Leverage Street Smarts and Book Smarts

Karina Tiwana’s military background allows her to go beyond the standard structure of a legal department to create optimal operating procedures, which produce tangible business outcomes for Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise

Alcatel-Lucent, the France-based telecommunications giant, completed the sale of its Enterprise business in October 2014. Thus was born Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, which is now an independent, mid-sized business with strong existing assets. It specializes in IP networking, ultra-broadband access, and cloud technology. Its core mission is to help companies transform the way people communicate, harnessing capabilities offered by ever smarter devices and new use models.

Karina Tiwana, Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise
Karina Tiwana, Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise

Karina Tiwana, general counsel, vice president, and secretary for the company, got the rare opportunity to guide Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise from a part of one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world to a smaller (2,700 employees), leaner, nimbler, and exciting new venture. This transformation allowed her to work on new approaches to how the legal department could be structured, in addition to maintaining the day-to-day functions that she manages—commercial transactions, corporate governance, intellectual property, human resources, and compliance. She’s justifiably proud of her record of success.

Tiwana started her journey as a lawyer in the tech industry with humbler beginnings in the United States military. “I was in the United States Air Force. I was a vehicle mechanic. It’s directly related to my legal career, believe it or not,” Tiwana says. “I can draw all the lines. I fix things. I still fix things.”

Her time in the military also allowed the industrious Tiwana to obtain a law degree and begin applying her book knowledge and working smarts at high-tech startups and at Alcatel-Lucent. “I was the product unit attorney for NG Connect, which is an amazing, innovative program that they have at Alcatel-Lucent,” she says. “Not a lot of lawyers are willing to cross the boundary line of those things that they don’t necessarily understand. But because of a lot of my technical knowledge and the ability for me to be so flexible, I just found the enjoyment in it.”

Then she learned of the opportunity at Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, a place where she says she is very comfortable. It had announced the divestiture. “I got a call from Michel Emelianoff, who’s the global general counsel of the company,” Tiwana explains. “And he said, ‘Hey, why don’t you run the Americas for me?’ I said, ‘Well, I could never say no to you,’ because he’s a friend of mine.”

“I have a direct line from the sales engineers and the sales team right to our legal department. We want to make sure that we have some tangible business outcomes with everything that we do.”

Jumping into a new company came with new challenges in a new environment for Tiwana, but the team she assembled has brought in success. “I was given a lot of autonomy to choose what I could do. I had a limited budget, obviously. Basically we’re operating under a just-in-time legal services model,” she says. “I am very proud of having selected the team that I have. They think outside the box—it’s not traditional skill sets anymore.”

Tiwana is quick to credit her team. “One of the people that I count on a lot is somebody that I was able to bring from Alcatel-Lucent,” she says. “He’s a business guy that understands contracts. Contract management is a huge and essential role in this just-in-time legal model.”

The other person she added to the team was a new contract administrator and operations manager. “He was a United States marine,” she says. “That should be enough said.”

Tiwana’s no-nonsense approach to the organizational structure of her team is heavily influenced by her years of military service. “I always operationalize everything. It’s a military thing,” she explains. “We make standard operating procedures for everything we do. It’s documented and you operationalize it. Basically, change the focus or department to be a really operationally based legal department versus being the traditional legal department. We’re partnered with our business stakeholders, and we’re very cross-functional.”

Her basic belief is that Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise must have innovation that drives business growth—that the company must keep looking forward with a holistic approach that keeps all areas of the company working toward a common goal.

“Unless we’re helping our customers, we’re not providing value,” Tiwana says. “So that’s why I have a direct line from the sales engineers and the sales team right to our legal department. We want to make sure that we have some tangible business outcomes with everything that we do.”

Tiwana is a driven leader with a great opportunity to build up the company, but she’s not one to bask in her own glory. She recognizes that her team is what makes Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise successful. She puts it this way: “I’m kind of like a coach. I resonate, for example, with Bear Bryant and all his famous quotes. One of them works really well for me—I have it on my wall. It says, ‘If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, then we did it. If anything goes real good, then you did it.’ And that’s my philosophy about managing people.”