Sanchi Kariyawasam CPA: Why the right mindset brings success

Sanchi Kariyawasam CPA, CFO Safeworking Solutions (SWS). Photo: Jarrod Barnes.

Bursting out of one's comfort zone, embracing change and having the right mindset are key ingredients in Sanchi Kariyawasam CPA's recipe for success.

At a glance

  • CFO at Safeworking Solutions (SWS) since April 2020.
  • At the age of 22, established A360 Accounting, which delivers finance solutions and virtual CFO roles for SMEs since 2012.
  • Deputy chair of the Victorian Small and Medium Enterprise Committee, CPA Australia.
  • Senior finance roles at AUSTSWIM and Imperium Capital Group.
  • SWS company revenue – A$60 million per annum. Over 320 employees.
  • CFO’s team: eight people. In the corporate services role, is also responsible for HR, people and culture and HSEQ (health, safety, environment and quality).

My role: changing technology

I started my own practice at 22, specialising in serving medical practices and small traders, but I have since extended that to include consultancy work, subsequently working as virtual CFO.

Recently I was offered the CFO role at Melbourne-based Safeworking Solutions (SWS), a completely different role, where I have been asked to re-engineer the business and most of its processes, embedding technology into all areas of the business. It has not only revealed which parts of the business are profitable, but the technology has also enhanced employees’ skill sets and improved productivity.

Some of SWS’s main clients include Metro Trains, V-Line, John Holland Group and various other rail safety projects around Victoria. The company needed more accurate cost control around projects. After some research, I recommended Sage CRE, an up-to-date construction software.

The company also needed to streamline its IT processes, rostering and time management systems, contract management of stakeholders, procurement, etc. With data storage, we looked to put various functions on a cloud-based server – and all of this had to be done without affecting momentum.

Game changers: mentors

Two mentors stand out: Gordon Mallett at AUSTSWIM and Gavin Coote at Imperium Capital Group. With Gavin, I was involved in a number of mergers and acquisitions of major companies. Both Gordon and Gavin encouraged me to look beyond the role of a “typical” accountant and dive into areas like financial modelling and strategic thinking, as well as encouraging my own business acumen.

One of my first jobs was as an assistant accountant at national swimming and water-safety organisation AUSTSWIM. I was just 16, studying accounting and finance at Monash University. Gaining my CPA qualification in my early 20s was also a game changer. It gave me credibility in the eyes of the people I was working for and opened up new opportunities for me thereafter.

I now feel well-equipped to take a risk and run my own practice – one of the best decisions I have made. Of course, there is the current role at SWS, which has made me realise I don’t need to be confined to a single organisation. It has inspired confidence.

The other game changer has been having my son, who was born three years ago. I wanted to be the best mother I could be while not compromising my career. If I can do it, all the mums and women out there can, too! Too many people stay in their comfort zone instead of chasing their dreams. I choose to be very ambitious in any role I perform.

My challenges: handling mindsets

The challenges are not that surprising. There I was at 16, working as an accountant, and I was still seen as a foreigner who had only emigrated from Sri Lanka a few months previously. I’m not saying people were being directly racist, but at the time I felt like an outsider, a woman of colour.

People do tend to discriminate, no matter how much they might say they don’t. They have their doubts. She’s a woman, young and of colour, but I knew the results would do the talking for me.

For the challenges ahead, I know that what I advocate at work might cause resistance – managing the changes you’re bringing about for other people is always difficult. Some might be more comfortable simply surviving rather than thriving.

I want staff to feel secure that changes to systems are not about replacing them, but about enhancing their efficacy. For me, artificial intelligence and actual intelligence are equally valuable. The challenge is to transform a fixed mindset into a growth mindset and cultivate positive change.

Lessons learned and best advice

Leadership is about character
Leadership is not a title or a position, but a characteristic within you to empower and inspire those around you to do their best. Be authentic and be yourself.

Celebrate the slightest progress
Don’t just wait until you hit a certain target or goal to celebrate; instead, value progress. Not all activities go according to plan, but even at times of tension and stress, finding ways to enjoy the progress made will create a ripple effect of joy.

Have other interests
Regular hobbies or interests add variety to your life, and can really boost performance on a work level. For me, it’s the passion for gastronomy, lending a helping hand to people in need and plenty of self-care to uplift my mind, body and soul.

Never stop learning
Learning is good, but knowing what to do with it is crucial. I have made it a practice to allocate at least 30 minutes daily for self-improvement or to read an article to learn something new, or even to refresh my knowledge of something I already know. It will help you avoid stagnation and assist you in reaching your full potential.


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