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Bernard Sinniah spent almost 40 years at Citi, starting as a FX Trader in Sri Lanka and ending his career there as Global Head (eFX Solutions) in the UK. He also authored a book called "Jaffna Boy" back in 2015 in addition to investing in several start-up companies in Sri Lanka, including being a board member at SenzAgro. He is currently a sales trainer & keynote speaker leveraging his experience and knowledge in building teams that produced over $500 million in annual revenue.
You were at Citi for almost 40 years, which is very much unheard of today where somebody stays at a company for that long. What made you stay?
Citi was a great ride for me. Along the way, I felt like my efforts and value were recognized by management there. I was also afforded the opportunity to learn new skills which then put me in a better position to secure more senior roles. I had wonderful colleagues, which made my time there quite enjoable. Finally, I felt like I was rewarded appropriately both from a financial compensation standpoint as well as with great titles (via promotions). It's quite difficult to stay at one company for 5 years, let alone almost 40 year without being happy. I also experienced my share of disappointments, but ultimately it was the people that made it a great place to work for me.
Did you find it difficult to manage your life outside of work (ie. family, hobbies, etc.) while taking on high-level management roles at Citi?
Absolutely, especially with all my travelling, late dinners & events. Thankfully I had a wife who supported me through my journey. Also, managing different aspects of your life comes down to prioritization.
Do you feel like there needs to be more diversity in the C-suite and board level based on your own experience?
Yes, of course and we still have a long way to go. A lot of institutions have worked hard on this challenge and have been successful in bringing more diversity within their workforce. One thing I will say is that I'm not a believer in diversity just for the sake of it, including a quota system. I believe in making the work environment attractive enough to bring in the right candidates from a variety of backgrounds who can then excel there. The conditions should create a situation where anybody who comes in should feel like they have been put in a position to succeed.
You had written a book called “Jaffna Bay” back in 2015. What prompted you to write that book?
I wrote this book because I really enjoyed my boarding life at St. John's College in Jaffna, arguably the best school in the world. I had an absolute blast during this time in my life. I also learned a lot in my time at the school. I wanted people who read the book to get a glimpse of what life was like at the school along with how an experience like that could drastically impact the growth trajectory of an individual, personality-wise.
Congrats on joining SenzAgro as a board member. What prompted you to take this opportunity on?
I have invested in a few start-up companies in Sri Lanka with SenzAgro being one of them. After I invested, they requested that I join the board. I jumped at the chance as I love technology and SenzAgro's value proposition of bringing greater efficiency to agri-based companies was exciting to me.
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Do you have any mentors that have helped you in the progression of your career? Do you think everybody needs mentors? How does somebody find a mentor?
Yes, with 2 individuals in particular standing out. One was my first boss in Sri Lanka, Sanjiva Senanayake, who was a tremendous human being who taught me quite a bit, but most importantly was one to treat everyone respectfully. The second person was one of my bosses in Australia, Steve Anthony. The major takeaway I got from him was that a great leader must lead his team in a way that they achieve something that they themselves never thought was possible in the first place.
I personally think that it's a good idea to have a mentor or coach. It never hurts to have resources at your disposal to improve yourself. That person doesn't have to be a stranger, it could even be a friend or even your life partner.
Finding the right mentor is tough. Changing mentors is also a tricky endeavour. Ideally, it's best to invest time upfront to find the right mentor. I would first think about your personal goals and ambitions as this is an important first step. The next step would be to find somebody who has already found great success doing the things you want to do. One note of caution is that just like in any relationship, no mentor-mentee fit is absolutely perfect so make sure to set your expectations accordingly.
What advice would you give to young Tamil people out there today?
Believe, believe, believe!
Try not to look at yourself in a limiting way. For example, just because you are Tamil and you don't get that promotion, don't automatically assume you were passed-over because of discrimination. It's easier said then done, but I try to look at myself (in a professional setting) without any labels which include colour, race, etc.
They say ‘your attitude determines your altitude’. Having a positive mindset with clear sets of goals with actional steps that you can execute is the path to have a fulfilled, happy life.
What do you think you would tell 16-year Bernard looking back?
Believe in yourself, even when nobody else does.
What is your favourite book(s) you’ve read recently and why?
I only read biographies, historical and sports-related books. I cannot read fiction!
Recently I read a book called ‘In the Lion’s Shadow’ by Fariborz Mokhtari. It is an amazing true story of an Iranian diplomat who helped the Jews during the Second World War. The big takeaway for me was that 99% of the people in the world are good people, even though it seems like that this isn't the case.
I also will recommend all books written by Paul Coelho.
What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?
I have recently started to learn the piano. I never touched a piano before April 2020. I do 20-minute practice sessions and do 90 minutes a day. I write down exactly what I did each day. This habit made me focus more as the more I documented my efforts, the more I wanted to practice. I broke down my goals into 20-hour increments. My first goal was to get to 20 hours of purposeful practicing on the piano with the subsequent goals of 40 hours, 60 hours, etc.
What I have learned during this process is that anybody can learn anything but they need to be discplined in their approach by breaking up a big goal (ie. learn to play the piano) into smaller, more easily disgestable steps (20-minute practice sesions). Talent is overrated as there is no substitute for hard work.
If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?
I will focus on the differently abled children in the developing world. I've found through research and my own personal experiences, that people who are differently abled (ex. being blind, deaf or austitic) are treated very poorly or even abandoned. As such, I feel like this amount of money could do a lot to change the perception of differently abled children/people in the developing world.
How would you describe the Tamil community in the UK?
Progressive and over-acheivers. However, we do need provide more support to the Tamil communities back in Sri Lanka so that they believe in themselves and escape wallowing in a victim mentality.
What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?
Puttu, cuttle fish curry and omelette...sometimes I add sugar!
What is your favourite Tamil movie?
My favourite actor is Sujatha and one of her flims which I really enjoy is "Aval Oru Thoddarkathai".
What does Tamil culture mean to you?
I don't think that there is one definition of what Tamil culture is. I think ultimately culture means different things for different people. So for me, it's about picking what works for me from a cultural point of view and incorporating it in my day-to-day life.
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