In Good Faith
Sharala Axryd, chief executive officer of ASEAN Data Analytics Exchange (ADAX), revises Samantha Lim’s understanding of what it means to be a loved leader
She refers to me as ‘my colleague,’” says the doeeyed dame with earnest enthusiasm. “I’ve never felt smothered here.” A rumbling chuckle suspends our conversation. Seated across the sofa from us looking bemused and a bit pleased, Sharala Axryd shoots her assistant a warm smile, which is reciprocated in kind. “Why so well behaved?” teases the CEO of ADAX. She turns to me. “I promise you, I didn’t train them to speak so highly of me!” Some might simply put it down to being a Friday, but instinct dictates that ADAX, an abbreviation of ASEAN Data Analytics Exchange, is more often relaxed and never repressive. A lesson in dichotomies, Sharala manages to take the ‘boss’ out of ‘bossy’, which is somewhat surprising, given her own regimented upbringing.
A PENANGITE IN SWEDEN
“I come from a very typical Hindu family,” discloses Sharala. “For instance, we didn’t even use sticker pottus but the powdered kind.” More booming laughter ensues. Born and raised in Bukit Mertajam, Sharala felt parental pressure to choose one of two vocations. Being a teacher meant long school holidays (all the better for raising a brood), whereas becoming a bank officer warranted easy access to loans. “But I like engineering, business and mathematics,” she shrugs. In 1993, she flew the coop for Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, but sought further waters after spending a decade in KL. Lured to the Land of the Vikings, Sharala settled down in Sweden from 2005 until 2012. It was there where she first began to ponder on the significance of ‘accountability.’ “In Sweden there is a train system that only charges its passengers once if commuting within a 90-minute period. One day I posed the following question to my husband Robert, who is Swedish: ‘Why does the public pay up even though there aren’t any conductors?’” Her spouse answered with another question: “Are you not earning enough that you can’t afford your ride?” “That was when it hit me,” confesses Sharala, looking somewhat sombre. “It is the mentality of the Swedes that allows for such a system. If a service is built for your benefit, why must there be watchmen to monitor? Most laws exist to benefit society, so why abuse them?”
A CHILD’S INTEGRITY
An analogous incident took place after Sharala and her family had moved back to Malaysia: “We were at Bata and the kids found a way to amuse themselves—they’d chanced upon a toy car and were playing with it,” recalls Sharala. “When it was time to leave, I told my son that he could take the toy.” Much to Sharala’s surprise, her son declined. “If its owner comes looking for it, it will be here,” replied the child innocently. “It didn’t even cross my mind,” she admits. “But it got me thinking: if a kid can adopt the right mindset, I, as an adult, should do the same.”
THE GOLDEN RULE
Naturally, our conversation drifts towards creating a culture of accountability in the workplace. “Here at ADAX, we have unlimited leaves and flexible working hours,” says Sharala, pausing to laugh at my incredulous expression. “At the end of the day, it all comes down to trust and
responsibility, and I want to empower my employees with the chance to make good choices.” Though neither easy nor an overnight task, but one she deems worthwhile, Sharala strives to create an ecosystem whereby her employees take ownership and responsibility. Like plants that thrive when transferred to bigger receptacles, ADAX and its employees are flourishing under her leadership. Simple but true, Sharala’s final message to us applies to the personal, professional and public spheres: “You get what you give,” is her belief.
“If a kid can adopt the right mindset, I, as an adult, should do the same”