21: Transformation Technology Leader Seetha Cristian on Empathy and Self-Reflection

This is a new series on Leaders People Love, where we continue to speak to diverse leaders from across industries and experience levels.

In organizations, transformational leadership plays a crucial role in driving innovation. However, achieving this in a rapidly changing business landscape is no easy task. Several challenges exist to overcome, including resistance, deeply ingrained organizational habits, and the complexity of implementing new strategies. In episode 1 of the Leaders People Love series, hear Seetha Cristian, a Transformation Technology leader, share how skillful communication makes transformations work. She also opens up on her personal journey on how she learned from failures to become the confident leader she is today.

Connect with Seetha Cristian at https://www.linkedin.com/in/seethacristian/

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Seetha: I tried everything. It was not working. And at one point I had to stop and reflect. I was forced to reflect because of the situation. So I guess maybe if someone came to me many years ago and told me you know what, why don’t you just reflect what’s happening? Maybe that would’ve actually saved a lot of my effort to be very honest. But we had to go through journey for a reason. That made me stronger. Now I have badges.

Chuen Chuen: Welcome to agile leaders conversations, a podcast where we deconstruct effective leadership in a changed world. Ignite to leadership potential and unlock possibilities in the future of work. We will dive deep into the minds of human centered professionals, industry experts, and thought leaders, who believe in making a positive difference in the world. As we journey through the stories together, find out how they overcame the challenges of today’s complex workplaces. Drawing upon insights that turned uncertainty into hope and confidence. My name is Yeo Chuen Chuen. I’m an author, executive coach and a global speaker. I’m delighted to have you join us today as we explore the unlimited potential of agile leadership.

 My guest today is Seetha Cristian, a head of change and transformation who is passionate about helping people adopt great processes and achieve peak performance.

As a visionary tech and change management leader with over 20 years of experience. Seetha is passionately committed to driving transformation, growth and efficiency in the financial sector.

Welcome, Seetha. To start off, tell us about yourself. What do you do and why do you do what you do?

Seetha: Thank you very much Chuen Chuen. It has been an honor to actually get that invite from you. It’s a pleasure to see you also.

My name is Seetha Cristian. I am a highly accomplished transformation technology leader. I have about 22 years of expertise in technology delivery, strategy, as well as transformation. I also have a very clear track record of spearheading complex projects, driving significant savings. Because at the end of the day we want savings.

I’m passionate about what I do, because I firmly believe in the power of driving transformative change.

Human-centered design is another aspect that fuels my motivation. That’s another favorite topic for me. Seeing the positive effect that it has on the stakeholder, especially buy-in, project success rates, and change adoption is incredibly rewarding, but not many uses.

The principles of agile resonates very deeply with me because I’ve witnessed exceptional outcomes achieved by my team so far through the implementation of these methodologies. This actually fuels my passion for continuous improvement as well as efficiency. And I’m motivated by the challenge of optimizing projects completion rates. So, that keeps me pumped.

Another thing is fostering the culture of innovation and collaboration. So when you have the drive, there’s so many things that you can actually activate. It is mindset, and I’m pointing at myself.

Delivering technology projects while managing risks, developing comprehensive roadmaps and ensuring regulatory compliance gives me a very fulfilling aspects for my work.. Because the moment you have roadmap in front of you, it is very clear where you are heading. It’s fine if you are actually doing a pivot, but it’s clear to everyone.

As a leader, I’m inspired by the opportunity to make a positive impact on individuals and the teams. So fostering an environment of growth, collaboration, and success brings me a lot of joy. It’s a driving force actually, because at the end of the day, it is like you seeing your child succeed.

So in essence, my passion very much lies in positive change, delivering projects with excellence, and optimizing whatever operational efficiency possible. So that’s about me.

Chuen Chuen: The first thing that struck me Seetha, was how confident you are as a female leader. And this is a quality that I miss so much in many women leaders. Like how many women leaders can go out there and be as confident as you are, clearly articulating the value you bring.

And I’m wondering, were you this confident as a child or it was a transformation that happened to you along the journey?

Seetha: It’s all about transformation. Evolution within yourself. Chuen Chuen. I wished I was born with a silver spoon or a gold spoon in my mouth, but nevertheless, no.

It is a journey. And it took me loads of failures, and then self-reflection. That’s when I learned all about doing self-reflection. And I finally found out what I should not do. And then from the should not do became what I could do better and emphasize that. So that’s how it’s evolved.

And I’m still evolving, to be very honest. I’m still learning so much because you have projects that can spring up agnostic of technology, and technology is evolving every day. People change every day. So it’s a new experience.

Chuen Chuen: I can hear the agile in your bones. Like people change every day. And what you have described, the rewarding experience of organization, transformation, taking things from strategizing, planning, implementing, and then finally celebrating those fruits of success is so different from a lot of organizations that I see as they, for lack of a better word, struggle through the resistance, through the heartache, through the tears of transformation. So I am in awe.

What do you feel is the biggest difference that makes transformation for you in your organization different from everywhere else?

Seetha: For me, the most important thing would be to embrace the ability to be flexible and be adaptable. Those are two very powerful words I would say.

If you can master this, you are actually riding the waves. Doesn’t matter whether it is an organizational change, even in your personal life. This is another vehicle that you can ride to run the change.

Chuen Chuen: Fantastic metaphor. Take transformations or any organizational change as a vehicle to ride the waves and not get overwhelmed nor drowned by the waves.

Seetha: Absolutely.

Chuen Chuen: I got so many great nuggets from you. I can hear the transformation as a person, so I’m gonna dig deeper into that. The overall theme in this series of podcast is how to become a leader people will love. Some people might contest that definition.

Do I need to love my leader? I think that’s up for debates, but honestly, as a person who spends so much time on work, I truly would love to have number one work friends, and number two a great boss.

So when you think about a leader that people will love, who’s the first person that comes to your mind?

Seetha:  The one person that comes to my mind is Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft.

Nadella has always demonstrated the transformational leadership. He has successfully guided Microsoft through a major cultural shift and driving the critical business transformation.

What I see and get inspired is the fact that under Satya’s leadership, Microsoft has actually embraced a human-centered design approach, focusing on empathy as well as understanding the needs of the actual customers and stakeholders. This has resulted in the development of innovation of the products, services that has garnered widespread support and adoption.

Nadella has also embraced agile and lean methodologies, fostering a culture of collaboration, innovation, and also continuous improvement at Microsoft itself.

You hear this from their people. He’s one of them who is an advocate on it. And as a leader also, he’s very humble. His humility and his empathy. His ability to inspire and motivate his team. Look at the speeches. When you have time. There are a couple of TEDX speeches as well. Have a look at those.

He made me wonder, what that takes. His inclusive nature and his leadership fosters that culture of growth and success. That’s why he’s very highly respected and very loved as a leader in the industry. So I feel that overall Satya Nadella really exemplifies the qualities of a leader, who I admire and I respect, and I know many others do.

Chuen Chuen: Was there a particular line that left a deep impression?

Seetha: Let the change start with you. 

I’ve heard him say that. And the change has to start with you first. So if he did not actually exemplify what he wanted to change. And if he was not humble about it, I think he wouldn’t have come this far. That’s what I feel.

Chuen Chuen: So many great qualities that we are all looking forward to. Like how he conducts himself as a person. Humble, great soft skills,. Inclusive. Being able to also steer things on the technology front. Bring about operational efficiency. Always bring value to the customer.

 You got my attention the moment you talked about empathy. That is the heartbeat of any leader that people want to work with. It’s about being empathetic.

And how in transformations, when you talk about lean methodologies, agile transformation, where does empathy come in?

Seetha: Transformation is all about people. You can have technology. You may have AI running different things, but you cannot replace the variety and the dynamism that a person brings. It’s not possible. Remember, AI is programmed to behave in such a way to a certain extent, just like human being can be biased, can be.

So at the end of the day, for me, this is important.

Chuen Chuen: Okay! I’m glad you spoke about AI cause a lot of people are thinking about, oh my God! How can I leverage AI to accomplish more instead of being replaced. And the variety that human beings bring, that’s something that I don’t think any instrument, any technology can replicate and replace. And we have to bring out that uniqueness in all of us. That most authentic self.

So in your area of responsibility, what have you learned about leadership that you try to pass on?

Seetha: There’s so many things, to be very honest. One is as a leader, embrace the transformation yourself. Successful leaders understand the importance of embracing and driving the transformation themselves. So by collaborating with stakeholders, you can initiate critical changes, whether it is across business, or processes, or culture that lead to impact for results. Embrace the idea yourself. That’s something that’s very difficult, but it can be done.

Another one is prioritize human centered design. It’s all about people. Putting people at the center of your initiatives is very essential in driving transformation. Most of the time when we pick up a project, we look at how to deliver that successfully. Subconsciously minusing the human component. And then when it comes to the actual sign off, that’s when you find that, oh! This is not meeting my report. Oh! This is partially meeting. I thought, I would, I could. So this is where you have neglected the human aspect of it. So by understanding and empathizing with the needs of the stakeholders, you can actually increase the buy-in and reduce the risk of failures as well.

The other one that I can think of is, adopt practices that’s going to help you fast track. For example, agile has many methodologies. Look at what methodologies that would actually fit. So these methodologies emphasize flexibility, adaptability and the ability to iteratively develop change, leading to faster project completion rates as well. You’d be very surprised. Once you start on it, there is so much more increased efficiency because there is clarity on what people say, on what people decide, and on directions that they might take. So there’s very improved outcomes as well.

The other things that I wanna also mention is the effective technology, delivery, and risk management around it. It’s important to manage the risks, communicate that well. Looking at managing that through emotional intelligence. You must have interpersonal skills. Learn how you can communicate. Learn how that message actually falls into the ears of the stakeholders. And also active listening. Are you listening because you wanna answer the guy? Or are you listening because you wanna see where is this getting affected? Is this something that I can bring out to make a difference or a change?

Last but not the least, is the continuous growth and mentoring. Because, if you can’t provide the continuous learning space, mentoring. I would say the teams will turn around to you very quickly. Even the stakeholders will say, it’s not gonna work. Very quickly. So it is also how you foster that ability to mentor and spend your time with the teams to empower them. This is what empowerment really means, because it gives them an ability to reach their full potential.

So remember, leadership is a journey. It’s always continuous improvement. So by embracing this few points that I’ve shared, you become very effective and impactful as a leader because you are chartering each and every step that you’re taking. Very consciously, very intentionally.

Overall, whether it is a transformational project, optimization efficiency kind of projects, it’ll all fall into your area of responsibility very smoothly.

Be the change.

Let the change start with you.

Chuen Chuen: You named so many of these pain points that a lot of the organizations are experiencing, like collaborating with stakeholders. Be the champion of the changes instead of letting your people go and sort it out. And I don’t know what they do. The impression is definitely them sitting in the office, being excluded from all the activities. And that makes that level of resistance so much higher. 

And second one, adopting practices that could help you instead of wholesale taking something that supposedly works. But, every organization is unique. It comprises unique individuals, so no one context is the same. And that is also one pitfall that I’ve seen across the board. We just take a methodology, wholesale. We do not make it our own. And in my previous life as I was teaching,

I describe a full cycle of learning. The first stage of learning is let me show you how you can do it. That means I’m showing you my method. Second stage is I’ll watch you do it. And the third one is actually to forget everything I’ve taught you and make it your own.

And when you say combined, you can use hybrid methodologies. You can adopt the practices that help. You can ride on the methodology first, but eventually feel confident enough to make changes and make it your own, because that’s how you make things work for your organization, for your people.

Seetha: Absolutely. You start small and see how it spreads.

Chuen Chuen: Wow. There was one more thing that caught my attention about empathy, because I think in your sharing, empathy is really the core of everything. When you talk about mentoring how leadership is a journey, how your message falls in the ears of your listeners. Most of the time when leaders speak, they are more concerned with what is the message they wanna convey. And oftentimes the message is misunderstood, misconstrued, which then causes further people to people issues. So there’s a lot of this empathy at the core, and not only in people to people interaction, also in the way we design our initiatives, our products, how we engage with the consumers.

Would you speak a little more about how leaders can become truly empathetic?

Seetha: It all starts with us as leaders. Frankly, one thing is looking at the adaptability and the flexibility. Just imagine if you’re flexible enough, you can fit into any nook, cranny, hole, shape, size.

 It makes you such a dynamic person that you’re able to look at different changes that is taking place outside of you with complete acceptance of who you are.

So do you know who you are? That’s another question of the leaders. One of the things I want to basically share with the leaders is. The past years, especially Covid, have shown us that the world can rapidly change, very unpredictably too.

Leaders who can adapt their strategies and plans, even their leadership style, in response to the changing circumstances are likely to be more successful. Yes. I understand you have an aim to deliver.

I agree. But you’ll be surprised if you are open. You get so many ideas. Just imagine, if I want my child to do something, and if I tell him to do it in a certain way, it will take forever. Trust me. But if I want something to be done very quickly, give it to the “laziest” person, “laziest” child in the house and say, look, if you do this quickly, and this is your reward. That person actually comes up with a shortcut to actually do it?

Fastest way forward. Now, it’s up to you how you wanna see fastest way forward. We’re not cutting corners and chopping things and everything else, right? It could be so many other things. They could have innovated ways of how to do things better. People think differently. So if you are open to ideas and ready to change the course when it’s necessary, this is perfect.

Chuen Chuen: This is why I needed to have you on this show.

This ability to be flexible and adaptable. Depending on how we were brought up could be counterintuitive. For example, in any engineering problem, any technology problem, it’s about finding what works and repeat it. And then we can get a velocity, and we can have high results. We are past the experimental stage.

So we are always striving towards steady state, a model that is successful. Now, we are asking everyone to make flexibility and adaptability part of their DNA constantly. And that begins with complete acceptance of who you are.

So in coaching, supporting leaders, personal mastery is the biggest piece. But when leaders come to me, all they want is a quick fix.

Seetha: Faster solution.

Chuen Chuen: Yes. There’s actually a poem in my book. The leaders people love: don’t go outside looking for, flowers. The flowers are inside you.

Seetha: Exactly.

Chuen Chuen: Look for the flowers within first. Then you will find that “magical” ability to be flexible and adaptable. And I’m glad you brought out all these areas that people need to think about.  This notion of how our life will also fit into the nooks and crannies around work. Everyone’s circumstances and needs are different, then how can we redesign a successful, effective, efficient workplace to allow people to be happy, satisfied individuals without sacrificing work achievements?

 I love the story about giving the work to the laziest child. That was like oh! That was quite unexpected and therefore very memorable.

Seetha: Correct. And you’d be surprised, right? The laziest child here, could be also people that are categorized as resistant. Give this to them and see what they suggest. You’ll be surprised that you will actually see possibilities in different aspects from different types of people.

Chuen Chuen: Fantastic. And one caution for all leaders, when we look at our employees and we think, oh, that is a lazy one. Try to reframe and think about, Hey, that’s a smart one.  Everyone’s running around in circles and he is actually observing. Is that the best time to act? Maybe not.

So we must tap on this hidden potential in our workforce.

And we can’t do it unless we are paying close attention.

Okay. I’m very curious about that story about how you become this confident female leader that you are today. Can you share a bit about that?

Seetha: I will try not to share too much of the scars because that scar at the end of the day when I look at it now, became my badges of success, I would say. But nevertheless, this is purely my story and the actions I have taken personally.

When I took my first steps into the world of where I am right now, we operated under a very varied form of waterfall structures. Our collective inspiration was to pivot and evolve into an organization that could respond to the market in an agile way. We were not able to respond very quickly, to be very honest. Because the market shifts very frequently. So at the end of the day, we desire to strengthen relationships with our stakeholders at all levels and knew, we had to adopt something new.

When I was told that there is a certain change that need to happen, I felt the same concerns. Yeah, I had huge insecurities. So I think the initial stage of my life, I didn’t open my mouth. So everything was an inner battle.

 I found that reflecting upon that particular period, I did not ask questions. But I suffered inside and so much fear. So much insecurity. So the actions I took, all were interlaced with fear, and I didn’t realize that. Only now I can basically talk about it.

I came to a point where I was about to lose my job. That’s when it sort of forced me to sit and look at myself in a mirror and reflect. What happened? Where did it all go wrong? What didn’t I do? What’s the organization not seeing in me?

Then it opened up a horizon for me, and I dug up further. This is how I should actually learn. So, it all started that way. I chose to embrace the challenge. Because I know hard stop has come. So my request to everyone is don’t wait until that hard stop comes.

So at that point, when change was supposed to take place, I put up my hands. I delved into the guidelines. I asked questions, and I said, I will be your advocate of change. At that point in time, I have no clue what I’m doing. Okay, zero. And analyzing where we stood and what the journey is, I started engaging people and stakeholders, and I finally realized I’m not the only one in the boat. There’s others as well. So that gave me a bit of relief.

 I chose to embark on it. I started small, but I moved quickly, because these are all something that is within my control. That’s how I started my journey. Throughout this journey, what I do is I question myself. I establish simple goals. And secure the agreements with various groups, particularly my stakeholders.

To be very honest and frank, change is not an overnight phenomenon. But persistence pays off at the end. So our teams are now very self-sustaining and guided by the change we bring in them. So for me, the journey to actually activate, embrace it myself and to sustain the change.

Being assertive when you need to. Be persistent. Be stubborn when you need to as well, and continuously build the trust. This is a framework that I follow. So again, when faced with change, first you look within yourself. Remember, the key to success always starts within.

Chuen Chuen: I’m writing down your personal framework. When we are trying to activate change, it starts with yourself. So step one, look within yourself. Number two is to be transparent. Keep people informed. Let them know before they need to know and not let them find out through some grapevine.

Seetha: Sometimes these grapevines will happen. You cannot control it, but be prepared to go into full length with them when the question is asked. Be prepared.

Chuen Chuen: Yes. It shows you that you are ready to engage and that you have nothing to hide. So look within yourself, be transparent, listen, demonstrate understanding through your actions. And what was the last one?

Seetha: Assertive and persistent. Because at the end of the day, you need to be stubborn in the right places.

Chuen Chuen: Yes. Correct. Be selectively stubborn. Really hard to do.

Seetha: Bite size. Small plan first.

Chuen Chuen: Yeah, a success loop. And then you scale from there.

So many wise words. Change is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, so people need to pace themselves. 

It was faced with automatic stop that made you change your approach?

Seetha: Yeah, because at the end of the day, you are not able to take a step forward. So I guess that was a force that literally forced me to. So if I would just been going through the journey of life just like that, I wouldn’t have realized it. But I had to face that failure. I had to face that complete stop in my life to finally realize.

I tried everything. It was not working. And at one point I had to stop and reflect. I was forced to reflect because of the situation. So I guess maybe if someone came to me many years ago and told me you know what, why don’t you just reflect what’s happening? Maybe that would’ve actually saved a lot of my effort to be very honest. But we had to go through journey for a reason. That made me stronger. Now I have badges.

Chuen Chuen: So much to offer to other leaders as well. Even this small action of reflecting, how do you know someone is reflecting productively? Constructively. It’s an art.

Seetha: It’s an art. And you can actually see in the reaction when you talk to that person.

Chuen Chuen: Yes. Correct. I think one of the biggest shift I see as you shared your story, was shifting from fear driven to…

Seetha: Fear driven to the state of wanting to be accepted. Wanting to be recognized after that. And then it became that this is me. So now the next stage is now my expertise. How do I apply?

So it’s more of an SME now, so the view has changed.

Chuen Chuen: That brings us why personal mastery is so important. Most of us, will experience crucible moments, right?

The moment you are under intense heat and fire, and you have no choice but to change. You either change or become obsolete. There’ll be a hard stop to your career. So what motivates us to change at the beginning is to get out of an uncomfortable situation. And the more we do it, the more we collaborate with people, the more we discover that we have these new skills, new potential achieving things. Like, oh! I was able to get buy in from that seemingly very difficult stakeholder. I don’t know how I did it. All I did was listen.


And how difficult was that? Oh my God! That is actually quite easy if I do it the right way. And over time, this ability to be adaptable and to be agile will be you permanently. And it will be the way you grow your career, you show up in your personal life. The way in general you live your life.

Two things that I want to draw out a little bit more. Leading with empathy, I feel that this word like empathetic leadership is overused. But not enough people truly understands what it means to be an empathetic leader, hence human centered.

 Would you share a bit more about how leaders today can truly be empathetic leaders?

Seetha: I would still go back to some of the points I have shared earlier. Why I’m quite insistent about those? Because that’s going to be your strong pillars, where it is going to make you an empathetic leader.

To actually be empathetic, listen more. That’s the one thing I would leave you with. Because this is one simple action that makes you very effective. Cause when you start listening. Really listening. The pearls and diamonds that actually come out of that conversation, and that makes you an empathetic person.

Active empathetic listening can make a huge difference in the long run. And provide very thoughtful responses that will stay with that person. It can help the leaders understand the concern and aspiration of their team members. So take each day to have conversations with your team members. Be very intentional about those conversations. Ask them about their opinions. If you change your mindset to be open to the feedback, you’ll be noticing that you are actually ready to act on what you hear instead of reacting to it. Over time, this practice leads to a more engaged and motivated team.

 Stephen Covey, he wrote that Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand. They listen with the intent to reply. That’s so powerful, right? Because most of the time you talk to the person, but you don’t really talk to that person.

Chuen Chuen: That’s correct. This action is so simple. Listen. Be open. Go with the open mindset. Look out for pearls and diamonds that will come up from the conversation. Understand the actual message. Acknowledge it. We need to validate people for putting their hand up and sharing something that is a little bit dangerous, a little bit unpopular, and make them feel that it’s okay. This is a psychologically safe environment. And ask them great questions. What’s your opinion? Is there a better way to do this? For all these to happen, we need to come out from the place of fear.

We need to redefine our own definitions of success. It is not about being the smartest person in the room, to have the last say. It’s about the people who you are trying to do this work with, and then delivering your product, services to the consumers. And it all starts with listening.

So for all listeners, if you want to be more empathetic, I think the one line that summarizes it really well, listen to understand, not listen to rebut or respond.

What you have shared is all very consistent. Your storyline from the beginning to the end, theme is exactly the same. And you go back right to that foundation, so I know what you are sharing is truly from the heart.

Because at the end of the day, that’s what worked for me in different situations, in different challenges, in different failures. You can have tools, don’t get me wrong. You can have methods, but it all came back to the core values.

Wonderful. Seetha, it is been so good to have this conversation with you. I learned so much. You have given me a lot of food for thought and I’m gonna reflect on them. On behalf of all the listeners, thank you for sharing your nuggets of wisdom/ your pearl and diamonds. Thank you again.

Seetha: Thank you for having me Chuen Chuen, and it has also given me an ability to reflect personally while I’m talking to you, so it’s an amazing session. Thank you again.

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