy or attitude, that can drag everybody else in the team down.
Jack Welsh was asked in an interview what he would look for when he hires people. His response was: “I look to see if the person brings the right attitude and positive energy, if they don’t, no matter how smart they are, I don’t hire them”. What’s next for you? What’s your next challenge?
As a family we have started a foundation (letkidsfly.org) to help children in need with our mission being “A world in which every child is empowered to realise their full potential”All proceeds from the book is going towards helping to build the palliative care hospital in Sri Lanka (shanthi-foundation.org) and to helping children in need through letkidsfly.org.
For me personally, I want to complete a 100km ultra marathon as my next milestone in running. The longest run I have done so far is an 83km race.
So a 100km ultra is on the list as one of the challenges. All my official running events will count towards my current challenge of running a series of runs totalling 500km to raise $100,000 to help the hospital project.
Finally, from a work perspective there’s a lot happening in Asia as we see huge potential for growth in the business. I want to see people in my team go on to achieve their big dreams in the next 18-24 months and I look forward to playing a coaching and supporting role for them.
These are some of the things that will keep me going and I hope it will give me plenty of opportunity to make mistakes, learn and grow!
From Motivating Mavericks
You don’t have to look for breakthrough ideas on how you can change your attitude and how to have a positive view of life. You can start by focusing on small daily improvements. This will lead to the breakthrough change to build a positive attitude.
What if you …
• Smile and greet a total stranger every day?
• Look for positive things about people and compliment them?
• Say hello to the person next to you in a lift?
• Walk or exercise every day?
• Send a handwritten thank-you note to someone at work for helping you with a task?• Tell your partner or children to have the best day ever, every morning?
What is stopping you from doing any of these things?
“Change your thoughts and you change your world.” – Norman Vincent Peale