INTERVIEW: JIM MAXWELL
Chief legal, regulatory & wholesale officer, Ooredoo
Jim Maxwell arrived in Oman in 2007, with several years’ experience of private practice and in-house at Vodafone and Optus under his belt. Now at leading Omani telecoms company Ooredoo, he chats to GC about building up the legal function, and taking on a commercial role.
G C I N T E R V I E W
EDITOR AND FEATURES WRITER
GC: Why did you decide to go in-house after working at Linklaters and Minter Ellison?
Jim Maxwell (JM): At Linklaters I worked in one of the corporate departments. Vodafone was one of the key clients, and at the time they were doing a joint venture with Vivendi Universal to establish a multi-access portal called ‘Vizzavi’. I was involved in a lot of the corporate work, and I worked very closely with Vodafone, and in particular one of the general counsel there. I was put on secondment to Vodafone for six months and after that I moved across to work for them on a permanent basis, because it was so great to work there. It was a natural transition in that sense and it became my intro into telecommunications.
When we had our first child in London, my daughter Alice, we decided to return home to Australia and I was able to secure a corporate role with Minter Ellison. I was only at Minter Ellison for a couple of years before a position came up at Optus [an Australian telecommunications company] in Melbourne. It was just a fantastic company with a really well-developed in-house team. I was involved in their general commercial work and also handled their government work out of Canberra. I was intimately involved when they acquired Alphawest in a takeover and I worked closely on the integration, which culminates in my setting up a small, separate legal team within Alphawest.
I was very happy working for Optus and raising my young children in Melbourne, but then I got approached out of the blue about working in Muscat. I was initially really reluctant - to be honest, I wasn’t sure where Oman was when they contacted me! But they were persuasive, and flew me over for an interview. I must say that from the moment I got here, I liked it. I loved the country, I loved the company. Ooredoo Oman is a really significant company in this country. It is closely involved with the community and is held in very high regard.
GC: Was moving from Australia to Oman a culture shock?
JM: It was a learning experience, but there was never a shock. I’d travelled throughout the Middle East before I came to live here, and the people of Oman are just really wonderful people. I found it was a very welcoming and open place. There are some obvious cultural differences, but they’re not as significant as they are often portrayed. Oman is probably one of the more liberal Middle Eastern countries in that sense.
GC: You have overseen a transformation of the legal function at Ooredoo. Did you enjoy that process, and what sorts of challenges were there?
JM: I was appointed GC in 2010, but when I arrived here in 2007 there was no legal team to speak of, just one lawyer on secondment from one of the law firms. I have largely overseen the development of the legal and regulatory team – we now have a team of seven – and we recently separated out the company secretarial department. So we’ve definitely become a lot more sophisticated and developed over that period of time. That’s something I’m really proud of.
GC: Were there any learning points that you took away from that experience?
JM: In developing markets like Oman, you need to be able to identify good potential talent when it comes to lawyers. You need to be prepared to invest time in them to help them develop and enable them to reach their full potential. One of the things I’m particularly proud of in terms of the people in my team, both on the legal and on the regulatory side, is that we’ve identified a number of them very early in their careers and gone on to help them develop into outstanding professionals. We’ve been able to mould them to meet what we require as a company, but also give them what I think is really good training and first class opportunities both here and within the wider group. We do some cross-posting secondment work which has also been really beneficial for us. We have a 90% Omanisation rate across our company, which means that 90% of employees, including within my team, are Omani.
I think the country has been really strategic and thoughtful in the way that it has managed its expatriate programme. They’ve always offered expatriates a lot of security, but they’ve also offered a lot of incentives and encouragement to develop a local workforce. Ooredoo is one of the leading companies, so has always drawn some of the best recruits the country has to offer.
GC: Your team covers legal, regulatory and wholesale – can you tell us about that last function?
JM: Through the regulatory aspects of my GC role, I found that there were significant overlaps with wholesale, which governs access to Ooredoo networks within the wholesale market. The opportunity to run a commercial division was an exciting challenge. I needed to rapidly develop a new set of skills and face some new pressures. I’ve been lucky to have a good team around me and a supportive management, because it’s not easy to make that transition. I think a lot of lawyers want to make it but you have to expect that there’ll be some hiccups along the way, because there are certain basic skills that you can only gain through the experience of working in a particular area. Intelligence and a bit of business knowledge is not always enough and nor is hard work. Nevertheless it’s been great, I love doing it and having responsibility for revenue and performance is a really different challenge and makes me feel like more of a stakeholder in the performance of the business.
GC: What skills have you developed through that process?
JM: Obviously you have to have a commercial focus – you’re responsible for performance in a much more direct way than when you’re in a legal function. You’re ultimately being held accountable on a weekly, monthly, annual basis for delivering revenue and other KPI metrics. That is challenging, because you have to engage with and rely on the rest of the business, and you have to engage in a lot more politics to get things through. It has given me a new perspective of the role of support functions like legal, IT and technical, and how important it is for every one of these to pull in the same direction to achieve your goals.
GC: What do you think are good ways for the legal department to achieve that integration with the rest of the business?
JM: I’m a big believer that in order to be successful in any role within a company, but particularly in a legal function, you need to have strong relationships with the other key stakeholders. You can only get those strong relationships by engaging with and listening to people. I’m not a person who likes to sit at my desk and churn out legal advice – I like to move around the building, I like to have regular meetings with the stakeholders in other key divisions, particularly finance, procurement, network and the commercial guys. Ideally, the legal team needs to be pre-emptive. Alternatively, the commercial teams need to be comfortable coming to us, and they need to see us as a contributor to their business and to their success rather than an obstacle that they have to overcome in order to get something done. That’s something that we work really hard at here. It’s not easy, because the tendency for all of us is to retreat back behind our PCs, but you need to almost push them aside. We have a very open plan workspace and right up to the CEO we encourage dialogue, discussions and face-to-face meetings because a lot more happens that way. In an in-house environment I think that’s almost more important than anything else. People have to trust you, and involve you, and value your opinion on everything that they are doing, not just the legal part. You need to be part of that team.
GC: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
JM: It is difficult to narrow it to a single one, but it would either be our successful listing here in 2010, which was a culmination of a number of years of hard work within the difficult climate of the Global Financial Crisis, or it would be working with the current management team to execute a turnaround programme that saw us move from a declining market position in 2011-12, to a strong market position today, with excellent financial and operational performance.
GC: Over the next few months what legal challenges or issues do you foresee that you and your team are going to be facing?
JM: The big thing we’re working on at the moment is we have just finalised an acquisition of some spectrum from the government – so there’ll be a bit of work to do for that. We have a lot of work to do with the new national broadband company regarding fibre gear and launching our new services related to that. We’re working a lot with new content - obviously in Oman we’re a little bit behind other places but we’re bringing a lot of television, new applications and gaming access, and other exciting products and services to the market.
All of that brings new issues for us, not just in terms of contracts, but also taxation, structuring and increased competition in the market.
GC: What do you think is the secret to being a good leader?
JM: I think you need to understand yourself and your approach to managing, and you need to be yourself. I try to build up a good rapport with my team members and to trust them to get the best out of themselves. I’m not in any sense an authoritarian manager and I work best when people take their own initiative to drive their own results. I prefer a friendly, collegiate attitude. But that means you have to know the sort of people that you will work well with – so good selection is another important part of it. Other than that, it’s about communicating to people what you’re expecting from them, and working with them in a way that drives that outcome and makes them feel like they’re contributing. There’s no greater motivator for somebody than actually being interested in what they’re doing and feeling important. If people feel that they’re part of something and they’re challenged, it motivates them. As a manager, that means constantly pushing others out of their comfort zone a little bit and encouraging them to reach further. Also, I think you’ve got to know your own weaknesses. Strengths and weaknesses are two sides of the same coin and you have to be alive to that balance all the time.