This article is part of The Better India series ‘Lessons from India’s Legends’. Stay tuned for more stories on India’s most exemplary personalities and the lessons we can learn from their body of work.
One of the key tools that helped the United States win World War II was the Willys Jeep. The vehicle was a small four-wheeler. And as Charles K Hyde wrote it became an “iconic vehicle of [the war], with an almost mythological reputation of toughness, durability and versatility”. The jeep replaced the use of horses and was deemed “America’s greatest contribution to modern warfare”.
The jeep made its way to India when the allied forces were fighting the Japanese on the Burma front. Later, as the nation was set to become independent, one company realised the emerging importance of “a motorised transport that was easy to operate, service and repair,” wrote Adil Jal Darukhanawala in his book, Timeless Mahindra.
Mahindra & Mahindra—earlier named Mohammad & Mahindra, before co-founder Malik Ghulam Mohammad left for Pakistan during the Partition—tied up with Willys Overland to produce the CJ-3B in India.
The company’s role in building the nation has been concrete ever since, and the group has only grown and diversified. Anand Mahindra, grandson of co-founder Jagdish Chandra Mahindra, can be credited for the group’s diversification into such a large conglomerate. What was initially formed as a steel company is today a key player in various sectors, including agribusiness, information technology, defence, aerospace, education, real estate, logistics, and retail. All of this has been made possible once Anand took over in 1997.
The Better India takes a look at the company’s growth, thanks to Anand’s endeavours, and what lessons we can learn from his journey with the Mahindra Group thus far:
1. ‘Don’t cling to a bad business idea’
In 2017, a video of a panda clinging to a man who was busy with work went viral on the internet. In the video, the man continues to ignore the panda, who keeps coming back to him. Jumping on the viral bandwagon, Anand retweeted the video, but with a valuable lesson: ‘Don’t cling to a strategy that keeps throwing you off’.
2. Carefully observe your setbacks:
In 1995, Mahindra Group tied up with Ford Motors to produce the Escort car, which eventually failed to make its mark. Recalling how this failure eventually led him to produce the Scorpio, which was one of the group’s most successful cars, Anand said, “Everybody enters a joint venture with a what’s-in-it-for-you-and-what’s-in-it-for-me attitude.” He added that before the venture with Ford, “we had no experience in making a hard-top vehicle, or in modern methods of manufacturing…The 300 people who put the Ford Escort together were the first ones to work on the Scorpio. It can be argued that we would not have been able to make the Scorpio without the Ford joint venture”.
3. ‘Adopt a startup mindset’
At the onset of India’s ‘Unlock 1’ phase after the initial COVID-19 lockdown, Anand took to Twitter to share a “3-step plan” for reopening businesses. He called this plan the Sanjivani Solutions, or “a potion for emerging from a Corona-induced coma”. The steps included:
- “Become as lean an organisation as possible.”
- “Nothing is sacred; all business models [are] open for debate. Create ‘feedback loops’ that constantly test product/market assumptions.”
- “Share ideas and data across the company at warp speed.”
Alongside, he called for a “Marie Kondo-style clean up of the portfolio”, and advised that businesses part with initiatives that don’t fall into the narrative of a successful future.
4. Focus on women’s participation in the workforce
In 1996, Anand launched the Project Nanhi Kali, with the aim of educating underprivileged girls across the country. The idea of the project was to mitigate low literacy rates in females and increase workforce participation of women, in addition to addressing various social issues such as child labour and marriage, dowry deaths, and the caste system. Designed as a sponsorship programme, wherein individuals and corporates could participate by sponsoring girls’ education for a minimum of one year, Nanhi Kali has transformed over 4,50,000 lives across 14 Indian states. Impacted areas include the far-flung hamlets of Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu and tribal hills of Araku in Andhra Pradesh.
5. Keeping up with changing times
In 2013, Anand ranked 3rd among the ‘Top 30 CEOs on Social Media’, right after Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner. Anand is known for his witty, engaging and lively tweets, wherein he constantly discusses changing economic trends and ideas while remaining conversational and funny. Anand was among the first few to understand the then growing importance of social media as a tool of interaction and growth, and was the only Indian CEO to feature on this list.
6. ‘Be a people’s person’
Anand says the hallmark of a good leader is the ability to empathise and put themselves in someone else’s shoes. “Empathising helps you know things and inevitably makes you a good listener who is intrigued to know and gather information from others,” he said.
7. ‘The past is just a lesson, not a life sentence’
In yet another example of how Anand engages with his Twitter followers, he posted a tweet about the value of letting go of the past. “I try to use Mondays to break free from obsessing about what I could have done differently. I focus on the different things I can do from today onwards.”
8. ‘Find a place in the customer’s mind’
Today, the Mahindra Group holds leading positions across key industries, including IT, aerospace, energy, retail, finance, defence, and logistics to name a few. Anand said this has been because his “penchant is for building brands that find a place in the customer’s mind and for developing businesses that live or die by how well they connect with the consumer”.
9. Reimagining our future
Anand was among the top global CEOs who emphasised on how we must rebuild the economy post COVID-19, keeping in mind sustainability and not solely focussing on reverting to our old ways. The CEOs signed an open letter to call on governments to create inclusive and sustainable post-COVID-19 economies which could also benefit the society and the planet. “Today, more than ever, the world needs to be able to reimagine a new future…in which people can feel safe and protected. The initiative…is an effort towards defining the new environment…” he said.
Edited by Yoshita Rao