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Veterans Unpacked | Biggest role of a CEO is to connect the dots and sometimes override the excel sheet, says Pawan Goenka

I believe that a leader must work for a superordinate goal, that becomes the reason to come to work every day and aligns and inspires the team, says Dr. Pawan Goenka

April 17, 2021 / 11:54 AM IST
Dr. Pawan Goenka

Dr. Pawan Goenka

Note to readers: How ​do corporate leaders surf life after hanging up their boots? What do they do next? What are the lessons they learned in their eventful journeys? What advice do they have for the current crop of leaders? Veterans Unpacked is a new series of interviews aimed to offer readers lessons from retired bosses on life outside the corner office.

Dr. Pawan Goenka needs no introduction. As the former Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of India’s top SUV and tractor maker, Mahindra and Mahindra, he is best known for having spear-headed the development of the Scorpio which became a blockbuster success for the manufacturer.

Goenka, 66, got his B. Tech. in Mechanical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur and Ph.D. from Cornell University. He also served on the boards of several Mahindra companies, both domestic and international. He is a fellow of The Indian National Academy of Engineers and a member of the National Academy of Engineers, USA.

Before M&M, Goenka worked at the General Motors R&D Centre in Detroit, from 1979 to 1993. He retired from Mahindra on April 1, 2021. Goenka enhanced R&D and widened the product portfolio for Mahindra and is also widely recognised as a distinguished leader in India’s auto scene.

Edited excerpts:


What have you been up to since hanging up your boots?

Adjusting to the new normal. There is still some hangover of some unfinished work. Responding to hundreds of mails that were not attended to, preparing myself for being an advisor and independent director – it’s going to be a new experience for me. Finding more time for work on SCALE (Steering Committee for Advancing Local Value-Add and Exports). More on that later. I’m also getting back to playing bridge which was my passion before I came back to India, and most importantly playing with my four-month-old grandson!

What keeps you busy now?

Keeping busy has never been a problem for me. But I want to talk about my work on the SCALE committee, which has been set up by the Department of Commerce and Industry and which I was asked to Chair.

The committee is tasked to come up with strategy and action plan to grow manufacturing in as many as 24 different sectors. This is giving me exposure to many new industries that I knew very little about and also an opportunity to interact with many business leaders.

What is exciting is that the opportunity India has for growing manufacturing is almost unlimited. We have the aspiration, expertise and the bandwidth. We need to identify the disabilities that we have and chip away at them one by one. With dedicated and focused efforts of the government and the industry we could become a powerful manufacturing nation in, let us say, a decade. I am spending a significant amount of time on this effort and am be happy to do more, if required.

Looking back, can you tell us about three interesting events or anything that has stayed with you since?

The first event that I will never forget is my first week at IIT. It was the first time I had left home and was in an environment where everyone was speaking in English. Lectures were in English and everyone around me was a topper in his high school class. I was very nervous and wanted to go back home. Second, when I left for the USA for my studies. That was the very first flight I had taken in my life. No internet then, so no clue as to what lay ahead for me, and so my first week in USA was like “where am I”? How will I survive? The third, when I returned to India for good after 18 years and was on my first day at Mahindra’s R&D center. After my tour of it, I asked, “where is the rest of it” and I was told “this is it!”.

It made me wonder if I had done the right thing by moving to India and taking up my assignment in Mahindra. The common theme was that these were three life shaping events for me that started by asking if I had done the right thing and if I would survive?

What do you miss most about the C-Suite?

The C-Suite is more than what most people think it is. It is not just about power. It is not just about profit and shareholder returns. The C-Suite also gives one an ability to make a huge difference in the lives of a large number of people. This is a great responsibility and more and more C-Suite executives are realising it and giving it due importance, and not having this opportunity anymore is what I will miss the most.

Yes, I can still be as busy as I was, and I can perhaps earn as much as I was earning, if I want to. I can take on a good cause and make a difference in the life of a handful of people – but nothing will ever come close to what I could do in my position with Mahindra & Mahindra. Thirty thousand employees, hundreds of suppliers and their employees, thousands of dealers and their employees, lakhs of customers and their families, expect the C-Suite leader to make their lives better. The greatest satisfaction of being in the C- Suite if is if a fraction of these people feel that you actually made a difference to their lives.

If you had to relive your corporate career again, what would you do differently?

There is a lot. To begin with, I think I would try to bring in more agility and more simplicity in the way we worked. The startup culture has taught me a lot. It would be great if a respected corporate with a very high bar for governance, strong systems and processes and a brand reputation to protect can also have the agility, risk taking ability, entrepreneurial approach like successful startups. It sounds easy but I have not found that right mix yet.

Second, this may sound strange, but I would try hard to find ways and means of being less busy. People around me knew about my crazy working hours. My wife always said that I must be the most inefficient person in the world for having to work so many hours. The problem is I enjoyed every minute of what I did. I don’t know what I would cut out.

What are the changes in the corporate world that you see now that are vastly different from your time?

By “my time” I assume you mean early in my career. More and more I see that pride in work has become key to employee retention. Customers are looking for that “X-factor” in deciding who to buy from. “Purpose” has become lot more important.

Employees and customers give importance to the larger purpose of the organization that they are working for or buying product or services from. I think the bar of ESG (environment-social-governance) is much higher for the current generation than for my generation of leaders.

Which business leader in the current crop impresses you?

I will keep it to the Indian context. Clearly there are the well-known and respected leaders at the industrial houses of Birlas, Tatas, Ambanis and Mahindras and each one of them has made a huge impact but I am looking at the newer lot of “dared-to-dream” leaders. I don’t want to give specific names but the new businesses with disruptive business models led by dreamers already has and will more and more change the way we live.

They have influenced how we move, how we buy, how we learn, how we transact and how we work. The founder of each recent unicorn is in the list of “impressive business leaders” for me.

How did you plan for life after retirement?

I have planned to divide my time one-third each into three buckets – work with income, work without income and “no work”. The first includes advisory assignments, directorships and this bucket is 75 percent filled.

The second includes work with the government, professional bodies, educational institutions, NGOs, and mentoring young businesses and is also about 75 percent filled.

The third bucket is with family and friends and includes lot of travel, socialising, playing bridge, watching TV, reading books and all the activities for which I did not have much time. Unfortunately, COVID-19 pandemic has put a dampener to this bucket as I’m not able to travel and socialise much. What I need to watch out for is that the first two buckets don’t eat into the third bucket.

Is there anything you would tell your younger self?

Yes, let me give you two specifics. Early in my career, I was a totally left-brain person and mid-way realised, thanks to some good inputs from my boss, that a good business leader has to have the right combination of both left and right brain.

The biggest role of a CEO is to connect the dots and sometimes override the Excel sheet, and even be willing to do things that are counter intuitive. I worked hard to make this transition.

Second, I was very impatient with people. I used to think two or three steps ahead of what was being discussed, and often cut-off people. That used to rattle the person in front of me. A good leader has to allow some inefficiency in conversation to make the person in front of them become comfortable, and some small talk is not a waste of time.

What is your advice for the next cadre of corporate leaders?

There are three pieces. I believe the leader must work for a superordinate goal, that becomes the reason to come to work every day and aligns and inspires the team.

For example, for Mahindra’s Farm Equipment business the superordinate goal is to bring “prosperity to farmers through technology”. Once you have that goal, you look at the business with a very different lens than simply market share, volume and profit.

Also, in your life, someone has helped you “RISE” and you now must work to make others “RISE”. While business outcome cannot be compromised on, you cannot build a business without compassion and empathy. Believe in people.
Pavan Lall is a senior journalist based in Mumbai.
first published: Apr 17, 2021 11:54 am

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