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7 Questions on Leadership with Awandi Kohilawatta

Name: Awandi Kohilawatta

Title: Project Manager

Organisation: Monash University

With a rich background spanning over 6 years, I specialize in developing and executing sustainable development initiatives. My passion for sustainable development fuels my dedication to fostering a fairer, eco-conscious future. Additionally, I'm a staunch advocate for gender equality, recognizing women's pivotal contributions to sustainable progress.

Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!

I hope Awandi's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!


Jonno White

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

My primary challenge lies in maintaining a delicate equilibrium between achieving project goals and effectively handling the diverse expectations of stakeholders. This entails navigating complex project dynamics, resource alignment, and ensuring transparent communication among teams with differing priorities. Additionally, it involves continual relationship cultivation, proposal crafting, and adapting strategies to evolving donor preferences. While demanding, effective resource mobilization is pivotal for advancing impactful projects and realizing organizational objectives, requiring adaptability and resilience, fostering personal growth, and exposing me to diverse perspectives and challenges.

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

I began my journey into leadership when I joined the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Sri Lanka. While there, I honed my project management skills and gained valuable experience in a dynamic international environment. My commitment to delivering successful projects and my ability to collaborate effectively with diverse teams didn't go unnoticed.

When I relocated to Australia, I embarked on a career as a project manager. Here, I continued to build on my leadership capabilities, managing complex projects and learning the art of balancing stakeholder expectations. Over time, my dedication and proven track record led to opportunities for leadership roles. My journey from the UNDP to becoming a project manager in Australia laid the foundation for my leadership path, emphasizing the importance of perseverance and continuous growth.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

I kickstart my day early, driven by a sense of purpose. Mornings are dedicated to efficiently reviewing emails and prioritizing tasks, ensuring the prompt handling of urgent matters. Upon arriving at the office, I focus on fostering collaboration and interactions with colleagues, with important meetings and calls scheduled in the mid-morning to early afternoon to optimize communication.

In the late afternoon, I transition to project planning, analysis, and strategic thinking, drawing from insights acquired earlier. Regular short breaks and occasional physical activity sustain my energy and mental clarity.

As the day nears its end, I revisit my task list, ensuring key priorities are addressed. Finally, I disconnect from work in the evening to make time for personal pursuits, relaxation, and a restful night's sleep.

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?

A recent leadership lesson I've learnt is the importance of adaptability and flexibility. While it's crucial to have a structured approach to project management, recent experiences have reminded me that every project is unique. Being adaptable means tailoring to the specific needs and dynamics of each project. Sometimes, a more hands-on and directive approach is necessary, while other times, a collaborative and facilitative style is more effective.

Additionally, I've learned that adaptability also extends to embracing change and uncertainty. In today's fast-paced world, one must be open to adjusting plans and strategies as new information emerges.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

"Leaders Eat Last" by Simon Sinek has had a profound impact on my leadership philosophy. The book's central message, emphasizing leaders prioritizing their team members' needs above their own, resonated deeply with me. Sinek's compelling anecdotes about leaders who create a culture of trust and collaboration by prioritizing employee well-being left a lasting impression.

This book transformed my perspective on leadership, emphasizing the importance of fostering a sense of belonging and security within the team. It inspired me to focus more on the growth and well-being of the team members, resulting in improved team morale, productivity, and project success. "Leaders Eat Last" underscored the idea that leadership is fundamentally about serving others.

6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

‘Lead with authenticity’ This is a guiding principle that can profoundly shape your leadership journey. Authenticity entails unwavering commitment to your core values and principles while guiding others. It means embracing transparency, honesty, and the humility to admit when you've erred. This approach cultivates trust within your team, as they perceive you as a genuine and relatable leader rather than an impersonal authority figure. Authentic leadership also fosters open communication, nurturing an environment where team members feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and concerns.

Leading authentically isn't about projecting an image of perfection; it's about staying true to yourself while continually striving to become the best version of you. By embracing authenticity, you'll naturally inspire and motivate others, drawing them towards your sincere and purpose-driven leadership style. Ultimately, leading with authenticity has the potential to leave a lasting and positive impact as you guide your team towards collective goals.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

As a leader, I decided to take a collaborative approach instead of imposing a top-down solution and I facilitated open discussions, actively listening to everyone's ideas and concerns. This process allowed team members to feel heard and valued, which led to increased engagement and commitment.

Over time, we collectively developed innovative solutions that addressed our challenges. What made this experience especially meaningful was witnessing the transformation of a group initially fraught with tension into a cohesive, high-performing team. It reminded me of the power of inclusive leadership, where every team member's input is valued, leading to more creative and effective solutions. This story reinforced my belief in the potential for collaboration and empathy to drive success in leadership roles.

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