Lessons from the Top: Fireside Chat with Vinod Mahboobani

On July 8, 2021, the Association of Corporate Counsel Singapore and Bird and Bird had Vinod Mahboobani, chief legal officer of KFC Global and Pizza Hut International, share his life lessons and experiences from trainee lawyer to globally successful general counsel — all in 60 minutes.

Here are the key takeaways from the inspiring fireside chat. The chat was hosted by Christopher Y. Chan, ACC Singapore board member and EVP legal at the Lazada Group, and moderated by Lijun Chui, partner at Bird and Bird.

Vinod Mahboobani
Christopher Y. Chan
Lijun Chui

Put in your best into every task, because even the smallest doors can open up great opportunities.

The session kicked off with a throwback to Mahboobani’s first day as a trainee lawyer in Hong Kong. Clad in a brand-new suit, Mahboobani recalled his disappointment when asked to do the most mundane task of punching holes and paginating documents. But with the benefit of hindsight, his advice to young lawyers in that situation?

“Whatever you are given, do your best at that task. Doesn’t matter what task it is, you don’t know what doors will open up.”

Mahboobani later learned that it was his positive attitude towards this first task that earned him an invaluable opportunity to work alongside some of the most prominent counsels for the entire duration of a landmark trial. Hard work and good attitude do pay off.  

Surround yourself with “truth tellers” regardless of seniority.

Even as Mahboobani moved up the ranks and became more senior in the organization, he never failed to keep himself grounded to reality. One of his secrets to success is to be open-minded about how, when, and from whom to seek guidance. The key is in appreciating the diverse perspectives that people in different roles can bring, even those who are less experienced in the field. What matters more is that such persons are honest and direct when providing their feedback and views. In Mahboobani’s own words:

Surround yourself with what I call ‘truth tellers’ — who will tell you things as they are, and not things that you want to hear.”

In new environments, have a thorough understanding of the audience and a good grasp of the situation.

As someone who has stepped into both legal and non-legal roles throughout his career, Mahboobani has had extensive experience dealing with different stakeholders and individuals with varying management styles. To connect with persons of different backgrounds, he believes that it is paramount to have a deep understanding of the other party’s wants and needs. To put it simply:

You need to understand the audience, and that’s how you will be guided on what message, in what way to target and deliver to the intended audience.”

Another tip that Mahboobani shared was to develop a sense of situational awareness and be flexible enough to adapt on the fly. For example, a presentation may have been scheduled for one hour but if it is before a group of jet-legged foreign guests, and has overrun into lunchtime, one may be better off trying to compress the presentation to allow for the well needed break. (In this instance, they had a flight to catch right after!) Drawing from that experience, Mahboobani advised that having the ability to work around contingencies is a useful skillset to demonstrate competence in new environments.     

Invest in yourself  — do not be afraid to step out of your comfort zone, but still remember to carve out your own space and be authentic.

During the entire conversation, it was clear that Mahboobani's biggest asset is his personal conviction and beliefs. Mahboobani is a strong advocate of seeking diverse opportunities wherever possible to maximize personal growth and development, whether it be a new role in a different country or a new global project within the same organization. And he himself walks the talk. Mahboobani’s work has brought him across various portfolios traversing continents from Hong Kong, to Singapore, to New Delhi, and now to Dallas, TX.

Yet through it all, Mahboobani remains steadfastly family-oriented with a keen sense of harmony between his personal space and his work life. In Mahboobani’s view, taking time off for a “reboot of the system” is essential to staying in the race in the long run. Leading by example, Mahboobani himself does not send emails over the weekend out of respect for his team’s personal time to recharge.

His parting advice to young professionals wanting to make an impression?

Be original you don’t need to put up a front, what you are is what you are… You need to be true to yourself, you cannot compromise on your values. When you show that your values are fundamental to yourself, that is how you gain trust and form relationships.”

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