INTERVIEW: PATRICIA MBUGUA-KILWAKE
PRINCIPAL LEGAL OFFICER, EAST AFRICAN DEVELOPMENT BANK
Kenyan advocate Patricia Mbugua-Kilwake recently began a new role as principal legal officer at East African Development Bank headquartered in Uganda, having previously worked at Bank of Africa Kenya Limited. She chats to Catherine Wycherley about the importance of facilitating business processes and her experiences in-house.
G C I N T E R V I E W
EDITOR AND FEATURES WRITER
GC: Did you always want to be a lawyer?
Patricia Mbugua-Kilwake (PM): The answer would be no. When I was growing up I was often at the top of the class, so my father wanted to nudge me in the direction of medicine. But after I completed high school, I realised I was attracted to the law, and that my strength was actually in the arts, and that is how the journey began.
GC: What do you find satisfying about being in-house?
PM: Having previously been in private practice, it was very interesting to be on the other side of things. Sometimes in-house counsel are accused of not understanding the needs of external lawyers or articulating those needs effectively to the business teams within corporate organisations - especially in commercial banks, where the turnaround times are critical. I had worked for nine years in a leading law firm in Kenya, so I was able to bring the perspective of the external lawyers into the Bank. I was able to articulate very clearly what the actual process is like and why it would take so long, and to take the business teams through the steps so that they fully appreciate that it is not a straightforward affair. I think we saw better relationships between the business teams and external counsel because they were able to appreciate what the challenges were, from someone who they considered to be one of them.
Also internally, when an in-house counsel has previous practising experience, they can minimise interactions with external lawyers because they are able to provide on-the-spot advice more readily, and engage with the business teams to help them appreciate and understand nuances of the legal system. I was able to establish more interaction with the business teams; better synergies and understanding of what our processes are like and what exactly we need from the customer, and why.
It was also interesting to understand the banking experience from the inside. I was able to actually appreciate what the business teams go through, the challenges of customers’ demands and expectations, and articulate those to the external lawyers so they could be more responsive and appreciate why time is of the essence.
I definitely grew a lot in terms of being exposed to the banking side and the growth continues, because now I am in a bank which principally deals with project finance.
GC: What led you to move into the development side of banking?
PM: Definitely growth and exposure. I was beginning to plateau; I felt like I had reached my ceiling and was regressing in terms of growth and challenges. So this role definitely came in very, very handy, because it is a development and project finance institution, which is something that I have always wanted to grow in. I did a little bit of it previously, but on a very small scale. This is on a much larger scale, and that is exciting for me.
GC: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
PM: Receiving a written appreciation from one of our branch managers in my previous role. Just the idea that someone from the business side can commend a person from the legal side, which is very rare, felt like a huge achievement. My team and I were able to understand what they needed and could be there for them – providing value addition through constant engagement with the business teams, understanding their needs, going the extra mile in speeding up their transactions and making it as seamless as possible. A specific example of that was this: there is a chattels mortgage document we used in-house - a legal instrument securing a financier’s interest over movable assets like vehicles, machinery and the like. That document used to be sent in hard copy to the branches for execution, but that used to take a huge length of time, and it was very critical to expedite such transactions, because other banks were offering speedy asset finance arrangements. When I joined the Bank I shortened the process by preparing the document, putting it on PDF to protect its integrity, and sending it across to the business teams for quick printing and signing. That cut almost a week out of the process and was very well-received.
The other thing was building the team - that became a pet project of mine. I attended a life-changing management training program over a period of nine months - sponsored by the Bank based on exceptional performance in the preceding year - and one of the things that we talked of was that a manager’s role involves not just running through and supervising processes, but building people. I began to think outside the box - how can I motivate my team? I came up with the concept of “team member of the month”, which gradually grew into “outstanding team member of the quarter.” I would allow the team to nominate the person they thought had gone the extra mile in terms of internal customer service and supporting the rest of the team. I left it to the team, but interestingly, for the most part, the people I would have nominated myself, who I thought were adding most value, were the people nominated by the team! I would buy a gift from my own resources and publicly recognise and appreciate them. My very supportive boss quickly bought into the idea and kindly offered to offset half my expenses out of her own funds. That went a very long way in keeping the team motivated - in the absence of significant salary increments and other emoluments, they still felt that their head supported them and this enhanced their individual and collective work ethic.
GC: How would you describe your management style, and what do you think is the secret to being a good legal leader?
PM: I would describe it as a collaborative style, seeking to understand a person’s strengths and their weaknesses as well. I also think giving immediate feedback is important. In the corporate world we are so used to waiting for appraisals – quarterly or monthly - and that is when all the negatives come out, unfortunately. You give a delayed positive comment and then something bad in equal measure, which, as I learnt during the management training, takes away from the positive comment completely.
There was a time when my baby was not well and I was out of the office for almost two weeks, and my colleague was on maternity leave. That meant that one of my other colleague was handling the entire Bank’s network of about 35 branches – we are talking about legal process from end to end - and it was extremely difficult and potentially overwhelming for him, especially because he is a legal clerk and not a trained lawyer. But he made me so proud and excelled. He had grasped the basics so well that he held the fort brilliantly. When I came back, I immediately sent an email to recognise him and copied in my team, my boss and HR as well. The feedback I got from him was that something so simple made a huge difference because he felt appreciated; he felt valued because someone had noticed that he had gone the extra mile. In a nutshell, from his reaction to my relatively simple act of recognition, I realised that prompt feedback in terms of appreciation and acknowledgement of someone’s efforts is so important.
Developmental feedback is crucial too. If someone has done something wrong, I give it on the spot so that I am not waiting for their appraisal to tell them this is what they did wrong. You are able to correct it well before time. That has gone a long way in keeping the team motivated, knowing their efforts are not going unnoticed. That has been a concern, especially for support staff, where they feel they are not appreciated because they do not bring in the numbers.
GC: In your previous role you set up the legal team within the credit division from scratch. What were the challenges and the satisfactions of going through that process?
PM: One of the greatest challenges was that we were very thin on the ground - it was just me as the head and two other people, a legal officer and a legal clerk, with one other legal officer having just left the Bank just before my entry, and who were all previously working under the Bank’s company secretary who had been in charge of all the legal matters prior to my engagement. So when I took over the security-related legal aspects to form the new department that would be distinct from the company secretarial role under the Bank’s new group structure, it was very difficult, because we were serving the entire network and everyone needed things to be turned around quickly. The other thing is that I happened to be five months pregnant at the time!
I did not think it was possible, but I was able to put systems and structures in place. For instance I developed an enhanced security perfection requirements checklist. When the business teams were submitting documents, those would often be submitted piecemeal, and we would have to instruct lawyers with very little. I put my foot down and said no, we need to have, and stick to, a checklist - if the bare minimum is not met, we are not proceeding. We would then return the incomplete documents to the sender. That helped to develop a bit of discipline among the business teams and the legal teams as well.
Also, with great support from management, I developed a minimum threshold to help inform the decision-making process in instances where the Bank was considering advancing some monies (we called them early drawdowns [EDDs]) to good clients. Initially the process of early disbursements was not really structured. For instance, if the security in a particular transaction involved a charge over a land, the minimum requirement was that the charge document had to at least be submitted for registration, with proof of the lodgement provided to us by our external lawyers. By developing that minimum threshold, it guided the credit team to know what to allow partial drawdown on and what not to. Obviously they were privy to other matters that we were not, but at least we could say what the legal threshold minimum was. That helped stem a lot of haemorrhaging in terms of monies being given where the bare minimum of security documentation was not in place – the customer has the money so why are they bothering to sign your document? The memo laying down this new rule was actually signed off by our MD and adopted to the point where EDDs became the exception rather than the norm, because it was increasingly very difficult to justify why you are advancing money when the security process has not run its course.
Had we come in gung-ho, or had I said, “no EDD”, that would have been met with a lot of resistance. But I said, “ok, we may have to do EDD, but let us at least have a minimum threshold”. That gained acceptability because people felt I was looking to support the business, but also mitigate the risk and exposure.
GC: If you could go back in time and give your junior self some advice, what would that be?
PM: I would say to allow for measured growth. I think a lot of people are rushing to become partner or head honcho at whichever organisation they are, and I think the benefit of measured growth is that you are not setting yourself up too early. You are allowing yourself to gain experience, to learn a lot from your superiors and you are able then to hone in on your particular area of expertise - which cannot happen if you are growing and getting responsibilities too fast. Because then you have not developed the specialised skills that you require to discharge that role and command respect. In Kenya, for instance, someone can be two years in practice and they are already a partner. It took me seven years post-admission to the Bar to become a partner. It helps to have measured growth and to build expertise over time to be able to command the respect of your peers, your seniors and the industry. Many people want to grow too quickly, and they end up burning their fingers, or they jump from here to there, and they do not take time to actually develop their experience.
GC: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
PM: I love singing, especially gospel, and reading a lot. I am looking forward to tightening up on my reading. I love motivational books. Zig Ziglar was a great motivational speaker. I enjoy a good novel, like the legal thrillers by John Grisham, and I also love classics like Pride and Prejudice and Little Women.
I have an extremely supportive husband, he has been my rock! I would not be where I am without his incredible love and support. He is literally one in five billion and I thank God for him. I also have two adorable children: my daughter, who turned four on 30th April, and whose razor sharp intelligence and sensitivity to others amazes me every day, and my son, who turned three on 18th May, and whose cognitive abilities, zest for life and cheeky nature bring us so much joy. My loving Mum and Dad instilled the value of integrity and a very strong work ethic in me from a tender age that has served me well throughout my career. My three beautiful sisters are high achievers, and have been an incredible source of motivation, encouragement and support. My family keeps me going, and my heartfelt prayer is to be the best wife, mother, daughter and sister that I could possibly be.
GC: Do you have a favourite film?
PM: I have so many! My all-time favourite goes way back – The Sound of Music.
GC: If for some reason you weren’t a lawyer, what would you do instead?PM: I would love to draw. I realised when I joined high school that I could actually draw and I got a surprisingly decent grade in art, but then we had to choose after our first year and I did not think that was my greatest strength. But I actually think I could have explored that interest further. And singing as well – I would definitely sing more.