Leading with Empathy, Winning with Change – Ajith Pieris, General Manager & Chief Executive Officer of National Savings Bank
Ajith Peiris; the General Manager/CEO National Savings Bank (NSB), attributes his success as a leader, to the guidance and mentorship he received from the many General Managers he has worked with over the years. After graduating with a First-Class degree from the University of Colombo, Ajith joined Sampath Bank as a Management Trainee. He was attached to the Import section of the International Banking Division, and had the opportunity to work with the eminent Parama Dharmawardena – he identifies this as the first step in his successful banking career. After serving Sampath Bank for a period of one year, Ajith joined National Savings Bank in 1988 as a Management Trainee. Curious by nature, Ajith was keen to learn all aspects of the banking sector and made efforts to further educate himself while he was working. While serving as the Assistant General Manager (International), he got the opportunity to be involved in the process of establishing the International Division of NSB, with the assistance of his mentor and predecessor, Kathiravelupillai. He is proud to say that he has always believed in himself and stated that self-confidence is an essential factor in becoming a successful banker and leader that steers one of the biggest financial institutions in the country.
A leader steers individuals, teams, or organizations to achieve a set of strategic goals while maximizing efficiency. Differentiating between a “good” or “bad” leader is a matter of time and practice. Ajith said that people are not born with leadership skills, but that they are acquired gradually through experience and lessons learnt. He shared that effective communication is key in resolving problems. Ajith believes that leaders must also encourage individuality while being mindful of organizational structure, rules, and policies and that it is important to practice prudence to identify future challenges, solve problems and improve processes. Self-motivation will help you to be resilient in achieving goals amidst setbacks, and emotional stability is imperative. As a Chief Executive Officer of a leading state financial institution and a corporate citizen navigating troubled waters, Ajith feels compelled to acquire and practice all these personality traits and so much more to ensure the continuity of the operations of the Bank. When talking about the challenges the banking industry will face in the next 5 years, digitization and the development of information and technology is prime. The current global pandemic has only increased the rate at which technology is adopted by businesses and individuals. This is clear in the banking industry by the number of customers registering for online banking services. Despite the opportunity this technology provides, Ajith shared that it is also a threat to the very existence of traditional banks as well as the financial industry. Further, as per the CBSL road map on digital banking and payment, LankaQR Code, Fintech Regulatory Sandbox, Blockchain-based Shared Know-Your-Customer (KYC) solution, and Open Banking project are in progress and come with new challenges to compete with. For example, the LankaQR payment method is moving society to be cashless and card less, compelling the financial industry to rethink its distribution channels and networks and invest in the development of frictionless payment mechanisms. The Bank’s ongoing investments in digital technology continue to benefit customers, and the Bank’s digital platform and other digital banking services were used more extensively than ever before. The heightened demand and use of digital products served as a reality check, allowing the Bank to identify areas of improvement and future needs. Providing superior customer experiences is not only about building powerful front-end digital platforms but creating efficient end-to-end solutions where back-office processes are also automated and streamlined. In his 33-year-old career in the banking industry, Ajith has faced many challenges, which he believes made him a better decision-maker. However, when considering the magnitude of the impact caused by challenges, Ajith stated that the COVID pandemic is undoubtedly the biggest. At the beginning of the outbreak, Ajith was the Deputy General Manager of Operations and was responsible for managing all 260 branches and over 3500 employees.
Over the years, NSB has strategically focused more on a brick-and-mortar concept, and the clear majority of the Bank’s customer base is used to physically visiting the Bank for transactions. This traditional business model was successful over the years, but with the COVID-19 outbreak, NSB had to change its model quickly to provide a convenient and accessible service to its customers. Further, Ajith said that the contribution by the staff during this pandemic period has been immeasurable and that in 2020 they were able to exceed their set targets despite the numerous changes to operational and work process as a result of the pandemic. Ajith also highlighted the importance of being sensitive to the staff and their problems, especially given how difficult times are for everyone. He said that the senior management has committed more time to listen to their employees and do everything in their power to provide solutions to their problems to help maintain the level of productivity. The vision of the Bank is “To be the most reliable and sought-after choice for your savings”, stated Ajith; as NSB is specialized in saving. The Bank was granted the status of a Licensed Specialized Bank under the Banking Act No: 30 of 1988 to foster a savings culture among all Sri Lankans irrespective of class, race, and gender. As the only bank in the country offering a 100% government guarantee on all deposits and the interest thereon, NSB is the Safest Bank in the country. Accordingly, their Mission goes as “providing our customers with total financial solutions to optimize their savings and investment needs, while meeting the expectations of all our stakeholders.” Ajith proudly stated that NSB remains guided by its essential values and mission amidst the changes and challenges presented by the environment, and while the shape of banking will change – they will adapt to it, and their responsibilities and commitment to their purpose will remain steadfast.