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Shalini Thirunilathil | Agile Coach Lead & a Brand and Outreach Lead | Hargreaves Lansdown

Shalini Thirunilathil: Leading with Emotional Intelligence and an Agile Mindset

It is easy to aspire; however, one must be a difference maker to inspire. When Insights Success embarked on a journey to find difference makers who have inspired people through their work and are paving a path towards a better future, “The 10 Most Inspiring Women Leaders to Follow in 2022,” we came across Shalini Thirunilathil.

Let us dive in deep about Shalini’s professional journey as the Agile Coach Lead and a Brand and Outreach Lead at Hargreaves Lansdown.

Below are the highlights of the interview:

Brief your audience about your career journey as an IT Leader?

I grew up in Kerala, the tropical paradise of India, a land that flourished with waving coconut palm trees, backwaters, hill stations, and sandy beaches. It’s a truly beautiful part of the world, and I was fortunate to be born and raised there.

From a very young age, I always dreamt of working in IT. I never even thought about other careers. I completed my schooling in Kerala and then moved to Tamil Nadu for a four-year degree course in Information Technology. These four years are so close to my heart as they broadened my knowledge of the world of IT. My parents also fuelled my enthusiasm with a lot of support and exciting discussions about technology.

My very first job in the UK was with Cancer Research UK as a volunteer Assistant Manager.

In September 2007, I got my first technical job as a Graduate Software Developer at Civica in Leeds. While there, I had the chance to try software testing, which was a bit of a diversion, but I still decided to try it. It was something I really enjoyed, so I continued to work as a software tester in organisations including Proactis, Springer Nature, IBM, SAP Concur, and O2. I worked my way up through roles like Senior Tester, Automation Tester, Test Lead, and Test Manager.

Along the way, I realised my true strength is working with people – whether it’s supporting, coaching, mentoring, communication, or collaboration. Working with senior stakeholders and leadership teams gave me great insight into leadership and led me to roles like Scrum Master, Delivery Manager, and Agile Coach at LexisNexis and IRIS Software Group. In 2022 I took on a challenging dual role as Lead Agile Coach and a Brand & Outreach Lead working for Hargreaves Lansdown, an incredible organisation and FTSE-100 company.

Of course, I ended up taking a lot of risks along the way. But I never gave up on my dreams. I have always been keen to explore different technologies, domains, and companies. This excitement, enthusiasm, and passion for knowing the unknowns in the technology industry gave me fantastic opportunities to work in various departments, organisations and provided me with some great opportunities.

In 2019, I was one of the finalists for ‘Role Model of the Year’ by Computing Women in Tech Excellence awards, and in 2020 I was honoured as an ‘Inspirational Leader’ by RISE Synapse QA community. In 2021 I won ‘Team Leader of the Year’ award in the Women in Tech Excellence Awards.

Generally, when we start a journey, we have a plan, and we think if we deviate from the plan, it may not work. Deviations feel risky; indeed, it is a gamble, and not many of us choose to go through them. But what doesn’t have a risk in life? I have been here in the UK for 14 years now, with lots of twists and turns in my career. I am always grateful for all those complicated, challenging, and tough experiences because the myriad of positive ways those experiences contributed to my career growth is inconceivable. Each deviation and challenge has led to positive growth in some way, which I am really grateful for.

What is the BIGGEST LESSON you learned in your life?

It’s simple: ‘Courage is doing what you are afraid to do.’ Often, we don’t try something challenging because we’re afraid of failing or we’re worried others will judge us.

At the start of my career, I was nervous about trying new things, and I didn’t believe in myself. I was hesitant to talk about how I felt, which made me miserable. I wound up simply performing the mundane tasks given to me.

All that changed when I started to try new things. I also received an incredible amount of support from my managers and mentors when I gathered the courage to speak out and collaborate with them.

Many of us in today’s competitive world are so afraid or scared of failure. Failure is not a crime, and everyone occasionally fails in life. Failure is normal. The most important thing is to learn from those mistakes and develop yourself. My experiences taught me a great lesson: that the only way I could gain courage was to get involved in the tasks that I was not familiar with.

I learned it’s fine to make mistakes and to be more vocal and visible in an organisation. Remember, no one fails in life continuously. For some, results are seen quickly; for some others, it takes time; either way, you will succeed if you work hard persistently and be determined. Being courageous and trying new things made me realise that it’s okay not to know everything.

In today’s society, you’re likely to be judged for who you are: your colour, your ethnicity, and your background. But try not to worry about how others see you or how society judges you. The most important aspect is how you feel about yourself. I have made an effort to cultivate a positive inner voice, and I make a point of listening to that instead.

What challenges did you face along the way in your career?

There are quite a lot of challenges I faced in my career journey, especially as a woman in a leadership position, but these are the top three:

  1. Different mindsets

We often expect people to behave like us. But not everyone is alike. Try to understand others, help, and coach them. If you’ve made a mistake, accept it graciously – and most importantly, learn from it.

  1. Building trust

This is a challenge when you move to a new organisation. We’re all keen to earn the trust of others. But you have to give trust first before you attempt to earn it back from others.

Building trust takes time in any relationship. Be patient. Over the years, I learned that it doesn’t matter how long you work for an organisation – what matters is how you work in an organisation. Your work will speak for you.

  1. Difficult conversations

None of us like tough or difficult conversations. While I climbed the ladder to leadership, I was also the same. But my experiences taught me to deal with it. Never try to escape from difficult people or difficult conversations. Be bold! Face up to the difficulties, but do so with empathy.

I have always been determined to listen, respect, and appreciate others. I know now that these are essential capabilities of leadership. Working like this has given me the courage, confidence, passion, and positivity that transformed me from a shy, quiet girl to a woman with the confidence to write articles, give presentations, coach teams, and organise and lead events.

What does leadership mean to you? Take us through your experience of winning the Team Leader of the Year award ‘Women in Tech Excellence awards 2021.’

Leadership means different things to different people. Some see it as commanding and controlling, being at the top of a hierarchy, and demanding that teams are focused on targets and delivery.

I work differently. My leadership style is pure coaching. I encourage people to bring the best version of themselves and help them flourish in their careers. Seeing others succeed and truly achieve their potential motivates me to better myself and create opportunities for others to improve. This has been particularly true during the pandemic, which caused understandable depression and anxiety in many employees. I think today’s leaders and coaches can play a crucial role in supporting the team emotionally with hardships and challenges.

I also look at leadership through an artistic lens. Leadership resounds with art. Good leaders develop the practice by influencing, enabling, empowering, guiding, collaborating, and achieving a shared goal. Good leaders act as compassionate friends to the team and the organisation. They need to have emotional intelligence, compassion, empathy, and patience. For some people, these qualities come naturally; for others, they need some proactive development. Either way, I believe good leaders should strive to cultivate and strengthen these qualities in their career pathway.

To me, good leadership comes from home. My understanding of leadership in my professional life is grounded in my personal life. My father is a business leader, and my mother led our household – both are respected and empathetic leaders in their own ways, who, along with my lovely sister, taught me humility and integrity. My fantastic husband, lovely daughter, and I have always been for each other at all times, which is a great team working experience.

The leadership principles I have always followed in my career are Teamwork, Trust, Respect, Humility, Agility, and Inclusivity.

These principles made me who I am today. Winning the WIT award was a great moment that brought tears to my eyes after years of hard work and commitment. To me, success means being happy, not just about your own success but about the success of the people you care for, your team, and your colleagues.

Tell us about Hargreaves Lansdown and your role at HL?

Started in a spare bedroom, Hargreaves Lansdown has grown to become an FSTE 100 company and the UK’s number one platform for private investors, looking after £132.3 billion of savings and investments on behalf of over 1.7 million clients (as of 30 April 2022). With over 40 years of experience in empowering people to save and invest with confidence and helping them build their financial resilience over the long-term, we provide a lifelong, secure home for people’s savings and investments that offers great value and an incredible service making their financial life easy.

Through our website and app, our clients have access to almost 15,000 investment options. HL’s purpose is to empower people to save and invest with confidence, and our vision is to be the UK’s most client-obsessed company.

At HL, I have two challenging roles; I am an Agile Coach Lead and a Brand and Outreach Lead.

I use the word ‘agile’ to describe a mindset. It’s about understanding others, being willing to work with others, being nimble, adapting to frequent change, and sticking to the Agile Manifesto’s 12 principles and four core values. Agile software development helps teams deliver value faster. It requires constant collaboration with customers and key stakeholders and between the team themselves, whether for gathering requirements or designing solutions.

As a Lead Agile Coach, I constantly try to improve organisational agility. Getting everyone on board with the agile ways of working is not easy. This role requires significant coaching, collaboration, and leadership skills. I use my agile mindset and emotional intelligence to coach and understand individuals, their emotions, and their struggles. These skillsets have helped me bring the best version of my team, bringing people together to encourage collaboration through various discussions and events, be they internal meetings, workshops, or external meet-up events. I also remove impediments for the agile coach team, ensuring they have a psychologically safe environment to work in and flourish in their career.

As a Brand and Outreach Lead, I’m here to strengthen the reputation of HL Digital in the technology industry. My job is to make sure the outside world knows all about the great job our team is doing and that colleagues in HL get great opportunities to learn from the industry.

What top tips would you give to aspiring technology and business leaders?

Team leadership is a challenging role at times. Back-to-back meetings, busy schedules, tight delivery plans, and lack of resources can drain our energy. I always suggest reaching out to other senior leaders and asking them for their advice on how to deal with these situations – remember, you are not alone.

My top tip is: ‘Don’t give up on your dreams and goals. Believe in yourself and your inner strength.’ Be persistent in your goals, work hard, and make them a reality in the future.

Success and failure are two sides of a coin that you’ll encounter along the way – accept both of them gracefully. Embrace failure and understand that it is a steppingstone to success. Humility is an essential trait required for a leader from my perspective. Never forget your roots and where you come from. Your role, designation, and position should not change the underlying person you are. Trust and respect yourself; that will automatically lead to understanding and respecting others. Always have a passion for continuous improvement. Having an inspirational role model will also help you. Find a great leader and ask them about their career journey; everyone who is in a senior leadership role now has been through all the difficulties you’re facing now. Seek motivation in their shared experiences and wisdom. Today’s society needs great leaders, most importantly, wonderful human beings. Each one of us can make a small difference in society in our own ways. The only person who can stop you from achieving your dreams is you yourself.

What are your goals in the upcoming future?

There is a myth in this industry that most people start in a particular role, then stay in it as they progress up the career ladder. Having an experienced role gives you knowledge of an area or subject in-depth, but I would recommend trying out and experiencing other roles, too; you may succeed and enjoy the different roles even better. But to experience that, you need to take a chance and be open to risk. An open and agile mindset along with emotional intelligence made me who I am today as a successful leader and, most importantly, a successful human being. My career story has already inspired and motivated many individuals across the industry. Over the next few years, I hope you can see me on some great platforms where I am keen to share my story, the importance of an agile mindset, and emotional intelligence. These traits are not just for leaders for any employee who would like to be successful in their careers.

I am also working towards inspiring and bringing many women’s talents to the tech industry. A survey by Tech Nation showed that 78% of tech director roles are filled by men. And the tech workforce, more broadly, is made up of 81% men. Only 19% of the people working in tech in the UK are women.

Even though the tech industry is becoming more diverse, it is clear to see that women are underrepresented in STEM roles, and the gender gap is still an issue. So, we want more women to come into the varied roles in the tech industry. So, though all organisations are trying to improve, I think we could do more. The technology industry is amazing, but we need talented individuals working in it, and it will be great to see both women and men having an equal contribution to all the great technology solutions in the future. There are a lot of amazing men and women helping me out in this journey, giving me some great platforms to inspire and motivate women to get into and flourish in the tech industry.

Enlighten us on how you made the change and impacted the tech industry through your expertise and Leadership?

I firmly believe the tech industry is awe-inspiring, and I have always felt a significant responsibility to support, help and expose others’ true talents to the outside world. Today, we live in a very competitive, unpredictable, and dynamic world. That’s why agility is not a choice.

I have experienced many roles, organisations, domains, tools, and technologies thanks to an agile mindset. The direct impact I made on the tech industry is proving that there are diverse roles in this industry, and this industry welcomes people from any background.

All we need to do is identify those opportunities and work towards achieving our goals. I never waited too long for any chance in my career. I love helping people, so I found every single opportunity where I can guide, support, and inspire them. I played a crucial role in the success of many of my mentees and teams. My primary focus in my career is to impact the career lives of many individuals, motivate them, and guide and inspire them. I do that by publishing articles, giving talks, and attending events and panel discussions.

It was incredible to understand how even small actions can make an impact on many people. I always try my best to retain experienced individuals by giving them good pathways for career progression and introducing new individuals from diverse backgrounds and cultures by providing them with the right platform and opportunities. I feel truly blessed to make an impact in my small ways on the tech industry and society.