Colleague Interview

Hear from HKA colleague, Shamila Neelakandan, on motivations, professional specialties, and what it takes to succeed

Shamila Neelakandan’s career has evolved from practising law in her native Malaysia, to travelling the world servicing and developing relationships with clients. Here, she talks about her motivations, professional specialties, 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 made the decision 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. Sure, being a lawyer had lots of benefits, but I found it had a limited reach. I loved the idea of consulting, as I saw it meant working closer with clients on their projects. Consultants have the ability to influence the direction of the project, helping clients recover from situations, avoiding disputes and finding solutions that worked. I found the prospect of this empowering.

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

In 2013, feeling a little homesick, I then made the move 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, which is the position I still hold today with HKA.

My horizons have expanded further since, with my current role taking me to more Middle Eastern countries, and now areas in Africa.

Rather accidently, I began to specialise in power plants and water desalinisation – I would say around three quarters of my projects currently are power plants — combined cycle, coal-fired, hydroelectric — with several water desalinisation projects, too.

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

What inspires you in your job?

My clients. Knowing that my opinions are valued even if it takes some time to break into their trust! I remember I am always 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 end up being asked to present strategies at clients’ board meetings and consulted for all key decisions.

With an international remit, I am often faced with some cultural barriers. I remember on one occasion having to singularly lead discussions before 12 senior Arab gentlemen in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on whether to take the unchartered move to go 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 house so to speak! But an honour all the same.

Another challenging aspect is working towards managing clients’ expectations without, at the same time, 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 to their project, you know you’ve overcome many obstacles to reach that point.

You also get to really 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 mostly work with my team, other times I operate individually, and sometimes I’m working with teams across different regions. Indeed, my days are very, very long!

I’m also sat on the HKA Academy steering group, providing training and mentorship to our younger colleagues.

A significant part of my role is also business development. I’m always on the lookout to develop clientele globally.

I also occasionally speak at conferences, HKA Masterclasses, or training specifically developed for a client. Just recently I was 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.

So it’s not always just fee-earning! There are many aspects to my role, which is why I enjoy it so much.

You mentioned 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 stages of their career — especially as I didn’t have such guidance in my journey. It would have been great when I faced challenges in my career to have someone more senior offer advice.

So I have volunteered to undertake such a role kicking off with mentoring sessions every other month with two junior staff in Doha. Our focus covers scope for technical development, soft skills and how to overcome obstacles.

I also believe that when leading teams in undertaking deliverables, it’s not all about deadlines, it’s also about ensuring there is transfer of knowledge and experience – so they are getting added value with their participation.  I have done this with our teams in South Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, Doha and the UAE.

Outside of HKA, I’m involved in young person empowerment programmes in Malaysia.  I frequently speak at youth engagement forums and workshops. The British High Commission, Malaysia and some NGOs have been my main supporters in this initiative.  I have often been asked to help with issues on career plans, social or community interests.

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

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.

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

In my 22 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.

As time went on, I took all my practical experience with me 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.

As I mentioned earlier, it was completely by chance that I began to specialise in power projects. At times, it can be a double-edged sword.

In some ways, specialisation may mean you only win this kind of work, and you can become unmarketable outside of your usual scope.

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

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. I firstly challenged myself to work in an international market.  I then pushed myself to change path to a profession I was not trained for.  My role has evolved as a result.

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

My only advice to young female professionals who want to break into the market – find your voice and way of working, and just be yourself.


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