“IT WOULD BE GOOD TO BE IN A VUCA WORLD”
Businessworld|August 30, 2021
Sitting at the top spot of the Mahindra Group, Anish Shah, Managing Director & CEO, Mahindra & Mahindra took over the role when the company was braving some very tough times. Shah, however, is a man with a plan, and this has been more than evident in every step the company has taken ever since he transitioned to the role in April 2021. In this conversation with Anurag Batra, Chairman & Editor-in-Chief, BW Businessworld Group, Shah speaks about the challenges that leaders face today, the need to plan for anything, and also details some of his early experiences and the things that will take priority in his mandate ahead.

Mahindra was undergoing a tough time and the world was submerged in an international crisis and this is the time when you were transitioning into what would lead to your current position as Mahindra’s MD & CEO. Some of these would have been unprecedented challenges — how did you navigate these at the time?

Let me begin from 18 months ago. The transition was announced in December 2019, but the first step took place in April when I took over as the Deputy MD and CFO. If you look back at that time, our stock price had dropped 70 per cent since August 2018. The pandemic had begun and the nationwide lockdown was imposed. We were seeing significant losses with all our international subsidiaries; in two years prior, we had been clocking losses of Rs 3,500 crore every year with the international subsidiaries. Many new challenges were surfacing daily. You add to that a new team coming in place, without the ability to come together in person, and there is a set of circumstances that would be demanding for anyone.

This was the case with me as well. What helped a lot, however, were the roles I had been through in the past. Sometimes when you face difficult streaks, you will feel frustrated and it can be overwhelming but those are the things that help build a career. If I had not been through several difficult roles in the past, it would be very difficult to get past this.

On the face of it, the transition was taking place at a tough time. But, and I have said this to several of my colleagues, the role I had before this, which was to turn around GE Capital in India, was much tougher in many ways. One big reason for this also is that this role has many positives to it. The culture of the Mahindra Group, the leaders we have, the strengths of our businesses, and the trust that the consumers place in us, are all very significant positives.

So, staying positive…

Yes, as a leader, the first thing to do is to focus on the positives. It is very easy to get lost in the labyrinth of the tests and trials we face. But staying optimistic helped us tremendously. Also, we came from a great position of strength. We may have lost market share and market capitalization temporarily but those things can be fixed.

The second is to be very clear on what needs to be done. The difficulty and its root cause must be identified. When we did that, everything became very clear. As we presented to the board, for example, the financial impact of Ssangyong and its impact on our market cap, the board unanimously advised we had to exit. Similarly, when we repeated this process with other businesses, it was the same reaction. Clarity of thought and required action is a must.

The third and very important is how do we do it. Taking the tough call is difficult but executing it is more so. Many emotions are attached and they have to be honoured because that is part of who we are. We have to balance the emotional with the practical aspect of what our investors want. We are here, placed by our investors. They invest capital in us and we have to return, generously. This perspective is very important and hence being able to execute is the most critical.

The fourth, and perhaps the most important, is the ability to build a strong team. Once you do that, you have to empower them and have them say what needs to be done. Working together makes a strong organisation.

One of my bosses had told me that, ‘Anish, you are as good as your team’. I have taken this to heart. I have kept a very high bar of who we bring into the team. Once you have a strong set of leaders, you empower them to run and that is what has keeps the company going.

While we are on the subject of challenges, let’s speak more on some of the external challenges. What are some of the top three or four megatrends that you see in this VUCA world?

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