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How has a hybrid work model helped employees at Mercedes India?

Santosh Iyer, the 46-year-old head of Mercedes India on why he looks up to F1 team principal Toto Wolff and still loves Mumbai's local trains

Santosh Iyer, MD & CEO, Mercedes-Benz India.

By Shrenik Avlani

LAST PUBLISHED 12.06.2023  |  11:00 AM IST

Santosh Iyer, 46, might head the India operations of one of the most iconic premium automobile brands in the world, Mercedes-Benz, but he is much more grounded than many who drive his cars. For someone who moves around every day in a car bearing the three-pointed star, it is pleasantly surprising that Iyer attributes his punctuality and good discipline to the local trains of Mumbai.  

Iyer was born in Kerala and grew up in suburban Mumbai. He still identifies as a Kandivali boy, albeit one who now lives in Pune. It was while growing up in Kandivali that he used the local trains extensively and grew to be disciplined and understand the importance of time—both attributes he believes are important at work.

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Iyer began his career selling weighing scales before joining the automobiles sector, and has worked with Japanese, American, British and European brands such as Avery, Toyota, Ford, Yamaha. He joined Mercedes-Benz India14 years ago and worked his way up to becoming the CEO and MD. Despite moving up the ranks, he remains firmly grounded and practical though. On a recent trip to Mumbai, he took his daughter and twin boys for a ride on the Mumbai local from South Bombay to Kandivali. “Our car was waiting for us at the station but I wanted my children to experience the city’s most efficient mode of commute," chuckles Iyer. “They were excited and their experience matched their expectations. It was not rush hour, of course." Another thing that remains constant in his life is his appetite for taking risks and experimenting.       

Iyer, who has a Master’s in Business Administration and Corporate Governance from Germany’s HTWG Hochschule Konstanz – Technik, Wirtschaft und Gestaltung, tells Lounge how meeting Mercedes F1 CEO and team principal Toto Wolff had an impact on him, why a balance between following data and your gut feeling is key to success, and how the hybrid work model has turned out to be a boon for staffers’ overall well-being.  

Who do you consider your mentor? 

I have had incredible bosses right from Avery to Toyota, Ford and Mercedes-Benz. I have been fortunate enough to be guided or mentored by many of these colleagues. However, I have always looked up to [Mercedes F1 CEO and team principal] Toto Wolff in the last 10 years for his leadership style and acumen.  

One major insight you worked on with your mentor’s guidance? 

I had an opportunity to meet Toto during our management workshop in Germany before the pandemic. He said that you need the right balance between following data and your gut feeling. We need to use data for decision-making, but this is available to everyone. It’s the intuition coming out of experience combined with risk appetite which differentiates my decision-making from others’. I strongly believe that life gives you choices but you have to take the right chances at the right time.  

Also read: ‘Women achievers have the will to break barriers’: Syska Group's Jyotsna Uttamchandani

What does being a mentor mean to you? 

Transparency and trust are key. I lead by example to help my colleagues understand that there is no shortcut to success. To create leaders of tomorrow, it is important to provide a platform for them to take on responsibilities as opposed to assigning tasks, as this cultivates ownership and strategic thinking. Mentorship cannot be mere scheduled discussions.  

Describe your morning schedule? 

I belong to the 5 am club as it allows me my “me" time. I wake up, exercise and catch up with my kids before they head to school. I eat my breakfast in the car to make best use of my hourlong drive to work.  

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What’s the one positive work routine you have developed during the pandemic? 

The pandemic changed the way we do business. Mercedes-Benz has adopted a complete hybrid work model and that has influenced my working style. Most people, apart from those involved in key production and related functions, come into office only twice a week. This has taught me to trust my team as we work across borders to deliver the best results. The flexibility has also boosted the overall wellbeing of our employees.

Any book or podcast recommendations about mentorship and workplace growth? 

The Mindful International Manager by Peter Franklin and Jeremy Comfort. It helps mangers to be aware of the challenges in working in a multi-cultural environment. 

Any serious hobbies? 

I love travelling and plan it extensively. I am an automobile enthusiast and I like to drive long distances and enjoy the countryside in India or Europe. To unwind, I watch movies, play table tennis and golf. 

What are some of the productivity principles you follow that have improved your professional and personal life? 

A “zero inbox" policy. An office is a collaborative environment so it is important to value the part you play in that chain and ensure that no tasks stop because of you. I value and nurture the professional relationships I have made across my career as it is the people who are the catalysts of growth. Also, I plan in advance to get the best results and reserve some “me time" during a work day. 

Also read: It is possible to be best friends with your team: Shashank Mehta, The Whole Truth

Where do you reckon India is vis-a-vis Europe as far as EVs are concerned? 

Almost 14 out of every 100 new cars registered in Europe last year were powered by a pure electric powertrain. Europe has a stronger legislation and they are targeting carbon neutrality by 2050 whereas India aims to achieve this goal by 2070. India is targeting EVs to account for 30% of its mobility requirements by 2030, driven by the FAME (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid & Electric Vehicles) scheme, state subsidies and a larger portfolio of products across vehicle segments. It’s commendable to see certain mass market players really growing their share in the EV segment. In the luxury segment, we are the first Original Equipment Manufacturer to have started manufacturing our flagship EQS luxury EV in India last year. We forecast that one out of every four vehicles sold in India by 2027 will be an EV. 

How is the luxury car market in India preparing itself for the future? 

The luxury car market in India is fast evolving. It is getting matured due to changing demographics with more female and younger buyers entering the segment. There is a gradual cultural shift from savings to consumption, which should support overall economic development in India.  

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor, and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness

Monday Motivation is a series featuring founders, business leaders and creative individuals who tell us about the people they look up to and their work ethics.