“Culture plays a very important role not just in doing business or solving legal issues, but also managing the teams”- Deepak Maharishi,Legal and Contract management Director, Alstom

This Interview has been published by Pragya Chandni and The SuperLawyer Team

Can you share with us the pivotal moments or influences in your life that led you to pursue a career in law, especially considering your background in commerce?

I finished my CS and Law in the same year and started my career as a Company Secretary in Delhi. Soon after that I realized that a CS was potentially working (and reporting) to either a CFO or a GC. Since I already had a degree in law, I wanted to clearly pursue that path. However, it was only after I was really mentored by the Senior Counsels in GE that I could really see that world as to what their day was like. I tried my hands on small assignments, thanks to my mentors in GE, which were given to me with no formal change in my role, but I was quite happy to see that dimension of profile additionally. This motivated me to then take a step further and eventually move from core CS role to Legal Counsel role in my career.

You’ve navigated through various sectors, from real estate with Emaar to transportation with Bombardier and now at Alstom. What drew you to specialize in legal affairs within these industries, and how do you adapt your expertise across different sectors?

In Emaar, I worked as a company secretary where I reported to Head – Legal and CS. I could see how busy but passionate he was in delivering all the assignments making sure that Emaar was progressing well on its growth path in India. It was my first job, so I was handling whatever came my way, which by the way was unbelievably exciting for someone who had just started the career. Apart from litigation management, I believe I was exposed to almost all major corporate transactions during my tenure.

In GE, again joined as a corporate governance person but with a very small team. Thankfully, I had my previous experience and so managing compliances for a substantially lesser number of companies was quite relaxing. However, here I developed and delivered our solutions on the parameters of cost, speed, and quality. This very concept made me independent in terms of taking my own decisions and selling the ideas to bosses and eventually to other businesses that we were supporting. I also started informally working with senior counsel in GE on legal agreements. I could see how a lawyer / governance person can impact the business and the board of directors do listen to them!

Bombardier (and now Alstom) has been an entirely different journey. Just after joining, in 4 months I was heading the function which continues till date. This demanded from me that I not only understand the business as a whole or the issue but derive the solution and own it. Whether it is public procurement, competition law, contract laws, numerous agreements, litigation, IPR, investigations, mergers, de-mergers, negotiations with suppliers / joint venture partners / customers,  setting up an entire function, developing teams, simplification, supporting other regions beyond India, handling an international team…thanks to this profile I have done it all and still find every day as exciting as it was my first day.

Your journey encompasses experiences in both burgeoning companies like Emaar and established giants like General Electric. How have these contrasting environments shaped your approach to legal affairs and leadership?

A Company like Emaar which was so well established in Dubai was entering into India and at the time when real estate was booking (prior to 2008 financial crises in the US). I witnessed aggressive growth, numerous due diligence exercises, and finally preparing for one of the biggest IPOs in real estate (although didn’t get successful). Within a year we were working with investment bankers independently while tremendously supported by our managers. Everything was a ‘first’ that we did there and brought a unique experience. My core learning has been speedy delivery and workload management here.

GE on the other exposed me to apply my learnings but in a more organized manner. There we specialised how simplification even in a Governance function can enable the businesses. It was great learning how a governance function can focus on cost, speed and quality and support business.

Bombardier (now acquired by Alstom) has been an entirely different world where I have seen business very closely. In order to adapt in a company like Alstom (and Bombardier) which works with government for building the railway transportation in the country, the biggest pillars of my profile are enabling the business by anticipating the risk while giving approval; and then immediately after winning the business, making sure that in the project execution we make sound progress by addressing all contingencies and surprises. By far, this very role where I am working in all dimensions (bids, projects, legal affairs, governance and compliance) has taken me to simply great heights in terms of analysing the problem and carving out strategy for resolving the issue for the company.

Even after working in these different companies and environments, my learning underscores the paramount importance of integrity and a genuine concern for individuals.

As someone who has managed complex legal matters across multiple regions, what are some of the key challenges you’ve faced in ensuring compliance and effective contract management, especially in diverse cultural and regulatory landscapes?

Culture plays a very important role not just in doing business or solving legal issues, but also managing the teams. At one point I had the privilege of handling 7 lawyers from 7 nationalities, and this has been a surreal experience.

From customers and partners standpoint, it is extremely important which are the areas that are most important for them as part of their brand equity or their culture. That area may not be relevant in other regions or strangely enough, in fact customers in one country may definitely want you to provide a better solution compared to the country you are coming from. This is very sensitive and must be handled very carefully. Negotiation, resultantly, becomes extremely crucial as to how we can still put forward our proposal.

I still remember, I was in South Korea doing one negotiation and the potential local partner asked me a question. I said “yes, agreed”.  And then he continuously asked me the same question. I said “yes” again and again. My European colleague who was a business development director then intervened and said, “which part of Y-e-s is not clear”?  and then we all laughed.

My learning is that all the efforts must first go into developing trust with a diverse and cross-cultural environment.  This is non-negotiable and anyone can sense it beyond the boundaries of language.

On Compliance, it is extremely important that the message is understood in the same way it was delivered. A simple training like dawn raid may not be fully understood by a team of engineers sitting in another country who have no relation with such matters and yet you want that everyone must understand it well as you can’t be present in that premises personally.  This is my personal experience when I did a compliance tour in India, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. I thought I could repeat the slides which I have done many times, but the fact that I was going to engage with entirely different nationalities made a huge difference. In India, for e.g. for a competition law training, I can bring the BCCI case and cricket.  Not possible for countries which have no relation or craze for cricket for instance.

Your role involves leading multidimensional teams comprising lawyers, company secretaries, and engineers. How do you foster collaboration and ensure alignment towards common goals within such diverse teams?

It is a natural reflection of people that probably they are working with their different objectives and have no connection whatsoever with other team members in different profiles. Yet somehow, they must report to one manager. This mindset requires change otherwise function can’t deliver.

My endeavour is to first of all make them understand in an open meeting what every sub-function is doing and how they contribute to organizational goals. At the same time, they are informed that a decision on a particular matter requires concurrence of these functions together. Beyond the individual objective setting cycle, I don’t shy away from sharing country level larger objectives to practically tell them how they will be achieved by way of collective working.

Cross alignment is also ensured with one function taking a lead and inputs from other functions are obtained.  For instance, when we are doing a new business review (bids), then legal counsel will take all the lead and work on the risk profile, however, he/she is expected to take the lessons learnt from current projects from a contract manager who happens to be an engineer.  Likewise, a contract manager, while addressing a key item to a customer which can become a potential issue later, must be supported by a lawyer to set the tone, language, intent and evidential value.

Lastly, there are team motivational ideas which we work on in which all the heads of these 3 sub-functions make a cross functional team and engage with all the members. This has turned out to be a very good tool for us for having camaraderie among the team members.

With your interest in astrophysics and metaphysics, how do you integrate these seemingly disparate interests into your professional life, and do they influence your approach to legal strategy or problem-solving?

Both these topics provide a broader perspective and deeper understanding of the world around us.

I have personally become a better listener after paying attention to these topics. Inclusiveness requires you to open your mind first and destroy the ‘I’ factor. I don’t think there can be any better tool than learning about the Universe and metaphysics for this.

These topics also touch upon ethical considerations and understanding these concepts can help us make decisions that align with right values.

It also involves complex and abstract thinking which can improve the problem-solving skills.

I truly believe that this unlimited and never-ending knowledge of Universe and metaphysics can lead to personal growth and development. This can improve self-awareness and emotional intelligence which are important factors in decision making.

You’ve been recognized for your contributions to the legal field, receiving awards such as the Asia Law Business Award for Best Transportation Legal Team. Could you share some insights into the strategies or initiatives that have contributed to such recognitions?

LEGAL: With an astounding amount of around 1 lakh crores of tenders submitted during 2023, the legal teams comprising just 3 members have supported the business with more than 30 tenders during the year. The tenders span across railway stock, railway signalling, and railway services segment with multiple customers in Central and State Governments. The terms and conditions of such tenders are influenced by international funding agencies in addition to Govt of India Public Procurement guidelines, ‘Make in India’ orders and Restriction orders related to land borders; amidst all other legal nuances.  The team also has been engaged in strategic partnership discussion where they play a pivotal role in supporting the business teams. While the team delivers on this key task, their focus continues to remain on adopting legal tech and automation.

CONTRACT MMANGEMENT: The average project lifecycle is 7 years for urban rail transportation projects and more than 30 years for mainline railways including long term maintenance contracts. With a team size of 20, the contract management team has been successfully executing as many as 50+ large railway contracts with various government customers for delivering the backlog.  Their key deliverable during last year has been successful cost avoidance, cost claim, variation orders, cash negotiations, liquidated damages avoidance.

CORPORATE GOVERNANCE: With 6 industrial sites, 2 major engineering centers, 3 legal entities including 1 Joint Venture with Indian Railways, Employee trusts, multiple committees, around 14 Directors across entities and 1 Branch Office of foreign associate in India, the company not only caters to domestic project needs, but also delivers for international projects. Corporate Governance in such a scenario becomes extremely important and at the same time crucial for meeting the compliances for the company. Our CS team during last year, has completed a strategic merger, strategic dividing in joint venture, capital repatriation going beyond the routine compliances.

While we focused and achieved these strategic deliverables, I am very happy and proud to share that our teams have taken special initiatives in process automation, data analytics for risk management, legal tech solutions and developing KPI metrics for themselves.  

Considering your extensive experience and achievements, what advice would you offer to law graduates aspiring to embark on a successful career in the legal field, particularly in the dynamic landscape of corporate law and compliance?

I would recommend the following to my young friends:

  1. Education was a ticket through which you have (or will have) entered into an organization. The company hired you for your excellent education but also had expectations in mind that you are capable of picking up what they would like you to do.  They know that you will take time to learn and grow. That’s what you must prove.
  2. Be inquisitive. Start asking questions as soon as you enter an organization. This is extremely important for a lawyer and business counsel. Understanding the business model is extremely important at first than understanding the issue at hand.
  3. Learn the cash cycle of the company / your client as to how a company earns its own money. Always remember that any decisions that you will take as a GC / Practising Advocate eventually will impact the business of the company. Moreover, even if you are preparing to work as a Compliance Manager, this will really help you.
  4. In the initial learning years, unless absolutely necessary, don’t be in a hurry to say “no, this is not my job”. This is one of the most important things that has helped me personally. I have understood the entire business just by helping someone in his problems whether it required a legal opinion or not.
  5. You are a good lawyer if you can derive a solution which helps your company and client. But you are on a path to become a better lawyer if someone has trust in you with his personal issues. Develop that trust!

Get in touch with Deepak Maharishi-

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