INTERVIEW: AFSHAN AKHTAR
FIRST VICE PRESIDENT - LEGAL, BANK ABC
Afshan Akhtar went from the London office of Clifford Chance to Bahrain to take up a senior role at Aluminium Bahrain (Alba). Now at Bank ABC, she reflects on her in-house career and achievements so far.
G C I N T E R V I E W
EDITOR AND FEATURES WRITER
GC: You started off as an associate at Clifford Chance in London. What made you go in-house and relocate to Bahrain?
Afshan Akhtar (AA): I moved to Bahrain after my husband was offered a new job here. Prior to the relocation, I had built a solid foundation as a senior associate with the banking and finance team within Clifford Chance in London. Initially I was not looking for a move in-house; however, once I had settled into life in Bahrain and I had time to assess the market, I was fortunate enough to be offered the general counsel role with Alba. I believed the role would be a great opportunity to gain experience in-house in a new industry and would also allow me to participate in management decisions whilst working very closely with the business. In 2015 I joined Bank ABC (Arab Banking Corporation), which is the largest bank in Bahrain and a leading MENA bank operating at the international level.
GC: Had you always harboured a desire to go in-house, or was it a matter of the right opportunity at the right time?
AA: I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Clifford Chance and did not have a strong desire to move in-house whilst working there. My first taste of working in-house was during a secondment to an international investment bank in London. I thoroughly enjoyed working alongside the business and the fast-paced nature of the industry. In addition, no two days are the same – people from across the business can come to you with many types of issues.
Alba is one of the largest single-site smelters in the world and is an industrial powerhouse in Bahrain. It also contributes a significant proportion of the GDP for Bahrain and was always under the spotlight from the government, regulators and many other interested stakeholders. It was my first time in the Middle East, and in an in-house environment, so it was a very difficult and challenging opportunity, but I relished the every minute of it and the chance to learn and develop my skills.
GC: While you were at Alba you built the legal function from scratch. Did you enjoy that process, and what were the challenges and learning points?
AA: It was a very interesting and challenging process. When I joined Alba I was the only lawyer on the team and responsible for the function. This meant that there was no time for complacency, I had to hit the ground running and assess the environment whilst at the same time thinking ‘what are the gaps here, and how do I best fill them?’ Once I had understood the requirements of the business, it was a tough task to find the right people to fill the roles that I had devised. When I had found the people, however, the work didn’t stop there; then it was about managing budgets, setting workloads and managing the team and so on. All these challenges helped to improve and polish the skills I had developed during my time at Clifford Chance. The problem-solving, being able to think on your feet – I just thrived on it.
GC: You have now switched sectors and gone to Bank ABC. What prompted the move and what is the focus of your new role?
AA: It was a fantastic opportunity for me to be able to gain in-house experience within Alba, but my natural calling back to banking was strong and when the opportunity arose I was delighted to join Bank ABC. Bank ABC has a rich history within Bahrain, and internationally, with the bank celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. It’s a bank with a global footprint and operates across a number of banking sectors such as trade finance, treasury services, syndications, corporate and institutional banking, project and structured finance and Islamic finance. I have joined at the group level, at the head office, so we have responsibilities to try and mitigate the legal risk and manage it for all aspects of the business across the entire global business.
GC: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
AA: In 2013, I was selected as the general counsel for the Middle East by Corporate Counsel Middle East (now the Association of Corporate Counsel Middle East). It is important to have your achievements recognised by your peers.
GC: Looking over the next few months, what legal challenges or issues do you foresee that you and your team will be dealing with?
AA: Bank ABC has diverse operations stretching from Brazil through to the Far East and is continuously looking for opportunities to grow and expand its global footprint. Hence it is difficult to predict the type of work that we would be dealing with as every day offers new challenges and issues.
GC: What is the secret to being a good leader? How do you go about motivating team members?
AA: I strongly believe in empowering people, and I think if you empower people, that often gets the best results from them, as it gives them a sense of ownership and makes them accountable. As a team leader it is important to have people ‘buy in’ to your vision, and share it with you. The best way to do this is not to lead from behind a desk, but to roll up your sleeves and get stuck right in there. Being part of a team means working together to achieve the best result for your organisation.