Note to Readers: Fit to Lead is a series of interviews with business leaders about their approach to fitness, leadership, and navigating the new normal.
Fourteen years in the same job is a long time and Santosh Iyer has spent that much time at Mercedes-Benz India. However, the 46-year-old managing director and CEO of Mercedes-Benz India has had a career, including an entrepreneurial stint in Nepal, before that. Iyer has lived all over the country and worked for American, Japanese and European companies, but remains a suburban Mumbai boy at heart. Iyer grew up in the essentially working-class northern suburb of Kandivali, Mumbai, and relied on the local trains to get around the city for everything. He beams whenever he talks about his days there and attributes his love of discipline, punctuality and great sense of time to the local trains. “I had to be at the station on time so I could get everywhere on time. Miss a train and the whole day is affected. It was these local trains that instilled in me the discipline and keen sense of timing that helped me throughout my career,” says Iyer, who even took his daughter and twins on the famous Mumbai local bus during one of his recent visits to the city .
Iyer understands how important it is to be happy at work to be happy in your personal life and believes the reverse is also true. “I love my work and my family and I’m happy in both, which removes the whole concept of work-life balance. What I do is live a balanced life,” he says. So, both in work and in life, Iyer maintains that consistency is key, not “taking big steps and going back to old patterns very soon.”
Iyer is well aware that Mercedes-Benz is a luxury player in India, a country where it is an “emerging” category. Perhaps that’s one reason why demand is outpacing supply here right now, and Iyer aims to address that pain point. In India, many potential customers avoid luxury and premium cars due to the large size of the cars on Indian roads, which makes them difficult to park and drive, as well as the huge maintenance costs. Iyer understands this well. “A white shirt starts at Rs 1,000 and can go up to thousands of rupees. Some people don’t wear the white shirt thinking it will get dirty. But white is still one of the best business shirts. Now, one can find reasons not to wear a white shirt, but if you need to be in your best suit, then maybe a white shirt is the way to go. Meets price points. Likewise for cars…luxury products are consumption irrational. If someone wants it, he will find a reason to consume luxury. This applies to everything in luxury, from cars to clothes to hotels. The rationale for people buying these products is different. So it depends on individual perceptions,” he says.
Edited interview excerpts:
Your fitness routine…
Every morning I spend 45 minutes stretching and doing some breathing exercises. I try to have an early dinner around 7:30pm and then walk 4-5km every night.
Favorite fitness activity…
Table tennis. I enjoy it more than going to the gym, which to me feels like a compulsion to stay fit.
The most difficult?
Trekking. It gets the best of me, but I enjoy it too. I find transitions difficult because I don’t do them regularly. A casual activity really puts a strain on the body for days to come.
The new normal for you…
Today, Mercedes-Benz operates in a fully hybrid model, as most employees, except those engaged in key manufacturing and related functions, only work two days away from the office. This has created a work environment of mutual trust and motivated employees as we are all able to achieve life balance.
Has your fitness routine helped you deal with insecurities lately?
My work involves a lot of travel. By following a strict diet and exercise regimen, I can manage my health in a much better way, resulting in increased productivity even while traveling.
Any leadership lessons in your fitness journey?
Consistency and discipline are the magic words in both leadership and fitness.
Has being fit helped you become a better leader?
There is no doubt about it. It also helped me be more productive.
Your leadership style…
I like to lead with purpose. Leading by issuing directives is not something that gets you results. Instead, if you are able to explain the purpose, get people with the same purpose, and the goals are aligned, people give more than one expects. Leading by purpose, making sure people are given responsibilities, not tasks… that’s how I try to manage. I am a people person, so I would say that my strength is not only in conceptualizing a strategy, but also in ensuring that the strategy is executed. This happens because of the core working relationships I have at all levels inside and outside the organization, including dealer and supplier networks.
About work-life balance…
I’m not looking at work-life balance, I’m looking at a balanced life. If you love your work, it’s part of your life, and a balanced life is about doing things you love – which includes family. So I don’t look at work and life in separate buckets. I love my job as much as I love my family. The idea is
to strike the right balance and here you need to be fit to devote time to both.
Goals and challenges for next year…
We are at a point where demand far outstrips supply. One of the goals is to meet customer expectations in terms of supply. Second, as a luxury brand, India is still in its infancy when it comes to luxury as a space – so how we meet customer expectations and differentiate ourselves will play a big role in moving away from let’s just be a car player and become a luxury player. We will have to take our sales network with us for this. We need to think and act like a luxury brand. We still have a lot of work to do in this area and I would say that this is one of the biggest challenges we have right now.