Sreelatha Surendranathan, SVP, Chief Digital Officer, UL

Read the full interview here

  • Sreelatha Surendranathan

    Q. Where did you grow up, and what were some important early influences that really shaped who you are as a leader today?

    A. I grew up in India and moved to the States for work after school. I can’t say that there were indications in my childhood of what I would do in the future. But the one thing that characterized me from an early age was that I was a nonconformist and had issues with being led. Right or wrong, I just had to do what I thought was right.

  • Sreelatha Surendranathan

    Q. Where do you think that came from?

    A. It’s a force of conviction. My parents are cut of the same cloth. There was a stark juxtaposition of the financial situation my family came from and the schooling I had. My father firmly believed that a good quality education was the most important asset he could give us, so we were sent to a school that was far beyond our means. That meant there was a lot of inequity with the other students in the class, as well. So you have to look for ways to stand out and establish your identity.

  • Sreelatha Surendranathan

    Q. Were you in leadership roles early on?

    A. I was. School clubs, literary clubs for the most part. I was also big into service, which came from a chance meeting with Mother Teresa. I had an opportunity to teach working women. They didn’t have the wherewithal for a good education, nor did they have an environment where they could practice their communication skills.

    I had an opportunity in 10th grade, over the summer holidays, to teach working women how to speak English. My primary interest was the 500 rupees that they said they would pay the student, which is a sizeable amount for someone of that age looking for a bit of pocket money. But I went in and found a whole group of women who wanted to start a cottage industry rolling tobacco.

    They had no support at home, and they could not even put together a letter proposing their plan to the local mayors. I was all of 14 but it changed my perspective in a big way. The 500 rupees I was being paid really didn’t matter anymore, and I stayed with that for quite a while. That was my first foray into service, and I still carry that forward.

  • Sreelatha Surendranathan

    Q. What is the best mentoring advice somebody’s ever given you?

    A. Someone once said to me, “Sreelatha, in an all-boys’ network, you’ve got the perfect trifecta of things that will work against you. You’re a woman, you’re middle-aged, and you are an Indian.” To me, that was a challenge to make that work to my benefit rather than letting it be a disadvantage.

    I thought there would be a problem for me in leading hundreds of team members, mostly men. I was concerned they wouldn’t follow my leadership. But I found that just being authentic really helped, and not being afraid to state when I’m wrong. I have a basic principle that the best path to success is to surround myself with people who know more than I do. I ended up with a team that was really strong, very supportive. I had their backs throughout, they had mine, and we were able to be quite successful.

  • Sreelatha Surendranathan

    Q. Have you ever encountered headwinds in meetings that made you have to take somebody aside, either during the meeting or afterward, to have a tough conversation?

    A. I’ve had to, particularly with either peers or managers. These were a rare occurrence, but it has happened. I’ve had situations where a question was put directly to me, but my peer at that time felt that it was his responsibility to answer.

    Later on, he pulled me aside, and he said, “Have you watched the movie The Godfather?” I said, “I have. Why?” He said, “When the godfather speaks, no one else does.” I was shocked. I didn’t have an answer right then. I took my time, and I called him the next day and said, “The next few words out of your mouth had better be that you’re either very sorry or that you found another job because there’s no other way we’re going to be working together again.”

  • Sreelatha Surendranathan

    Q. And did he apologize?

    A. Yes, he did. We remain friends.

  • Sreelatha Surendranathan

    Q. What are the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned over the course of your career?

    A. The first one is make it less about yourself. Make it more about how you support your teams in a growth mode, especially when they’re conflicted. It’s about how to channel their energies to move people to being comfortable with change.

    It’s about being authentic and showing your true self and being able to lead with it. It’s about how you energize your teams, because at the end of the day, when people quit, most of the time it’s not about money or the organization. It’s about their relationship with their leader. So be careful and be mindful of how you come across to them, and what your role means to them, not necessarily what it means to you.

  • Sreelatha Surendranathan

    Q. What is your advice to the workhorses of the world who are uncomfortable trying to get credit for their accomplishments?

    A. I was a workhorse. I was focused on execution and doing what I said I was going to do. But you need an advocate. I’ve been fortunate to have sponsors and mentors. You need somebody who will see the value that you bring and be able to speak on your behalf, because not everybody’s comfortable speaking out for themselves. I value the workhorses quite a bit, and today in my role, I see my job to make sure that they get the limelight they deserve.