Jasmeet Wadehra, head of legal for the India and South Asia region at Visa, joined the organisation in 2019. He also serves on the CII’s National Committee on Regulatory Affairs and ASSOCHAM’s National Council on Competition Law, as well as the boards of private and non-government organisations; additionally, he is involved with various educational institutions as visiting faculty. Prior to Visa, Wadehra worked in various leadership roles in legal, compliance and regulatory affairs with Vedanta group, International Paper, FedEx and Deutsche Bank.
ALB: Tell us about your legal career so far, and what led you to taking up this role.
Wadehra: I began my legal career with private practice more than 20 years ago in the areas of banking, finance and investments where I supported clients (mostly banks and multilateral financial institutions) in making private equity and debt investments in a diverse portfolio of companies spanning energy, oil and gas, pharma, finance, cement, auto and healthcare industries. In 2005, I moved to an in-house role and ever since, I have been a corporate counsel. I have had the privilege of working with many great companies like GE, FedEx, Deutsche Bank, International Paper and Vedanta group before assuming my current role with Visa.
I have always been fascinated with technology ever since I operated my first computer in 1993 or maybe going back to my childhood days when I would compulsively break open every electric/electronic toy to understand how they worked. I closely followed the developments in the technology world from telecom and internet revolution in the 90s to the e-commerce and social media proliferation in the new millennium and the more recent mushrooming of smartphone usage. It is no surprise that the fast-growing fintech world attracted me to come and work for the world leader in the payments industry - Visa, a company which has been ranked among the top brands in the world and recognised widely as a great place to work among its many distinctions. More importantly, I was impressed by Visa’s culture of innovation, client-focused approach and people orientation besides its credentials as one of the most ethical companies of the world.
ALB: What have been some of your highlights from your time in charge? And what are some leadership lessons you have learnt?
Wadehra: I lead a small legal team in my role as head of legal for the India and South Asia region at Visa. Since joining the company last year, I have seen a spurt in growth in digital payments in the region with many new players either setting up shop or rapidly expanding their footprints in the industry. Most of these start-ups and fintech companies are focused on facilitating the transition from cash to digital payments, for the SMEs and those operating in smaller cities, towns and rural areas or enabling digital payment and acceptance in e-commerce while a few others who are focused on solutions for specific use cases like digital lending, travel, food delivery, etc. With the advent of many new payment banks and wallet providers I see the role of a network like Visa to facilitate our clients and the new age fintech companies to bring innovative payment solutions to the market and making their journey towards go-live of products and solutions easier. Towards this end, we have been working on various initiatives and technology solutions in which the legal team provides legal and regulatory advice in facilitating onboarding of fintech, preparing documentation, seeking regulatory signoffs where required and ensuring ongoing compliance. We are proud to be at the forefront of many innovative solutions like single click (OTP-less) payments through Visa Safe Click and tokenisation.
The other highlight for us has been dealing with various regulatory developments including mandate of data localisation, zero MDR regime for certain payment instruments, etc. Various exciting opportunities have also emerged with the proactive regulator permitting products like standing instructions on cards, cards for overdraft accounts and contactless payments for over 2,000 rupees. The legal team has been involved in advising the business on implications, coordinating with industry participants on response as well as engaging closely with regulators on these topics.
Due to COVID-19, people are using digital payments increasingly for their day to day needs, resulting in increased client engagements for various products, customer offers and business growth initiatives and consequently on calls for legal support from our business colleagues.
I have always believed that the mantra for the success of a lawyer is understanding of business and always being focused on enabling and growing the business. A key leadership lesson I have learnt in this journey is to reach out to colleagues and industry experts and engage positively to learn finer nuances of the business. This helps in not just establishing a support network but enables a lawyer to provide practical business-oriented solutions to challenges posed to them.
The other key leadership lesson I firmly believe in is to strive to find a happy spot for the team as happy employees are naturally more productive. In this regard, it is important as leaders to de-clutter their lives, provide a safety net, ease out their challenges, empower and trust them and more importantly appreciate their big and small achievements. An open channel of communication and empathy are great tools in this process. It is also important for leaders to be good coaches and to treat the team as they would treat their children - encouraging development and backing them up.
ALB: How would you describe your strategy for the legal team?
Wadehra: My strategy for managing legal team is three-fold. Firstly, our objective must be to support our internal clients and provide solutions. It is very important to overcome an overcritical mindset which many lawyers struggle with due to their training and experience with thinking about worst case scenarios. Secondly, prioritising tasks and optimising resources is imperative. These resources could be internal or external support, networks or avenues to find the right answers through domain experts. Building of such a support system is key to success. Finally, staying abreast (or rather two steps ahead) of changes in regulations, industry, new products/technology and anything relevant to business is very important.
ALB: How do you feel the pandemic will reshape the way your team (and broader company) operates? What strategy changes have you put in place in the long run?
Wadehra: Firstly, Visa has adapted the ‘work from home’ regime seamlessly and we are all operating efficiently. Technology and connectivity have a big role in ensuring this. Secondly, we are proud of our leadership and particularly our CEO - Al Kelly - who made a very early announcement of various employee-friendly measures to deal with the pandemic including optional work from home till year-end, assuring job security and introducing the concept of wellbeing time/flexi hours for employees to take care of personal and family needs. These measures have had a very positive impact on employee motivation and productivity. Thirdly, we as managers proactively keep in regular touch with teams and help them in making the remote working experience smooth. Finally, each country/region has created a workgroup of senior leaders to keep tab of the COVID-19 situation and plan for an eventual return to office keeping employee safety and well-being paramount.
ALB: How important is the company’s culture, according to you? What kind of internal culture are you looking to foster both within the team, as well as your business as a whole?
Wadehra: Culture is the most critical tool to ensure a company follows the highest standards of ethics and compliance. Culture is evident from the conduct of employees when nobody is watching and no compliance program, surveillance or control measure can work more effectively than a robust and trusting culture, and Visa lays extensive emphasis on this. Setting up the right culture of an organisation begins with tone at the top. Leaders must walk the talk and demonstrate doing the right thing in all their decisions and communication. I believe preservation of culture is achieved through regular communication, and training programs, strong policies, systems and process controls and governance, which are key pillars of this approach. Finally, screening of new employees at the time of hiring and third parties like vendors, suppliers, clients, etc. too ensure that all parties share a common commitment to ethics and right conduct.
ALB: On that note, how would you describe your hiring and talent retention strategy? What kinds of lawyers would make the best fit for your team?
Wadehra: Lawyers must have a positive attitude, client and solution focus and must be open to learning and adapting. They should also constantly strive to develop their acumen and collaborate well with other team members. The most important attribute for a good lawyer is undoubtedly the knowledge of business.
ALB: How would you describe your approach to technology? How has the use of tech within your team evolved since you started at the helm, and what is your blueprint for the next year or two?
Wadehra: Technology plays an important part in facilitating and organising our work. Whether it is a simple tool like calendar and email sorting application for time management or more complex tools used for legal research, drafting, communication, litigation and compliance management, use of technology can certainly bring efficiency in operations. I do not believe in blindly adopting technology because it is available, and others are using it. I feel that a need assessment must precede the adoption of technology to find the right tools to use. It is also important to focus on change management as technology adoption can be extremely disruptive and may be counterproductive if the transition is not managed properly.
ALB: How have your legal requirements evolved in recent times (either generally or as a result of the pandemic)? How does that change the way you use external counsel and other legal services providers?
Wadehra: The pandemic and recent changes in the industry have put a lot of pressure and demands on the legal function. Use of external counsel is a key requirement to augment internal resources and procure expert advice and support. At the same time, it is imperative to manage and optimise operating expenses. It’s a delicate balance which does not have a cookie-cutter solution. I feel that a collaborative approach with law firm partners helps to create a win-win situation and most law firms are willing to be flexible in their engagement to support client needs with fee concessions, adopting fee caps or even providing complimentary webinars and training. COVID-19 has also forced us to think about de-bottlenecking our internal processes for legal support and making available self-use templates, relaxing norms for legal review and adopting automation.
ALB: What motto do you live by?
Wadehra: My motto simply is to be a trusted counsellor focused on enabling and growing business with proactive and solution-oriented support.
ALB Conversations is a weekly series of in-depth Q&As with leaders of law firms and in-house legal departments across Asia. If you are a managing partner or general counsel based in the region who is interested in being a part of this series, please send an email to email@example.com.