Ananda Wijesuriya, in Island, 12 June 2020, carrying this title “An administrator of skill, competence and understanding”
I had the occasion to read a full middle page article published in the Sunday Observer, I think in the late 60s, about the transport of a high-powered antenna brought to enhance the broadcasting capacity of SLBC. I was fascinated by the attention to details, explaining how the antenna, shipped as fabricated, transported from Colombo harbour all the way to Pidurutalagala mountain. I cannot remember whether the author was a journalist but it did identify who was the brains behind the meticulous planning, the then Chairman of newly incorporated SLBC – Neville Jayaweera. Later I again read about his exploits, with the change of the Government in 1970. He was removed from SLBC and being a CCS officer was posted to Anuradhapura, where during the 1971 JVP insurgency he rallied the police and a depleted army post and held the town against the attacks by the JVP.
In 1972, while studying for my CIMA exams, I wrote him a letter, requesting an appointment to meet him to listen to his experiences. To my surprise, I received a favourable response inviting me to see him at his home in Nugegoda. It was about 4.30 pm and he asked me what I was looking for? I replied, citing the two incidents that I mentioned, and told him they showed that he had the capacity to lead, plan and execute projects, even an armed resistance; and as a student in management, I was keen to learn from his experience. Thereafter, having said what almost lasted 3 1/2 hours, I realized that I have gained more in-depth exposure than attending a Harvard MBA. It was not a boast of accomplishments but a factual narrative.
He started with his appointment in managing, as the GM of GODB, (Gal Oya Development Board), and related how when he was one week into his post the truck drivers went on strike. They put on 21 demands and possibly were thinking we can make merry of this green horn. “I studied the 21 demands’, he related ‘and realized that at least 7 of them the Board was at fault for not implementing as they were mandatory rules in employment. I then rearranged them in a manner where these 7 demands were at the head of the list and summoned the Union leaders for a meeting. “The meeting started around 4.30 pm and went on till 6.30 pm during which time I kept on arguing that the Board cannot agree on the first demand. Then I announced, ‘all right, we will allow this demand’. He could see the triumphant smiles all round and then the next demand was taken and again the arguments went on till about 10.30 pm. It is late and one can see tiredness around. Then he announced that the Board will grant the second demand too. Jubilation around the Union leaders and the next one was argued well past midnight and then Mr. Jayaweera announced ‘alright, we will agree on this too’. Then the Union Leaders stood up and declared ‘sir, we can see you are a very fair gentleman and we trust you will do justice to our demands and we are calling off the strike’. Do not try to take advantage of your employees, be responsible and ensure they get a fair deal.
In 1965, under the new government the SLBC was inaugurated and he was appointed the First Chairman by then PM, Hon Dudley Senanayake. It was earlier a government department and he knew that there would be annual reports prepared by the head of the department and he found the reports for the previous five years and studied them meticulously before assuming duties. Broadcasting was a highly technical subject and the employees were confident that Mr. Jayaweera, an administrator, would make a mess of the new corporation and the expectations were low. After a few days, he summoned a meeting of the heads of the sections and invited them to relate what kind of issues they were facing. The first one related a highly technical issue that is hampering broadcasting, and when he was finishing his presentation, Mr. Jayaweera quietly asked, “Didn’t you have the same problem for the last two years and then why was nothing done about it?’ Pindrop silence around the table and nobody spoke, until Mr. Jayaweera named another head and asked him to speak. Naturally, he was very cautious and the presentation was without complaints but with productive suggestions. The meeting ended with lots of goodwill established and the genuine feeling that the new Chairman means business.
This was the period when Hon Dudley Senanayake launched the waga sangramaya and the SLBC took a leading role in propagating it with lots of programmes, so much so that the joke was ‘when you switch on your radio, it starts producing rice’. This made Mr. Jayaweera labelled as a UNP stooge and hence the removal soon after the government changed. Mr. Jayaweera commented, ‘I was not a stooge of anybody, but I was convinced that the only way the country can progress is to achieve self-sufficiency in food and that all of us as citizens should contribute towards that noble objective. I did the job I was entrusted with to the best of my ability’.
Mr. Jayaweera said, one should never be afraid to take on a new assignment as long as one had self-confidence, and what was necessary was to take time and study the subject thoroughly. Learn to ask questions, listen patiently and never let others know what you do not know. Always address subordinates by name and when you come into the office/workplace in the morning and do not wait for others to say ‘good morning’, but be the first to say it. If you are managing a technical place, listen to the ordinary mechanics but check with the engineers. All the mechanics are very proud of the fact that engineers do not have the same skills they have, and always will try to belittle the efforts of the engineers. Your job is to understand that engineers are of different disciplines and are certainly not expected to be skilled workers, but as the Manager it is your job to get them to perform to the best of their ability for the benefit of your organization.
At that time I was in my late 20s, but his narrative gave me lots of insight into how I could handle a job better and have benefitted from this three and a half hours conversation immensely, in a way I am grateful that this wonderful person shared all his experiences with a novice without any hesitation. Today, if one wishes to learn anything there are many implements and the Internet can get you information at the push of a button. The methods he adopted during a period when such sophisticated information sharing was not available and his willingness to share them, I think make him a giant among others. He believed in sharing knowledge, as that is the only way one can make it last forever. He led by example and showed that it is your conviction that will define your attitude and then, decisions that you make will be all correct.
May his soul rest in peace!