Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The power of the spouse

How the progressive Mahindra group celebrates alternative thinking

A few months ago, my husband, Ritesh, surprised me. He was invited to attend The Mahindra Universe Program (an Executive Education Program) at the Harvard Business School with an additional day at MIT. "Wow! That is awesome. You are so lucky!", I exclaimed! "Well, you are invited too," he responded. My jaw dropped. Or was I indulging in wishful thinking! But it was true! I didn't know who to thank…. Ritesh… for being my spouse… or CP Gurnani for nominating Ritesh or Anand Mahindra… for being so generous. I was overjoyed as I hugged my darling husband. (Note: Suddenly he became my "darling".) Ritesh and I have been married for 20 years. Finally, the ROI of putting up with him comes to me in the form of an HBS program :-)

The next few weeks went fast. I had graduated from Business School 21 years ago and was filled with anticipation to relive my life as a student…. With the tiny ;-) difference that this time I would be going to Harvard. I could understand Ritesh getting the invite, but it was a pleasant surprise for me to receive the invitation. I wondered why the group would invest in spouses' educational development. Was it a retention strategy, Anand's benevolence, or does the Mahindra group fall in that rare category of corporates which believes in the coexistence of strong karmic accounts and financial accounts? Regardless of the reasoning, I was thrilled to receive this gift of education. This was unlike any other organization I know. Celebrating the spouse was an unequivocal case of alternative thinking. Clearly, the Mahindra group, embodies the 3 pillars of their core values and is driving positive change in the lives of their employees. The things you say and do are symbols of who you are. It's a proxy of your value system. With the invitation to spouses, the Mahindra group seems to recognize that behind the "role and responsibility" of an employee, is a human being, who has a family. The entrenched message that was being sent was: "I value you. And since your spouse is an equal participant in your life, I value your spouse too. You both are part of the Mahindra family."

(Read more about Mahindra's RISE brand  http://www.mahindra.com/about-us/brand)

We received several emails with meticulous details regarding the course, schedule, case studies, and the logistical details. Meals and activities were planned by the day. A special shout out to Shubha Shetty, who was helping to organize the program. On noting that I was a vegetarian, she sent an email to point out that desserts on the menu were egg based. I was overwhelmed by this level of detail and thoughtfulness. Thank you Shubha!

Finally, the day arrived. The program commenced on Sunday, May 13th with an address by Anand Mahindra. He welcomed us to the 11th annual Mahindra Universe program. Each year, 30+ executives (and their spouses) from across multiple companies/geographies under the Mahindra umbrella are invited for a week long session of learning. Anand termed the program as a "spa for the brain". He welcomed the spouses warmly, and urged them to participate fully. Prof. Forest Reinhardt also welcomed us to Harvard Business School. He is the head of HBS's Business, Government, and the International Economy unit. He is also the chair of the HBS Executive Education in the Asia-Pacific Region. This year 46 executives and spouses attended the program. While the majority of the employees were from India, employees from Finland, France, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, UK, USA, among other countries, were also present. Spouses also came from a diverse background. There was a doctor amongst us, a therapist, entrepreneurs and many from the corporate world. We were respected for what each one of us brought to the table.  For me personally, it was a time to step out of my comfort zone, learn from the best minds in academia, make the acquaintance of and socialize (networking sounds a bit formal to me) with everyone, observe and learn the culture, common language and the parlance of the shared values of this organization.

Thank you for an extraordinary gift of education

The evening receptions were a perfect opportunity to mingle with the participants across different venues, such as Boston Public Library, and the Harvard Art Museum. I met many of my husband's colleagues and their spouses. Putting a face to a name makes the human experience more valuable. We spent time over meals, watched performances (such an honor to watch The Silk Road and The Berklee Music Exchange), exchanged ideas and forged friendships.

The 4 days at Harvard and 1 day at MIT were filled with case studies, role plays, and lectures. We covered topics such as organizational behavior, HR, strategy, operations management, finance, technology advancements, history and political science. It was a treat to be taught by the likes of Professors Nicholas Burns, Amy Edmondson, and David Moss, among others. I was awestruck and soaked in every single word that the professors effortlessly uttered in every session. The classes were intense, the participants eager to contribute and the professors seemed to weave it all together and pack in so much in a single session. It also reaffirmed my belief - that I knew so little :-( and there was so much to learn. It was truly an intellectual immersion…till we attended Prof Tom DeLong's session. What started as a case study about self managed teams, turned into a "spa for the soul". He gave me faith, because if HBS is teaching current and future leaders the power of gratitude and reminding them that each one of us are humans before we are an "employee", our collective future is bright. In fact, I would argue that every case had a "human" angle to it …. Yes, I may be biased as I am seeing it from my lens of a healer (Meditation coach and a Reiki master, iReikiNow). Whether it was the Columbia space mission case study or the Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road case study (This case came with celebrity power. Yo Yo and his entourage sat through the case study! ) where we focussed on the core value proposition and shared values of an organization (much like the shared values of Anand and the GEB team, who made every attendee feel warm and welcome), to me the basic fabric of any organization is the human capital.  Trust emerges when we are surrounded by people who believe what we believe. Trust begets trust. When the employee and his spouse feels valued,  together, they are far more vested in the success and well-being of the organization.

What a privilege to meet with Anand Mahindra

During our informal networking sessions, I was intrigued to find out more about the trust based culture of the Mahindra group, and therefore the loyalty it evokes. I heard several anecdotes. One particular incident warmed my heart and soul. Romila N still chokes at the thought of the earthquake that hit Gujarat in 2000. Clearly, her emotions are still raw. A pregnant Romila was home, but her husband, Sachin N, was traveling. The building which housed their apartment was damaged. There were about 25 more Mahindra group employees in the city. Senior management flew down from Mumbai to reassure and comfort the employees that help was at hand. They advised Romila and Sachin to move into a hotel for as long as it takes for the building to be repaired. All expenses would be borne by the company. She was also given the option to fly down to her parents home, should she prefer that. Romila's gratitude was evident in her facial expressions and in her quivering voice when she recounted this incident. She vouches by the generosity of the executive management. What is to be noted is that Romila was not the employee of The Mahindra Group; she is the spouse …. Yet another example of the Mahindra group's magnanimity, and the value that the group places on the spouse. Needless to say, Sachin has been a long term employee of the group.

As the sessions were wrapping up, and we bid goodbyes, I mused about the turnover rate of those who have attended this event since it started 11 years ago. But the priceless smiles and the contentment on the face of the attendees reminded me that the pursuit of empirical evidence would be futile. What mattered most was the feeling of being valued. That was the absolute truth at the given moment. 
As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said in The Little Prince: "And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."

Disclaimer: These views are my own. It was my choice to write this blog post. Nobody from The Mahindra Group asked me to do so. When Romila and Sachin narrated the incident mentioned above, they did not know (in fact, at that time, I did not know either) that I would write about their experience. Subsequently, I took permission from them to share their story.