I first heard of Prince Augustin in my Group HR days at the Mahindra Group 8 years ago. Prince would be taking over as the Executive Vice President – Group Human Resources in two months’ time then. In those days, Prince was the HR Head for the Automotive Sector in Mahindra. Prince’s mother had passed away then and we had all gone to attend the funeral in Chembur. I was amazed to see the entire Mahindra auto sector leadership fraternity in attendance for the funeral. There were about 150 senior leaders present for something which was not mandatory and more of a personal gesture. I was awestruck by the way this man had a personal connect with so many people. Outside of corporate success, this is the kind of respect one aspires for in a career. That was my first memory of Prince.
Before Prince joined Group HR, we were told that Prince was one of the most difficult bosses to work with and only a few people could survive under him. There was a distinct aura about him and also a sense of fear. Allen Sequeira, the earlier head of Group HR was retiring after having crafted a spectacular journey over more than 10 years and had set very high standards with respect to various initiatives and programs. Change management , in a diversified conglomerate like Mahindra, which is a mix of old school and young professionals is a complex challenge purely due to the diversity of various stakeholders involved. The baton had been passed over to Prince and some of the critical initiatives like the GMC program ( hiring students from India’s top B schools) , the leadership development program and talent management for senior leaders needed a booster dose and were in danger of decaying. It was a difficult job at hand and all of us in Group HR were nervous about the leadership style. We were told by a few that he was extremely aggressive, and we needed to be very careful. Some people even compared his style to Hitler.
But all those fears were proved wrong in our team’s first interaction. Prince was anything but Hitler-esque. Instead of meeting only the team leader, he called the entire team. And this was not a one-off. Prince never used to believe in the age-old hierarchical school of only meeting and interacting majorly with the direct reports. His level of detailing is amazing. He started getting into the details of the last T. Some of the questions he would ask us in our meetings would make us dumbfounded as to why such a senior leader should be so involved in execution. In my experience, he was the first leader at a very senior level who actually spoke about execution of initiatives and got involved as well. The other thing about Prince was he would always be curious to learn and if he didn’t know something, he would openly admit and get his answers from the team. This is in contrast with a leadership style where certain leaders want to put up a “know-it-all” façade of an image in front of their team.
I spent only 12 months working with Prince but the learnings under him will be carried for life. The best part about Prince is he is not afraid to call a spade a spade. I have seen a lot of HR leaders become politically diplomatic and side with the popular choice or the business head’s choice when it comes to opinions and decisions. Prince is anything but this. If he strongly believed in something basis his logical deduction and opinion, he would not hesitate to call it out vocally to the senior most of leaders. I have seen him get into tough discussions and voicing out his opinion during calls with the likes of Anand Mahindra and other senior leaders. These leaders are above him in hierarchy and designation, but Prince is someone who doesn’t mince words when he feels so and he wants to convey his opinion. I guess this is why a lot of leaders at that level love Prince for his ability to be honest , straightforward and expressive nature.
Despite this ability to speak his mind, Prince has built an amazing relationship amongst his peers, superiors and subordinates. I have seen a lot of people in the corporate world who have high networking skills but also have a diplomacy and a selfish give and take attitude. Prince invests a lot in building relationships but never changes his core personality. With Prince, you can be frank and honest and tell your problems and he will try to close the problem himself. He doesn’t believe in postponing or delegating problems. He would ask us –“who is to be called?” Instantly, he would pick up the phone, call the respective stakeholder, talk it out and move on. As a leader, if you can solve the problems of your sub-ordinates quickly, then the respect increases multi-fold. Prince was that go-to-man for all problems during my stint with him. He also would not tolerate mediocrity at work. If a presentation was shoddy, he would call it out and ask us to come back with a better output. Only if he was completely convinced, he would go ahead. Else, he would make us go through the iterations. Working with such a leader also improves your own quality of thinking and raises the bar. There were quite a few presentations where we were blasted and would go out dejected. But Prince would always come out of the meeting and tell us not to take this to heart and reassure us.
Prince’s career has spanned over 35 years but he has worked only in a handful of companies. He has been with the Mahindra Group since 2003. The thing about great leaders is they are able to build great teams. Prince has been able to keep his long-serving P.A/E.A Kirsten motivated enough to work under him for more than a decade. Prince’s loyal team not only includes his P.As and E.As but also his driver. Whenever he goes to any event or conference, he ensures that his driver Irfan also gets to eat something. He doesn’t need to do this but such noble acts ensure the likes of Irfan also swear by him. He also believes in instant rewards for excellent work. I remember having worked extremely hard for pulling off the Mahindra War Room Grand Finale event and the very next day, he personally handed over a 2 nights/3 days Club Mahindra voucher inclusive of flight for 2 people and a handwritten note for putting all the hard work. I wasn’t expecting anything as there was no such policy but Prince wanted to ensure that we were instantly gratified for our hard work. He did not care about looking at any budget or policy. He just wished well. People everywhere work hard, but very few people get instant appreciation and recognition. Prince was truly princely when it came to rewards and recognition.
Prince also is a gem of a person at heart, and he believes that people should prosper in their careers. Unlike many, he does not believe in holding resources close to him forever. He ensures that people who have worked under him get roles which they like. It was because of his push that I moved from HR to Sales, a drastically different career choice, but he convinced a lot of senior folks about my potential. Later, in 6 months’ time, when I thought I will quit sales, he backed me urging me to see a full year’s cycle and if required, he said he would talk to the Zonal Manager to ensure that I succeed. That was his way of giving confidence to people. I took his advice and by God’s grace, there has been no looking back. My classmate Udit, who worked as his E.A, moved to China after two years. Prince was selfless in more ways than one as he has fought for a lot of people, if he felt he was right.
After moving to Sales, I wasn’t in very regular touch with him but would try to consult him whenever things were not going ok. I invited him to my wedding. He could not make it but he sent a greeting card, a note and a cheque of a substantial amount. I wasn’t expecting this. He had nothing to do with me but still such genuinely selfless acts ensure you connect with a person at a much deeper level.
A work-o-holic who jokes that “work is life, life is work and hence they balance out” , Prince is lucky to have an understanding wife like Carol who has stood by him by a rock and allowed to him to become a HR Rockstar. He has practiced what he preaches “do the things that help you visibly differentiate yourself. Have an abundance mindset, not a scarcely competitive mindset. The world has place for everyone.” No wonder that his alma mater, SIBM Pune, conferred upon him the “Alumnus of the year” in 2011 and “ Lifetime Achievement Award for Contribution to HR”.
In a corporate world dominated by servility, self-centered, politically correct “yes-ministers”, Dr. Prince Augustin stands tall as a selfless, straight-speaking , fearless HR stalwart . Prince not only by name, but by heart and deeds.
Happy Birthday Prince.
May you continue to inspire people around you. Fortunate to have worked with you.