Tribute to a Great Man

I woke up with a terrible headache this morning. It has been a long time since I felt such pain.I contemplated taking a half day off, but as I have an important meeting this morning, I decided to go to work. But by the time I got to my office, I still felt horrible… I decided to ask my colleague to help me handle the meeting.My phone rang. It’s my friend B. “Have you heard the bad news?”I was sitting down at my table, with my head resting on the table. I did not know what to expect.”Sunil just passed away.”"Oh my gosh! You are kidding! What happened?”"He had a heart attack last night, in Poland.”"Oh my gosh! I can’t believe it! How old is he? He’s so young!”"He’s 54. Doesn’t look his age at all right?”We both did not know what else to say… there was nothing left to say… after saying our good-byes, we put down the phone.B told me that this piece of news was in Straits Times, but I did not manage to locate it. Did a search on Google News, but did not manage to find anything… but I managed to find this other article instead…

Citibank Takes Its Pulse With Staff Lunches

By Shu Shin Luh
From The Asian Wall Street Journal

SINGAPORE — Faced with the twin perils of low morale and fleeing employees, Citibank reacted as would many big banks: it planned a little lunch.

Meet the host: Sunil Sreenivasan, a radical in pinstripes who heads the corporate bank in Singapore, a position he previously held in Malaysia.

Introduced more than five years ago, his “pulse lunch” program has resulted in lower staff turnover. It illustrates how a thoughtful manager can create a workable solution for seemingly intractable and expensive problems. The weekly bill of fare is simple: managers listen to employee concerns — taking their pulse — then act on the concerns.

I read the article, and I broke down and cry.

Sunil Sreenivasan, ex-CCO (Citigroup Country Officer) of Citigroup Malaysia and Singapore, and before passing on, Citibank’s regional head of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland… he was known simply as Sunil to his staff. And that’s how he wanted it. Not Mr. Sunil, or Mr. Sreenivasan, simply… Sunil.

I started my first job in Citigroup Singapore as a Management Associate (MA). I remember my first meeting with Sunil. It was at one of the breakfasts that he held for the MAs. He looked more like a Bollywood movie star than a banker. He’s tall, he’s always dressed in these well-pressed, pin-striped suits. His hair is always in place, and when he walks into the room, every head will turn as his mere presence commands attention. And when he speaks, his voice is calm and measured. You will never hear him shout or raise his voice. He just needs to look at you with those intelligent eyes of his, you’ll know that it’s time to shut up.

I do not have that many personal encounters with Sunil, but I do remember every single one of the encounters that we had.

Every year during Chinese New Year, Sunil will take the effort to ‘make the rounds’. He would visit all the departments, whether it’s in the city or the operations centre in the suburban area to wish his employees “Happy Chinese New Year”. He will be walking together with the HR manager, who will tell him each and every person’s name when they drop by the individual cubicles, and he will give you your angpow and mandarin oranges personally.

When he walked to my cubicle, he came to me with my angpow and mandarin oranges, “Violet, here’s to wishing you and your family a prosperous New Year.”

That’s Sunil for you. He could be somewhere else making new deals, or playing golf with other CEOS, but he believes that employees satisfaction drives customer satisfaction, which drives bottom line. And he walks the talk.

After being in the MA program for awhile, both my MA advisor and I agreed that I am not cut out for finance. It was time to move on. During his time, Sunil did each and every exit interview for the corporate bank’s employees. I was sitting outside his office, waiting to see him, I did not know what to think.

His secretary finally said, “Violet, he’s ready to see you.”

I walked in to his spick and span office. Sunil believes in the paperless office environment. Hence, all you see on his table is his PC. He was in one of his signature white shirts, and black pants.

He talked to me, about my future. He asked if I still wanted to stay on with the bank. He asked me what areas I would want to explore if finance is not my cup of tea. Imagine this, here we have a man who has 3500 staff under him, and he’s interested to find out more about what I want to be and where I want to go.

I told him I was interested in HR, as there’s what I majored in for my Masters. He told me that he would find me a new posting. I wasn’t sure whether to believe him. As I was a mere 1 in 3500.

Sure enough, I was posted to HR, and I spent the next year rotating in HR learning about various functions, before I left to start my own business.

I have always meant to thank him. Maybe send him a Christmas card when he was in Poland. But I just never got round to it. And now, it’s just too late.

I learnt so much from him. He is a man of his words. He is a man who cares about his employees. He is a man who walks the talk.

When he left Singapore, it’s as if he took part of it away with him. I felt the bank never felt the same anymore. But it is a comforting thought that he was bringing his great inspiration to the rest of the world.

After settling down in Poland, the first thing he did was to send the Head of HR to Singapore to learn how to set up the HR Call Centre. Imagine! We have a special hot line to call if we the employees have any issues!

His legacy I believe is in people management… to be the kind of manager that he has been to rest of us. A manager who takes the time to care…

Goodbye Sunil. Thank you for the inspiration. We will miss you.

Post Note: Jamie said… even though Sunil died at what I would call a premature age, but he has lived a full life. He has actually made an impact in so many people’s lives. My friend B (who broke the news to me) is also an ex-Citibanker. Two ex-Citibankers who are so affected by his death. Jamie said he would not be terribly affected if he heard that the CEO of his ex-company (also a bank) passed away, because he does not know him at all. And I guess that’s true.

Sunil has touched so many people’s lives, and because of him I will always remember: in all my dealings… to be on the ground, stay in touch with your people, as a true leader is someone who serves others and not be served by others.

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Violet Lim

VIOLET LIM is a real-life modern matchmaker who has founded Asia's leading lunch dating company Lunch Actually (www.lunchactually.com). Violet is the bestselling author of the dating book 'Lessons From 15,000 First Dates'. She is also an acknowledged dating and relationship expert who has been featured on more than 1000 media coverage including ABC News 20/20, Bloomberg, CNBC Asia, CNN Go, Channel News Asia, USA Today, TV Tokyo and Singapore’s National Day Video 2005 as one of Singapore’s most aspiring people. Violet is happily married to her university sweetheart Jamie and they have two young children.

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11 Comments

  1. Marian /

    An hour ago, a colleague, Citibanker, asked me if I have a mentor in Citibank… I simply asked: “Sunil.. but you had not the opportunity to meet him…” This brought me immediately nice memories back…
    I wanted to see a photo of him and searched the internet. I reached your blog and read your story.
    Mine would be….

    Back in 2004, December I guess, I was working, seated at my cubicle, in a standard employee of a multinational financial institution. The president of that time came to our cubicles and introduced ourselves to a tall, strange dressed for the casual Friday, exotic if I may say, man. He came to me and reached his hand when he was 3 steps in from of me. I was fascinated and could not drop my eyes from his “look”. That look was reading me, scaning me, but in a very intelligent and non-aggresive way. He shake my hand and it was a “perfect” shake, like he studied it years and years. In the evening I joined a townhall where he talked to the staff. His hair, perfectly arranged, his suit, perfect, his gestures, like an actor, his nails, everything was like a long pre-studied.

    Have a look at the attached and remember:
    http://www.amcham.yu/photo_galery62.asp

    I went to Budapest after one year and joined a pulse lunch with him. In the evening I also attended a business meeting with him and another about 100 people. I was amazed. All were like hypnotized. He was getting everyones attention with his body language, eyes look… everything. At that time I said to myself: “I wish I had such a mentor. I want to work with him and learn from him.”
    Few months later, after returning from my December holiday, my colleagues, who knew that I was appreciating him a lot, whispered: “Have you heard? Sunil is dead.” It was a bad joke… But that time, life itself did a bad joke..

    I dream to read his biography one day. I want to talk to people who worked close to him and lived close to him. I guess he left a trace everywhere he stepped by… I hope I hear more about him in the near future.. For me, Sunil has become an enigma.. I want to know how he did everything he did…

    ..And, yes… I miss a perfect handshake.

    [Reply]

  2. Dear Marian,

    Thank you for dropping by and sharing with me your story. It is indeed a beautiful story, and as I read through what I wrote more than a year ago, and what you shared with me, tears start to roll down my cheeks once more.

    Isn’t it amazing, how one man can inspire thousands, and leave such an everlasting legacy?

    Take care, and yes, I too miss that perfect handshake.

    Love,
    Violet

    [Reply]

  3. Alain Hemelinckx /

    Hi Violet
    just read your post on Sunil… and I can not more agree with you, such leaders that are truly interested in people should live forever…
    Kind regards
    Alain

    [Reply]

  4. Hi Alain,

    Thanks for dropping by… yes, true leaders should indeed live forever, and ever more!

    They will… in our hearts.

    Sincerely,
    Violet

    [Reply]

  5. melissa sreenivasan /

    Thank you for your very kind words, it really helps me to think he is remembered so fondly.Thanks again to all.
    Melissa Sreenivasan

    [Reply]

  6. Hi Melissa,
    Thank you for dropping by. Sunil will always be remembered fondly… It is my honour to have met such a wonderful leader!

    [Reply]

  7. Sherie /

    I represented Sunil and family in some personal matters in NYC in the late 80s. I perfect gentlemen, a wonderful human being, his death too early. What a terrible loss to his family and his expanded business network.

    [Reply]

  8. Hi Sherie,

    Thanks for your comment. I will make sure Sunil’s family get your messate.

    Sincerely,
    Violet

    [Reply]

  9. All these beautiful comments about Sunil,brought me back unforgetable memories of his staying in Poland. I will always admire his talents in music, in languages, in business, in public relations. He was such a gifted man. Definately I was blessed with Sunil’s friendship.

    [Reply]

  10. Helen Harris /

    I am approaching my 60th birthday and Sunil would not be far behind me but because of all this I have been looking up all my ex husband and my old friends on the Internet. My husband Ed Harris was Head of Shipping for Continental Bank (we are English) and he met and liked Sunil..we both did and we knew him for about 25 years.. Ed brought him into the Banking world. At that time Sunil was an Auditor. We all had many social evenings together and when Sunil was transferred to America he would come back to London and would always have dinner with my ex husband and I in his favourite restaurant…La Familigia…in Chelsea..It was at this restaurant that he said constantly that he had to give up all this fattening food…pasta dishes laden with cream and eggs etc etc..he said that his cholesterol level was sky high. When we met up in New York we used to go to a restaurant called Metaluna on 67th I think and behind the bar he had his own personal bottle of Grappa…a man who loved eating drinking and living he always used to call us girls Chics which is very foreign language to an English woman but such fun never the less…I have very fond memories of him…

    [Reply]

  11. I just wanted to recall this great tutor's name when I run into this blog.
    It was in 2004 when I went to Warsaw in Poland to do my apprenticeship when I was a student.
    It was the summer practice programme when I first saw him. We weren't even sure I he would come as they said to us that his time is extremely important and nobody knows whether he come or not. He was tall, exotic and fankly, not even resembling a banker. He was talking and acting in a very figurative way. His body language was perfect and he compared us to flock of birds forming an arrow to reach a specific target. He also said that this arrow is as strong as the bird farest in the formation and that everybody contribution is important. This was really inspiring but had something of corporation life, which I dont like.
    Then I successfully ended my trainee programme, finished studies and became a computer programmer. I will remember this one meeting with him forever…
     

    [Reply]

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