Colleague Interview

Meet Shamila Neelakandan, Partner and Head of Construction Claims and Expert Services, Asia Pacific

As a specialist in power and utilities (water desalination), Shamila Neelakandan has become a go-to person in the power sector. Here, she talks about her motivations, professional specialities, and what it takes to succeed.

Tell me about your background.

I started as an advocate and solicitor in my native Malaysia and worked there for about eight years.

Slightly disillusioned with my career routine, I then decided to move to the UK in 2003 to complete my Masters and continue my work there as a lawyer. I was very fortunate to be awarded a Chevening scholarship to fund my studies.

It was when I hit the tenth year of working as a lawyer that I decided to take the step to move from practising law to consulting.

This was a game-changer for me. Being a lawyer had many benefits, but I found it had a limited reach. The idea of consulting meant working closer with clients on their projects. Consultants have the ability to influence the direction of the project, help clients recover from situations, avoid disputes and find solutions that work. I found the prospect of this empowering.

I began my consulting career with High-Point Rendel, London – I worked there for about six years, covering international projects in Europe, the Middle East and the Far East.

In 2013, feeling a little homesick, I moved back home to Malaysia, where I took up the position leading the local Hill International office as Country Manager. I then moved to an international role as Regional Director.

My horizons have expanded since, with my current role leading the Construction Claims and Expert Services team in Asia Pacific.

My role at HKA has given me the international flavour that I always aspired to achieve back when I worked as a solicitor in Malaysia.

How did power and water desalination become your speciality?

When I was a practising solicitor, my first major project was a hydroelectric dam in Kelantan, Malaysia. Two arbitration proceedings on that project kept me busy for seven years.

I realised almost immediately that sitting at a desk churning out legal opinions wasn’t alluring to me. I would rather have hands-on interaction with client site teams on the slopes, wearing a hard hat. Nothing says it better than an upfront experience to provide a holistic view.

In my years of industry experience, I have, amongst others, hiked through the dense foliage of Jeli to inspect design safety issues, walked the tunnel length between Union and Burjuman stations underneath the Dubai Creek for a site walk down and watched the TBM breakthrough at an underground station at the Bosphorus Marmaray. I got more out of those experiences than straight-cut legal practice before a judge!

As time passed, I took all my practical experience into project consulting. Just to note, I am in no way technically qualified so it has taken time for me to understand the construction sequence of rail or power projects. It was completely by chance that I began to specialise in power projects.

The benefit to specialisation is the better chance of repeat business within the industry sector in which you excel. When you are unique, there is less competition, and clients find it easier to trust you sooner knowing your background.

Around 70% of my projects are power plants — combined cycle, coal-fired, hydroelectric — with several water desalinisation projects, too.

I was honoured to be invited to judge the Energy Industry Council APAC Regional Awards 2023, which celebrates the best in the energy supply chain around the world. I also sit on the British Malaysia Chamber of Commerce (BMCC) Energy Council.

What inspires you in your job?

My clients and my team. My clients because I know my opinions are valued even if it takes some time to get their trust! Early on I remember I was made to feel like the fly-on-the-wall at the start of a commission. But over time, I must have made a difference because I always ended up being asked to present strategies at clients’ board meetings and consulted for all key decisions.

I thrive on managing clients’ expectations without diminishing their reliance on you. In such a competitive atmosphere, it’s not unusual for rivals to cut across your path. So when you manage to win the trust of your client and make an impact on their project, you know you’ve overcome many obstacles to reach that point.

My team (which extends over ten regional offices) inspires me as I have a lot to learn from their creativity, views, technical know-how and opinions. Their growth is my growth. Their diversity in what they bring in value and experience is key to any business that is built on collaboration and teamship.

With an international remit, I am often faced with some cultural barriers. I remember on one occasion having to singularly lead discussions before an IPP board made up of 12 senior Arab gentlemen in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I accepted the unchartered move on an engagement that went against a government entity. It was not an easy task enduring intense interrogation defending your report findings, an overwhelming experience when you are the only female in the room, so to speak! But an honour all the same.

With this business, you really get to know what you’re good at and areas where it may be a little challenging for you. It’s great knowing every day brings such variety and new challenges to overcome.

Describe a typical day in your role.

My role is very autonomous — some days, I work with my team; other times, I operate individually, and sometimes I work with teams across different continents. Indeed, my days are very, very long!

It’s a juggling act, and I have various roles to ensure the success of a business unit. A significant part of my role is also business development. I’m always on the lookout to develop clientele globally. Another part of my role is people management and upskilling, which is a huge investment time-wise, but it’s critical for team engagement and ensuring the success of the business. The most exciting part is the actual fee earning and leading teams in successfully completing commissions.

I also occasionally speak at conferences, HKA Masterclasses, or training specifically developed for a client. I was recently asked to sit on the panel for a workshop developed by one of the client’s stakeholders, which covered topics on leadership and managing international businesses in a new jurisdiction.

My role has many aspects, which is why I enjoy it very much.

You work with young achievers to help them realise their goals – in what ways do you help them?

I’m passionate about helping people through the stages of their careers — especially as I didn’t have much guidance in my journey. Having someone more senior offer advice would have been great when I faced challenges in my career.

So, I have volunteered to undertake such a role, kicking off with mentoring sessions every other month with junior colleagues within and outside the APAC region. Leading teams undertaking deliverables is not all about deadlines; it’s also about ensuring there is a transfer of knowledge and experience – so they are getting added value with their participation. I have done this with our South Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, Middle East and Australia teams.

I love interacting with young people. I always find you can relate to them from when you were a similar age, so to be able to steer them in the right direction is a great feeling. Our new generation is bold, and they have every right to be bold. I find their ideas very inspiring.

Generally, young people want to know how to turn ideas into reality with mentorship.

What do you think has been the reason for your success?

I think pushing myself outside my comfort zone is the primary reason for where I am today. Firstly, I challenged myself to work in an international market. I then pushed myself to change my path to a profession I was not trained for. My role has evolved as a result of technical delivery to a leadership function.

Working in a male-dominated industry is not easy, but with a positive attitude, I take every small win as a big achievement.

My advice to young female professionals wanting to break into the market is to find your voice and way of working and just be yourself.

About Shamila

Shamila Neelakandan is a dual-qualified Lawyer (Malaysia and UK) with 27 years of legal, contracts and commercial experience in the construction industry. She is a Partner at HKA and the Construction Claims and Expert Services Lead, Asia Pacific. She is also a Fellow with the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and is an empanelled arbitrator with the AIAC.


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