Embracing opportunity, leadership and what matters in the long term


A white coat and stethoscope were what he envisioned as a career. However, destiny had other plans. Today, as Country Manager for MasterCard Sri Lanka and the Maldives, R B Santosh has pushed beyond boundaries and out of his comfort zone, taking on a challenging role in the payments landscape in a country away from home. In an interview with Echelon Magazine, Santosh shares his passion for life and what he thinks are the characteristics of a great leader.

You are in an exciting and challenging leadership role today. Tell us how you started off on this journey?

As a youngster, I was very academically focused and aspired to be a doctor. As I grew up and more opportunities opened up, I decided to study hotel management and started my career as a management trainee at the Taj Group of hotels in India. I later pursued an MBA degree and moved on to work with The Times of India in Mumbai. In 1995, I joined the Credit Cards department of Standard Chartered Bank and thus began my career in this exciting but relatively new payments industry at that time. I spent some time at Standard Chartered Bank before moving to Citibank. At the time, Citibank was one of the leading organizations in payments in India. I learnt a lot about the credit card market and the Industry at Citibank and after spending around 10 years, made a shift to Mastercard India. I joined Mastercard India in 2007 and have now spent 12 exciting years in different roles. At Mastercard, I have been given roles that challenged me and pushed me out of my comfort zone, thereby opening up a whole new array of opportunities. When MasterCard decided to set up its office in Colombo, I aspired to take the leap and lead Sri Lanka and Maldives operations. The new role promised a lot of opportunities and provided a lot of challenges, but it also pushed me to do better on all counts. Four years later, when I look back, I think I made the right choice. Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, and I have grown to love it. My personal mantra has been ‘Don’t keep the opportunity waiting, go ahead and embrace it’. This has helped me navigate the challenges and accept the learning. This approach has allowed me to enjoy four years of my life in this beautiful country.

What do you see as the traits of a good leader?

A business leader must lead with integrity and inclusiveness. A leader needs to have empathy and resilience in the face of challenges. Sound business acumen and decision making abilities are required to steer the business and teams towards the common goal. I believe that a leader should communicate effectively and confidently and give and accept feedback honestly. The secret sauce to success has the critical ingredients of hard work, discipline and the ability to work with people. I believe that the leader succeeds only when the team is successful and also stands by when things fail.

What are you passionate about, and how do you live that passion, given the fact that your career can be quite demanding?

I love music, sports and art almost equally. I am passionate about art and am happiest with my paints and canvas. I try to organize my leisure time in a way that I don’t miss out on any of my interests. I play tennis on Wednesdays, badminton on the weekends and golf once in a while. I do miss playing cricket and soccer in Sri Lanka. I play the guitar and sing for friends and family. I have spent many hours with my paints and brushes and often sat through late nights if my imagination is unfolding on the canvas. I nurtured a strong desire to exhibit my paintings and artworks in Sri Lanka and held an exhibition at the Lionel Wendt in Colombo recently. The proceeds from the sale of the artworks were channeled to the Foundation of Goodness, a Sri Lankan NGO. I do believe that we are never too old or too busy to pursue a passion. Any activity done with purpose and discipline can help us unwind and refresh after a demanding workday. A relaxed mind and a healthy body, in turn, boosts productivity and efficiency at work.

What is the one piece of advice you would give the aspiring young leaders of tomorrow?

The young generation of today is well-read and well-informed and is poised to do well in the world they build for themselves. The advice I have is that the boundary less businesses of the future will need creative thinking and collaborative working. Technology-led companies of the future will be information-rich and require skills to convert this information into knowledge and a sustainable competitive advantage. I often say that we don’t fail when we fall down, we actually fail when we refuse to get up…. the ability to rise and try again is the only ability that helps us navigate the future, and our youth needs to be able to live up to it.