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The Company of Professionals

At Mahindra Group, meritocracy is at the core of its being, and the sole principle for individual and organisational advancement

The year: 1993. He had already spent 19 years with the company and risen rapidly through the ranks having joined as an Accounts Officer shortly after qualifying in the All-India merit list of top ten in the Chartered Accountancy examinations. He received a call from a leading recruitment firm in the country. The headhunter had a client – a well-known multinational company (MNC) that was entering India, now that the economy had been opened. The MNC wanted a person who could set up its operations, and the headhunter wanted him to meet them. The proposed compensation was INR 1 crore per annum – just over 33 times his then salary of INR 3 lakh per year.

“Not interested,” said the man, turning down even the offer of meeting the MNC for an exploratory meeting. “Is it because you are very close to the Management?” asked the head-hunter, assuming that there could be no other reason to refuse such an amazing offer. “I think, I am the Management,” replied the executive calmly.

The man was none other than Bharat Doshi, the legendary Mahindraite who joined the Group as an Accounts Officer at a salary of INR 1000 per month and went on to become the Group CFO and Executive Director of the company, playing a pivotal role in the growth of the Mahindra Group. He saw the growth of the firm from an auto-manufacturing company to a multi-disciplinary federation of businesses up to his retirement, after an innings of 40 years.

“The confidence to make that remark came from the empowerment that I always enjoyed as a professional; I owe it to the great environment at Mahindra,” says Doshi, adding that the culture of genuine empowerment and enablement builds a feeling of ownership in each person, and drives them to give their best as professionals.

Professional since inception

At Mahindra, professionalism has been at the very centre of the Group’s philosophy since its inception. Back in 1945, the launch advertisement of the Group’s first enterprise declared the promoters’ aspiration to run the business as a co-operative effort. Founder-Chairman KC Mahindra, who had returned from a professional stint of three years in the United States laid out the five guiding principles for the company - The encouragement of private enterprise and the initiative of the individual; Belief in the ability of corporate institutions to oppose anti-social trends, such as monopolies and cartels; Recognition of the fact that the labourer is worthy of his hire and that in co-operative working lies the dignity of human toil; Confidence in the ultimate success of their ventures and in the capacity and aptitude of people to give effect to them; Acceptance of the fact that ability must be the sole test of merit and advancement and that neither colour, creed nor caste should stand in the way of harmonious working. Ever since, the Group has been run with total professionalism, putting confidence in the competence of its people.

The leadership transition plan that was effected in April 2020 is the perfect example of the Group’s commitment to good governance and professionalism. The Board and nominations committee conducted a diligent and rigorous year-long selection process to ensure a seamless transition over 16 months, setting a benchmark of sorts for India Inc.

“Professionalism is inherent in how we run our businesses,” says Anish Shah, Deputy Managing Director & Group CFO, who will assume the responsibilities as MD & CEO from April 2021. “Every conversation on promoting someone is about what is the person’s contribution and their potential to contribute; every decision is purely on merit,” says Shah, adding that this ensures empowerment and entrepreneurship.

The culture of professionalism is not just restricted to identifying and encouraging business leaders, but also businesses in the Group. “The Group Strategy office independently reviews every strategy – what are the assumptions, what is the competitive activity, and based on that recommends whether we should invest or not,” says Shah, adding that even the Board’s decision is guided by professional perspectives.

Every individual an entrepreneur

The Group’s thrust on professionalism and trust in its people has helped to evolve a spirit of individual enterprise and a culture of innovation. “How many promoter-led companies do we know where professionals get the kind of visibility that they get in Mahindra?” quips MD & CEO Pawan Goenka, giving the example of key launch events where Chairman Anand Mahindra just clocks his presence and lets the professionals take the spotlight. “And this is not just at the CEO-level, but down the line where you will find a professional relationship between the superior and the subordinate; the promoters set an example and the same culture cascades across the board,” says Goenka.

True to its constitution as a federation of companies, all decisions are made by heads of businesses based on solid strategy and thorough due diligence, while factoring for the individual ownership and innovation. The organisation vests its trust in individual ability right from the time of onboarding a recruit and this trust continues through the tenure of every Mahindraite.

“In some sense, Anand Mahindra took a big risk with me when he made me the CEO of auto business when my background was in R&D. And same is the case with many of our people, where we have taken a risk in advancing their careers by giving them an assignment to learn and prove themselves,” says Goenka. “It’s a reflection on how we groom our people. Take for instance the major people transition announced for our journey ahead - everyone on the leadership team is home-grown, and many of them are taking up roles that they have not done earlier,” observes Goenka.

Talking about encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit among its employees, Goenka adds if a person comes up with a good idea, chances are it will be approved for pursuing. An example of this is Mahindra Powerol, which started as a venture to use the Group’s engine capacity and reinvented itself. The idea to supply gensets to wireless towers was a later day innovation for the business, and today the supply of gensets for telecom towers accounts for 40 per cent of Powerol’s business.

No fear of failure

Learning from failures is another aspect that the company encourages.

“I am glad you failed in one place. If you had not failed, I would be worrying whether Arun is taking adequate risks?” These were the words of then Chairman Keshub Mahindra, to Mahindra stalwart Arun Nanda, when he faced a setback in the water transport business he had set up, after a string of successes. “The biggest learnings in a man’s life comes from failures,” Keshub Mahindra told his senior executive. Nanda went on to hold several senior positions in the Group and became the founder chairman of Mahindra Holidays and is also chairman of Mahindra Lifespaces.

“That meeting was a game-changer for me; the amount of confidence those words gave me stood me in good stead throughout my career,” says Nanda, adding that the Group encourages people to take risks as long as the decisions have been thought through properly. “We recognise that when you are an entrepreneur, everything that you do does not necessarily have to succeed. If you have the confidence – and a sense of ownership of the project – we will support you to take well thought risks,” says Nanda.

This confidence in professionals is reflected in the composition of teams and even the Board’s in Mahindra businesses. “We are truly a company of professionals and Mahindra has always had a diversified Board. In fact, we had independent woman directors long before it was a SEBI guideline,” says Nanda, adding that this genuine empowerment has built an unswerving feeling of loyalty and ownership in every Mahindraite over the past 75 years.

Ownership and commitment

Mahindra empowers its people to turn the professional approach into a sense of ownership, a deeper sense of belonging and commitment towards the organisation.

Back in 2006, when Mumbai was flooded, the water stormed into the Kandivali plant, bringing operations to a grinding halt. Undaunted by the natural calamity, more than 300 people stayed overnight at the plant and come morning, began their efforts to get the plant up and running. Right from junior hands on the shop floor to senior officers, everyone pooled efforts through the day and well into the night. The efforts paid off and within three days, everything was back on track, and the plant resumed full-fledged operations in record time.

The sense of responsibility and commitment showed by employees across different levels during this incident is proof of the high level of professional conduct practised across the organisation.

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