Manjaree Chowdhary is an executive director and general counsel at Maruti Suzuki India, a subsidiary of Suzuki Motor Corporation Japan. She is a seasoned legal professional with over 23 years of experience. Chowdhary leads a team of more than 30 professionals and works closely with the board and the leadership team to provide legal and compliance support to manage risk in a dynamic regulatory and business environment.
ALB: Tell us about your role. What does the average day look like for you?
Chowdhary: At Maruti Suzuki, I am responsible for providing legal, compliance and regulatory support and strategic advice to the business. Leading a team of 30+ legal and compliance professionals, I work closely with the board, the CEO and the leadership team to manage business risk in an evolving regulatory environment to protect the brand and reputation of the company to enhance shareholder value. I also have additional responsibility for administrative management.
It would be fair to divide my normal working day into pre-COVID and during COVID.
Pre-COVID, my usual day started at 9 a.m. with an update meeting with my team on critical matters, followed by a host of meetings and calls with business and external stakeholders. This often-required commuting between offices. Given the open office environment we work in, I am physically always within reach of my team and business stakeholders. It has its own energy and benefits. I usually tend to find a couple of hours (interspersed) during the day to catch up on mails, reviewing important documents and attending to urgent queries from the management/board. I prioritise by bucketing my work into urgent, medium and others. I am disciplined about keeping a daily ‘To Do’ list that helps me remain structured and manage time effectively. I usually leave office by 7 p.m. However, some work-related calls often continue during the ride back home.
The daily work routine has taken a complete turn during the COVID pandemic. Like everyone else, we too have had to get used to ‘work from home’ (WFH) with occasional need-based visits to the office. I note with satisfaction that even while being online, we have been able to maintain the same work discipline, efficiency, and productivity, if not more. That said, a noticeable difference from pre-COVID time is that the average work hours seem to have extended, creating its own challenges on work-life balance. While it may be argued that WFH allows greater flexibility, but I must admit there is no substitute for the energy of the office environment.
ALB: What have been some of your highlights from your time in charge? And what are some leadership lessons you have learnt?
Chowdhary: I would like to highlight some key initiatives that I have endeavoured to drive in my current role that have positively impacted the organization. First, I have worked to drive change by building stakeholder buy which is reflected in being able to integrate the legal and compliance function more intimately into the business leading to an enhanced and early risk management and efficient closures. Second, have proactively revamped the compliance program to make it more relevant, interactive, digital, and sustainable, that has led to more visibility to risk and compliance management at the board and top management level. Third, drove the use of technology to automate legal processes especially those related to compliance, litigation, and contract management systems. The positive outcome of this was evident during the pandemic lockdown when the legal team was able to resume work quickly, operate and service its stakeholders with the same ease and efficiency. Lastly, I am especially proud to have built and developed a capable team to achieve their full potential and support business growth in the long term, a team which has built credibility with the business.
Some leadership lessons in the learning process have been namely:
- Change management is difficult and must begin with you
- Getting the work done is the easier part, one needs to effectively manage stakeholders for success
- You are only as good as your team - invest in and develop a strong and motivated team
- Build credibility and foster collaboration
- Passion, perseverance, performance, and patience remain the key ingredients for professional success.
ALB: How do you feel the pandemic will reshape the way your team operates? What strategy changes have you put in place in the long run?
Chowdhary: COIVD has brought in a paradigm shift in how work and business are done. It necessitated organisations to adopt and adapt to a new normal of working remotely and virtually, a concept that was practically alien to many organisations especially in the core manufacturing sector. As organisations worked to adapt to the new way of working and doing business, they were also realising that the pandemic would likely reshape operating models.
Keeping this changed possibility in view, we at Maruti Suzuki, worked to understand the implication and requirements of this new normal and quickly adapted the internal processes and systems to make it possible at the earliest for teams to operate remotely and virtually. In the legal team, we had already begun the digitisation process. Accordingly, our work data was to a large degree automated and all our team members had access to laptops. It took us less than a week to ensure the entire team had access to all the data online to enable them to work with full productivity during the lockdown.
The pandemic would in all probability bring a change in the working environment and the operating mechanism in the long term. It was, therefore, important to put a strategy in place to adapt to the new normal and ensure that the team was geared to work productively and provide efficient service to business stakeholders in the long term. Besides using technology to automate processes and data, in the legal team we also build a regular rhythm of virtual team meetings and communication across all levels in the team. It helped to drive a structured working mechanism and set the right expectations, deliver consistent messaging and most importantly an opportunity to understand the challenges being faced by the team. The pandemic brought with it a constant sense of panic and anxiety along with the related challenges of WFH. Given these circumstances, our enhanced team connect encouraged free-flowing discussion around these challenges. It helped the team to bond and stay connected, support one another by sharing personal experiences that eased the tension. The focus was to manage the psychological health of the team as much as ensuring continuity of work. We also put into place certain ground rules of working remotely. Besides punctuality and consistency, measures were taken to ensure there were adequate data privacy and security, the new big risk. A happy fallout of these measures has been a direct increase in levels of work productivity. It’s a matter of pride when our business stakeholders compliment the team on their efficiency and work product. Based on the environment going forward, I think we are well placed to refine and strengthen this strategy to effectively support the business.
ALB: How important is the company’s culture, according to you? What kind of internal culture are you looking to foster both within the team, as well as your business as a whole?
Chowdhary: Culture is often defined as the “character of an organisation” and includes a combination of the values, attitudes and behaviours manifested in its operations and relations with its stakeholders. It impacts company operations and necessarily flows top downward and outward. Once institutionalised, it is an institutional habit that newcomers acquire.
Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, operational excellence for lunch and everything else for dinner.” I could not agree more. Increased focus on corporate culture is critical in delivering long- term business success.
My focus for the organisation is to foster a culture of ethics and compliance in the way we do business and how we operate. To foster this culture of compliance, I have tried to bring more visibility to it at the board and top management level. The ‘tone at the top’ is important to embed and operationalise this culture across the company and down to the last level. We have revamped the code of business conduct and ethics to make it more relevant and sustainable, complimented by regular trainings to help reinforce its guiding principles in the company. To monitor progress, we have put in place mechanisms that assess, measure and report, which helps to bring in more accountability and transparency. Finally, we support behaviours consistent with the company culture and recognise them.
I have tried to embed this same culture at the legal team level as well, it being a subset of the whole. I lead by example and have encouraged accountability and transparency by building processes and operating rhythms that compliment a strong culture of compliance in our everyday working within the team, in our interactions with our business stakeholders and our larger community of business associates. It has had a direct impact on team productivity and contributed to the competitive advantage for the business.
ALB: On that note, how would you describe your hiring and talent retention strategy? What kinds of lawyers would make the best fit for your team?
Chowdhary: Building strong teams with the right capability and attitude to support the business in the long term is very important, a subject I am personally very passionate about. I strongly feel that the strength of a company is dependent on its teams and their collective outcomes. Accordingly building the right team and then developing it for delivering positives outcomes is absolutely critical.
My hiring and talent retention strategy is based on a few key principles:
- Hire the best - capable and expert resources are likely to provide strong outcomes
- Watch for the right attitude – humbleness with a can-do attitude
- Bring on resources that are willing to learn and improve to grow the business
- Ensure clarity of scope and then empower and trust resources to do the job
- Set the right expectations and build accountability
- Periodic review of strengths and development needs
- Focussed development plan - trainings, job rotations, succession planning
- Reward and recognition
In view of the above, I would like to onboard counsels that are capable, have subject matter expertise, can function effectively both independently as well as part of a team, are willing to adapt, learn and improve themselves, appreciate and understand the business to provide solution-based outcomes and are high on integrity.
ALB: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Chowdhary: I have the good fortune to have worked with great managers, mentors, and colleagues. I have learnt professional and life lessons from all of them. One piece of advice given by a manager and mentor stands out. I was advised that work can always be managed but it is more important to manage people and their expectations. Companies and teams are all made up of people and therefore people management becomes key to successful change management and success. As I have moved up in my career this advice has proved to be invaluable.
(The views expressed in this interview are personal and have no bearing on the company she represents.)
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