From leadership development to team acceleration: Insights from BMW South Africa's general manager of legal services
Legal, Risk, Compliance & Government Affairs

From leadership development to team acceleration: Insights from BMW South Africa's general manager of legal services

BMW South Africa’s Candice Pillay discusses building high-performance teams and attracting, retaining, and developing a new generation of legal talent.
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In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Marianne Hill speaks to Candice Pillay, the newly appointed general manager of legal services for the BMW Group in South Africa. Pillay shares her interest in and commitment to the professional development of teams, specifically harnessing and developing talent from within to help companies achieve their goals. She also discusses the leadership traits necessary to navigate in today’s complex environment.

Some key questions answered in this podcast include:

  • (1:05) You've long expressed a genuine interest in and commitment to the professional development of your teams. Why this is so important to you?
  • (3:05) How would you describe a high-performing team and what do you typically measure this against? 
  • (4:48) What do you believe are the most important leadership capabilities for success, specifically in a legal function?
  • (5:54) What’s your advice to attract, retain, and develop talent in a legal function?
  • (8:36) You have a strong track record of leadership roles with various multinational entities across diverse sectors. What are the key leadership skills to successfully navigate complexities in these types of environments?

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Marianne Hill: Hello, I'm Marianne Hill, a principal in Heidrick & Struggles' Johannesburg office and a member of the firm's Financial Services and Corporate Officers practices. In today's podcast, I'm speaking to Candice Pillay, the newly appointed general manager, of legal services, for the BMW Group in South Africa. Prior to joining BMW, Candice held various legal leadership positions with other multinationals, including Sage and SAP in the software industry. 

Candice, welcome, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. 

Candice Pillay: Thank you, Marianne, for the opportunity. 

Marianne Hill: Candice, you've long expressed a genuine interest in and commitment to the professional development of your teams. Please tell us why this is so important to you. 

Candice Pillay: It's quite obvious to me, having worked individually and in other teams, as well as being responsible for building teams, that the value of the company lies within those teams and if we don't harness the opportunity to grow and develop talent within the teams, it's ultimately the company that loses out on achieving its end goal. So, for me, simply put, the teams hold the key to the success of the department or the division—success in achieving its goals and ultimately in the company delivering on its targets and achievements. So, it’s a very, very integral part of the business 

Marianne Hill: Throughout our discussions, you’ve also mentioned your servant leadership approach to building high-performing teams. What does that mean in your environment and how do you practically live this out? 

Candice Pillay: For me, it's important to understand what makes my team tick, what makes them function at their best, and what they need from me to do that as their manager—or their leader, in this instance. I like to build relationships of trust and transparency. I'm a very big believer in keeping my team up to date about what's going on within the company's parameters so that they understand what to look out for and can point things in the right direction. But I believe that trust, number one, is one of the key functional attributes that are very important in servant leadership, as well as showing your team that you are with them in the trenches, so to speak; you are not averse to also rolling up your sleeves and finding a way with them toward the solution. 

Marianne Hill: Speaking of high-performing teams: in your view, how would you describe a high-performing team and what do you typically measure this against? 

Candice Pillay: For me, a high-performing team is one that takes initiative. After they've settled in, whether they're new or existing, it's about taking initiative, finding out how they can help, and what they can do to support each other and to support the business needs. So, a high-performing team, number one, would definitely be a team that's mature, that takes initiative, that willing to come forward when they have an issue and they're unable to perform or complete a task, or when they have input around improvements and things that they think we can do better. And that's key because they not only have the short-term goals but the long-term goals of the department in mind, as well as making things more efficient for us as a team. So, definitely taking initiative, being mature, being able to come forward and say when you're unable to do something or to cope, but also being willing to share when we can do things better. And that includes me as well, that includes, you know, saying to me, “Candice, maybe we should do it this way, what do you think about that?” And I'm very, very open to those types of conversations as well. The younger generation does have very interesting ideas when it comes to automation and digitization of legal functions that we usually perform manually; I think it's just part of our DNA as lawyers, but we're moving in a fast-paced world now and we need to look at clever new ways to support the business. 

Marianne Hill: What do you believe are the most important leadership capabilities for success, specifically in a legal function?

Candice Pillay: What I look for most, at the outset, at least, is a good attitude and willingness to learn and grow. Having somebody that is willing to learn and willing to grow and comes in with a can-do attitude really, really goes a long way in the success of the legal functions. So, that would be one of the key capabilities that I would look out for. I think some other things are the ability to be adaptable and resilient. Things are changing all the time. What's the status of our economy? And there's COVID, the pandemic—there are so many things that we are dealing with not only in our personal lives but also from a business perspective. And, as in-house counsel, you need to be able to pivot in various directions toward different key stakeholders to try to point everything in one direction so that the company can find a way forward and a solution. 

Marianne Hill: You're clearly very passionate about the talent and the people that you bring into your teams. What’s your advice to attract, retain, and develop talent in a legal function? 

Candice Pillay: First and foremost, it depends on what you're hiring for. For example, hiring in a more junior role may not necessarily require lots of leadership attributes, but it's good to see if somebody has, let’s say, goals and ambitions to climb the corporate ladder or level up in the skill set. That would be important. And with your senior team members, your managers, your senior legal counsels, and so on, it's really important for them to be able to have autonomy and apply themselves, apply their skills, and be able to connect with the business and key stakeholders as well. It shouldn't be a situation whereby the business stakeholders filter instructions via me and then I filter that down to my team. It's very, very important for your team to understand what it is that the business is actually doing and what our company stands for, and our values. These are the products we make or manufacture, or these are the services we provide. And teams need a good understanding of those things from a technical perspective as well. So, giving them the ability to connect with the business, to understand it, and have autonomy would be a very important factor to keep an already high-performing team or individual and retain them. Because, as we know, the market is quite strapped for talent and it's very competitive at the moment 

Marianne Hill: Candice, you've mentioned that you do have a followership. Individuals that you have led in the past and some individuals that follow you in your career, into your new environments. Why do you think they do that? Why would they like to join you, specifically, in your new environment? 

Candice Pillay: It's primarily because they find working with me rewarding, they've seen what we can achieve together, they've seen how they've grown as individuals, and they've been able to, let's say, fulfill their own goals and passions as individuals and also achieve their targets, KPIs, and other strategic goals within these companies as well. So, I think it's sort of a mutually beneficial relationship in that sense. We work very well together and we understand what needs to be done, let me put it that way. 

Marianne Hill: You have a strong track record of leadership roles with various multinational entities across diverse sectors. What are the key leadership skills to successfully navigate complexities in these types of environments?

Candice Pillay: You have challenges with regards to time zones, there are language barriers, and there are cultural barriers before you even get to the crux of the legal issues that you're trying to resolve or to work on. So, I think it's very, very important for a person in that type of leadership role to have a good overview of what we’re actually dealing with in terms of the landscape. And that can mean a number of things. That can mean understanding who your key stakeholders are, understanding from a regulatory and a legal perspective the laws and regulations that you're dealing with within a specific country, and understanding the cultures within those different countries because we have colleagues and stakeholders in those countries as well and it's important in order to communicate across borders. If you're not able to do that, then it does hinder your chances of succeeding with whatever the task may be. 

Marianne Hill: You spoke about the communication across these multiple regions. How do you build those relationships and keep the lines of communication open? 

Candice Pillay: Before COVID, it usually involved travel. I think it's important to travel if you get the opportunity, be it for a specific exercise, negotiation, or legal conferences and the like. You should actually go and visit the offices you look after. If it's not possible to do that, it's good to set up regular meetings with the managing directors or country managers, maybe, or finance or HR teams in those countries to try to build relationships, actually understand what people are trying to say and to achieve, and understand some of the barriers they face in their roles. Something that's prevalent or culturally acceptable in one country, for example, Zimbabwe, may not be so in South Africa, and we need to navigate lots of red tape in terms of regulations when dealing with the Treasury or the banks over there. So, it's really, really important to understand the lay of the land before you get sucked into the details. And relationship building helps that immensely.

Marianne Hill: As we know, the only constant in this world, really, is change. What, in your view, does it take to be a successful legal counsel in this rapidly changing world of work? 

Candice Pillay: The first thing that pops into my mind is a high level of resilience, but in saying that, I want to note it’s also very, very important to pause and step back and not only revitalize your perspective but revitalize your mind and body as well. It's about being able to build that resilience and not push yourself to a point where you're unable to deliver on all fronts. So, having that ability to step back sometimes is extremely, extremely important. And, as a leader, if you have a good team around you, you can actually do that from time to time. 

Marianne Hill: What do you do to step back and to revitalize your body and your mind?

Candice Pillay: I'm a very sporty person, so I do enjoy sports and outdoor activities. I try to get to the gym at least three times a week in the morning before I go into the office so that I can just let off some steam. I also play in a squash league, which I enjoy, and every day I have to make time, be it at 9 p.m. or at 6 a.m., it doesn't really matter, to take my dog out. So that just gives me some perspective, some fresh air. I'm not just moving from my car to my home, into another building, sometimes even missing the sunshine. Having that really, really helps to strengthen your perspective and give you that breathing room you need. 

Marianne Hill: Candice, what impact do you want to leave behind within businesses?

Candice Pillay: That’s a tough one because you have to look at it from two perspectives. You have to look at the short-term day-to-day activities and make sure that the business is running and is supported, but you also have to be a visionary, but also somebody that's realistic. It's a delicate balance and I'm not sure if I've found that yet, but I'm always looking at how I can be better. But I think it's about leaving behind a legacy that shows that you've made some sort of value-adding change to the department, to the team that ultimately benefits the company at the end of the day, that you were more than just the legal adviser, the legal counsel behind the role. Yes, you had that input and that's very important, that's what we’re there for, but you were also able to see and balance the business needs, the other sides, the technical aspects you supported for the business, and you had some sort of a strategic vision as well. And if you're in a company that is changing and very, very agile in terms of technology, it's easy to bring some of these visions and strategies to life to build a better legal department. I mean, it could be something as simple as putting in place a contract management tool, and creating a paperless environment, which creates efficiencies for you and ultimately the business. So, it could be something as simple as that, but in order to have that vision you need to step back sometimes out of the details and just lift your head up and see where you’re headed. 

Marianne Hill: I know you're still feeling new in your current environment but, looking ahead, which specific leadership skills and capabilities would you say will be most important for your current company, with BMW and specifically in the region, to meet its strategic goals over the next three to five years, particularly given all the challenges we are facing in the country at the moment?

Candice Pillay: One of the trends or themes that I've spotted in the last four months is my needing the ability to collaborate with not only my stakeholders, colleagues, and business teams here in South Africa but with my colleagues and team in Germany and in other parts of the world as well. So, I am becoming a more active member in international practice groups that are set up. We are traveling to meet our colleagues in Germany, sharing ideas, and just basically supporting each other across borders and building up centers of excellence, so to speak. 

Marianne Hill: Candice, that's it. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today. 

Candice Pillay: Thank you, Marianne, thank you.

Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

About the interviewer

Marianne Hill ( is a principal in Heidrick & Struggles’ Johannesburg office and a member of the Financial Services Practice.

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