Sandeep Katwala: Top tips from a lawyer with a varied, fulfilling portfolio
Sandeep lives the BCKR mission. He even introduced Tim to the Water Aid board (in fact interviewed him!) when WA was so enlightened that there were 3 lawyers on their board.
Sandeep headed the EMEA practice at Linklaters but retired 4 years ago after 25 years at the firm. He took on WaterAid while still at Linklaters, and on leaving, built his portfolio. He now Chairs Octavia (a West London housing association) and BID (Bail for Immigration Detainees), and the Mowgli Foundation mentoring people from the middle east and he is also a Trustee of the Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s’ Charity.
Sandeep started with a Law degree, intending to be a barrister but soon realised that wasn’t for him. He instead wanted to travel internationally so joined NatWest’s international team as a banker – in six years he got as far as Leeds – but while there did an MBA, then knew he wanted to get back to law. He became a trainee at Linklaters, qualifying into capital markets, where he spent the next 25 years. He sees his career at Linklaters in 3 buckets – the client side – doing the work; growing businesses – he built Indian and African businesses for Linklaters; and management – he was on the Executive Committee for 5 years and looked after the EMEA region for firm. However, most just see the first bit. For a non-executive life, the other two bits are even more useful. He decided to stop at 55 and prior to that, spent time working out what to do next. He chose the not for profit sector out of a sense of wanting to put something back (to make up for taking a lot out!). There are two types of roles in the not for profit sector, hands on operational or governance. He knew that the operational side wouldn’t allow him to fit in all the other things he wanted to do, so the non-executive piece was for him.
He had been introduced to WaterAid by a colleague while still at Links. Once on the WaterAid board he was quickly introduced to two other roles, which came through an introduction from WaterAid’s former chief executive, to BID and Octavia (a quasi-commercial as well as charity role), having been approached for all sorts or roles from fin tech start-ups to investing in Iran.
The impression of the charity world as woolly sweaters and sandals is not right – his experience is that the governance is very strong and often of a higher quality than his former clients. The other common perspective is that his board members would be of poorer quality than on commercial boards. However, Sandeep has found that, particularly in the larger organisations, the calibre of the people has been high and their systems better due to great resources.
Octavia is a West London Housing Association with a £2.5bn housing value which includes care schemes and social housing, property management and development. They have been put through their paces by S&P for fund raising. The role is a mix of social enterprise and commercial. As chair he has to be careful what he says, because what he says happens. They have recently had to deal with crisis management in relation to the Grenfell reaction. It’s something new to apply his old skills to, with a variety that includes walkabouts where he gets to meet residents; to large scale property development; to deciding if they should be putting the rents up (at 40% of market). There is a lot of challenge and it is broader than a more traditional charity role.
BID is a tiny law firm which provides pro bono legal advice to immigrants stuck in the legal system.
Lawyers on Boards
The larger not for profits are increasingly seeing the value of having lawyers on their boards. You will see some posts advertised as wanting legal skills. It is more challenging when looking for a chair role or applying for a role that doesn’t specify a need for legal expertise. There is still a perception among executive teams that lawyers are negative; this carries over to the headhunters. Lawyers don’t sell themselves very well. He still sees lawyers’ CVs for board roles which are simply a deal list – use the other buckets of your experience, promote the other sides. On LinkedIn ‘retired lawyer’ is not good for the algorithms. Lawyers can help themselves by highlighting how you manage and build teams and reference your commercial side.
Developing the relationship with the headhunters can be very helpful. The more people they have in their pool the better their long lists can look like. Headhunters tend to call people in their pool to get recommendations for alternative candidates and this builds relationships. Word of mouth works well too. Other resources for roles are Guardian adverts; Charity Jobs; LinkedIn; Nurole.
The Interview process:
It’s very competitive! You’d be amazed – some candidates will analyse every statement made by the company or the interviewing panel ahead of the interview. Don’t underestimate the competition just because it is not for profit.
The Portfolio piece:
It is worth being selective and focused on what you are after. Perhaps focus on a particular sector – but not exclusively. Keep an open mind. Housing for instance is a £60bn sector. Be bold. Don’t just look at what instantly appeals.
Be clear about your purpose. It is important to hone in on what you’re after. Sandeep distilled it down to simply wanting to do something that makes a difference to people’s lives.
People are generally respective of your diary, so you can book and go to the theatre. But dates can be fixed 12 months+ in advance. Roles he’s had have been challenging and varied – he’s listened to an 80 year old on the Portobello Road asking why their ceiling had not been properly repaired, been involved in the Charlie Guard situation at GoSH and appointed new chief execs. It’s kept him alive and buzzing!
Chair vs trustee. The role of a chair is lots more time intensive; you are more involved in strategy and there is a chance to make a real difference. For instance, he persuaded Octavia to build 1,000 more homes as part of their strategy.
How were you first approached for the role at WaterAid?
Sandeep wanted to do something different outside the firm. He started asking round. Wanted something international and in development, and the advert was pointed out by the company secretary at Linklaters. He applied and got the role.
How can you be sure you’re not being seen as a cheap source of legal advice?
The smaller charities will see you as ‘the lawyer on the board’ and you will be asked to do a bit; but generally make it clear that you are not there to give legal advice, you are there to participate fully on the board; but your legal mindset will be useful and you’d be daft not to use that skill sometimes.
Finding some sense of purpose is quite difficult.
Sandeep was once asked to think about what he’d want written on his tombstone. What would you be proud of? You need a big idea and work off that. Sandeep’s central theme was making a difference. Work on the basis that you will have another career. Plan and create the opportunities; and make a difference for people’s lives. For instance, for the first time last year Sandeep spent 6 days volunteering at Crisis at Christmas, serving breakfast, washing dishes and meeting and talking to people from very different backgrounds.
How do you gauge the time commitment?
Work out what percentage of your time you want to be allocated to the ‘family’, ‘entertainment’ and ‘work’ buckets. When applying for a role double the amount of time they are asking for.
Should you worry about your liability as a board member?
You’re not held to a higher standard simply because you are a lawyer. All directors have the same liability and the board members you will come across are generally very professional. Do your due diligence. Talk to ex board members. You need to get on with the board members and you will need to trust them so it can be useful to think about how they would work in a crisis.
There’s a steep learning curve for everybody joining a board, and it’s probably about a year before you’re up and running to make a real commitment, but don’t worry about that either since it is the same for everyone. Sandeep feels that 6 years is the maximum length of time to stay on a board. Selfishly he enjoys the fun of learning a new area and he wants to keep doing that. It keeps you fresh. But also, particularly in the role of Chair, you can harm an organisation if you hang around for too long.