Best foot forward: my first six months at JKH

By Sam Samararatne

I knew I like writing, but I also knew I liked to make a living from it. While creative writing has its boundless charms and personal catharsis, I gravitated more towards the near clinical precision of corporate writing. Defining the journey of a brand fascinated me, connecting to a target audience challenged me, and being a part of a story bigger than myself opened doors that I would never have dared to step through a mere year before. I was frankly surprised when I stumbled upon an open vacancy on the Keells career portal for a Marketing and Communications Executive for OCTAVE, John Keells Holdings’ newly minted Centre of Excellence that drives data driven decision making. A lucky break to immerse myself in the inner workings of the largest conglomerate in Sri Lanka? An extraordinarily scarce opportunity to make use of both my love of science and writing? A chance to live and breathe in one of the most inclusive and progressive corporate ecosystems in the country? What more could I ask for? I was beside myself with delight and curiosity when I accepted the offer to come on board. But as American actor Sean Maher once said, “Starting a new job is always scary. Or at least for me, it’s always scary. It’s like the first day of school.” Let’s see what I learnt at John Keells to keep the fear bugs away.

Coming from a three-year stint at a start-up, the sudden acclimatization to the diverse and structured world of a conglomerate was quite the leap. For starters, there were countless faceless names to remember, as I only know them via email! When I began my first project with Group Corporate Communications, it was lovely to see everyone pitch in at their capacity to help me reach my goal. The palatable sense of connectedness, the safety net of procedures at play and the reassurance that progress is underway was the best welcome imaginable. In contrast, OCTAVE defines itself as an agile workplace with a bite sized team of tech savvy folks, and is a feeding ground for innovation, growth and learning. It has the characteristics of a start-up whilst being nourished by the clout and credibility an established conglomerate brings to the table. In fact, with the work from home practices in place due to the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown, I feel like I am working for a start-up! At OCTAVE, I help trigger the birth of a niche brand, while at Group Corporate Communication, I support the maintenance of a juggernaut in the market.

Image Caption: At Data Storm 1.0, a datathon sponsored by OCTAVE and the first ever Datathon conducted in association with the University of Moratuwa.

One reason I chose to follow the Edexcel curriculum at my Advanced Levels was the ability to choose a blend of science and art subjects. My favourite picks were English Literature and Chemistry, which confused both teachers greatly about why I had chosen the other. I simply offer in defense that my erratic brain becomes stagnant when I lack variety or stick to one topic. Analytics and creativity in tandem are my bread and butter. You can imagine my reaction when I got to know that my role at OCTAVE and Group Corporate Communications gave me access to the best of both worlds. I will frequently be in contact with best data analytics talent working in this field, and actively be a part of publishing technical articles and organizing advanced analytics hackathons, quizzes and bootcamps in the future. From late night video shoots to wordsmithing press releases and social media posts, I am acutely aware that I have my finger on the pulse of the company image, and I hope to learn all that I can.

Did you know that John Keells Holdings is the first Sri Lankan company to specifically include non-discrimination against sexual orientation and gender identity in its Code of Conduct and related HR Policies and Practices? From as far back as 2015, they have conducted Group-wide awareness sessions relating to accepting diversity with regards to the LGBTIQ+ community. I was unaware of this going in, and as a person who belongs to the community and is passionate about inclusiveness and diversity, I immediately felt accepted, validated and safe in this company culture and working environment. Currently I’m part of a team working on relaunching the Group Values – Caring, Trust, Integrity, Innovation, and Excellence. This re-evaluation hopes to update the values to be applicable for a diverse and modern workforce by emphasizing on empathy, transparency, discretion, and placing ourselves at the zenith without any excuses. In fact, it is this push to be constantly evolving that has kept John Keells Holdings relevant during its 150-year history. It was a gradual learning curve to feel the values embodied in every interaction I came across, and return it as well. It is truly stitched into the fabric of how we function.

Image Caption: With my colleagues in the International Friendship Day 2020 video

Truth be told, I expected to turn into a nine to five desk jockey for the foreseeable future when I walked in the first day, but my experience for the first six months could not be more different from my initial prejudice. I learnt to play to my strengths as a creative and analytical writer and contribute where my presence added value to the process. I kept my focus on building bridges with my immediate team, but also expanded my network day by day. I channeled the ecstatic enthusiasm and freedom to experiment from my days working with start-ups, and willingly internalized how my cogwheel fit into the machinery of my new work home. I am reminded of a Dr. Seuss quote from my childhood: 

“You have brains in your head,

You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself,

In any direction you choose.”

I see a doorway to betterment before me, and I aim to take a wise and proactive step forward.

Image Caption: With the Group Corporate Communications & Social Entrepreneurship Teams in February 2020.