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Uber’s Prabhjeet Singh on treating mentors as board members

Prabhjeet Singh, president, Uber India and South Asia, on the importance of cold calling and checking on his team, and his passion for theatre

Prabhjeet Singh likes spend an hour on Sundays to plan his work week ahead. 
Prabhjeet Singh likes spend an hour on Sundays to plan his work week ahead.  (Uber India)

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If there is one thing leaders should take away from the experience of working in the pandemic years, it’s the need to adapt their own operation style instead of asking only their teams to adapt to change, believes Prabhjeet Singh, president of Uber India and South Asia. Singh, who joined Uber in 2015, was elevated to head Uber’s India and Southa Asia business in June 2020.

Also Read: Kalpesh Parmar of Mars Wrigley on authentic mentorship

The Gurugram-based IIT Kharagpur alumnus had earlier worked with consultancy firm McKinsey & Company. Singh speaks with Lounge about the attitude of considering himself as an entity and treating mentors as board members, on managing his emails and his favourite podcasts. Edited excerpts:

Who do you consider as your mentor and why? 

I believe a single person cannot do justice to all the myriad needs we have. If I were to think of myself as a company, I am fortunate to have an equivalent of a “mini board”. It’s a group of mentors, coaches, well-wishers, who challenge me, provoke me, and yet provide me with a safety net that I can lean on. This group currently comprises an ex IIM Ahmedabad professor, one former boss, and a younger colleague, who surprisingly has the deepest wisdom to offer! This expanded group of mentors helps me maximize my learning and focus.

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

As a hard nose-to-ground operator, I have often approached problems with a logic-first approach. However, my mentor(s) encouraged me to complement that with a deep, purpose-driven empathy. This has helped me put people first in every decision over the last few years. For example, at Uber, this shows up in how we want to support drivers or the conscious efforts I make to help our employees feel seen, supported, and included, so that they can bring their whole selves to work every day. For me, the circle of empathy also expands from within my home to social network, workplace, and finally, the communities where we operate. 

What does being a mentor mean to you? How do you mentor your colleagues at work? 

An effective mentor is someone who provides fresh perspectives, helps develop key skills, compels us to dig deeper, and supports us to navigate through challenges, enabling better decision-making. My mentoring approach is quite direct and it’s based on radical candor. I lead by authenticity and don’t hesitate to show my own vulnerabilities. While this may seem counter-intuitive, it helps people be at ease and open to inputs. I focus on asking questions, often leading with a “what if” challenge and let the mentee discover their own answers; their own strengths. I have realised that often this approach is more powerful than what I could come up with myself. 

Also Read: Why alarms are underrated productivity tools for Arman Sood

What's your morning schedule like?

I used to be a night owl but now I have adapted to morning schedules around my daughters’ – eight and four — school timings. My wife Sucheta, who is the India CEO of an emerging fintech firm, and I take turns, getting them up and ready for school. So, I wake up at 6.30 am. 

I kick-off the day with a strong cup of coffee along with three different newspapers, a quick game of Wordle, a game of tennis or a brief workout three days a week, and then a rapid flurry of emails to get started with the day. I usually log in to work by 8.30 am to clear the emails. I have been trying but failing miserably to squeeze in some meditation time, and also struggling to keep away from Whatsapp triggers. 

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

I missed the spontaneity, serendipity and joy of corridor conversations with my colleagues, especially younger colleagues who often are the most vocal critics and have the best ideas to challenge you. I solved this by keeping a 15-minute slot to pick the phone and just call two colleagues — just saying hello, checking in on them, sharing some nuggets and asking if there is something I could do to help them. These calls continue to be my source of joy even though I am back in the office now. I have decided to retain this “cold call” time.

I have also gotten better at managing my work calendar, taking time out for reflections and recalibrations, family time, etc. And one that tops my list is that prioritizing well-being is no longer a choice or a luxury. It is now front and center to how we experience our work and workplace. I always take some time out for my family and end my workdays with some ‘me-time’. 

What are you productivity hacks?

I prioritise and ruthlessly look at all conversations be it phone calls, two minute check-ins, messages, etc, on whether it’s important, who really needs to be present in it, etc.

I also try and bunch my email responses at specific hours of the day; usually early morning before the work day starts and then late afternoon. Otherwise, I find that it sends you in rabbit hole. Also, you don’t need to be fastest-finger first, sometimes others in the mail can sort the issue.

Lastly, I start my week on Sunday nights. By spending an hour getting organised for the week ahead helps me to hit the ground running on Monday. It’ a magical sauce I inherited from my consultancy days. 

How do you unwind?

I am a big theatre aficionado. Before the pandemic, I would either watch or perform in plays on weekends. I used to perform in street theatre with a theatre group in Delhi. We did plays on themes that were relevant to social issues. For me, theatre is a change to escape my corporate avataar.  Besides that, tennis and spending time with my daughters are the other ways I unwind. 

Any book/podcast you would recommend about mentorship and workplace growth? Why?

I have found byte-sized podcasts incredibly helpful. I am a huge fan of author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek. I am currently listening to the “Play to Potential” podcast by my former McKinsey colleague Deepak Jayaraman. He has a brilliant line up of India-based leaders who one can relate deeply to. Among books, I recently shared The Boy, The Mole, The Fox And The Horse by Charlie Mackesy with my entire leadership team. This is the most vivid and beautiful story about friendship, support, enabling and uplifting others. 

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.

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