Anant Maheshwari: Swimming with the current
The Microsoft India president on the biggest disruptive move of his life, the focus on privacy and security issues, and cycling to unwind
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I live off an aeroplane and come back to do my laundry in Gurgaon (Gurugram),” says Anant Maheshwari. “My trips to Seattle chew up my weekends on either side, but it’s a good city to go to. The combination of water, nature and good air, especially for someone coming from Delhi, is very good.”
The 45-year-old president of Microsoft India is always on the move, mostly to Microsoft’s Redmond campus in the US and Microsoft offices in India. We are meeting on a hot Saturday afternoon in the air-conditioned environs of The Belvedere, the members-only club at The Oberoi, Gurugram. Maheshwari is dressed casually in a white shirt and denims.
He looks relaxed as he settles down with a macchiato to talk about his corporate journey and how he landed up at Microsoft, which was “the biggest disruptive move of my life”.
In 2016, before he joined Microsoft, he was the president of Honeywell India—a billion-dollar company with 15,000 employees—that he built diligently, brick by brick, over more than a decade. He had joined the American multinational conglomerate in 2004 when the company was just starting its journey in India. “I was hired to write the first India strategy blueprint for Honeywell, and, within nine months, I launched the electronic security business for Honeywell in India.” He grew to become the president in 2014. The call from Microsoft came almost out of the blue.
The choice wasn’t easy, but what finally drove him towards Microsoft was the meeting with Satya Nadella, the CEO. “That 1-hour meeting with him changed my world view of what is possible,” recalls Maheshwari. “I was inspired by not only Nadella’s humility and empathy, but also the clarity of vision and his sense of purpose.”
Maheshwari recalls one particular sentence that struck him as odd then and has stayed with him since: “We are moving from a know-it-all company to a learn-it-all organization.” That was the deal maker. And he joined Microsoft, much to the surprise of friends and family.
When a close friend asked why he was joining Microsoft, Maheshwari replied with disarming candour: “I think it’s time to feel stupid again.” He repeated the same words at the first company townhall after joining in September, when he was asked the same question—implying that he was completely new to the Microsoft world of technology and innovation, and it was time for him to learn.
This candour is not new. In 1991, during an admission interview at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, he was asked why he was applying for economics in the undergraduate course when he was a science student. “I just don’t understand The Economic Times so I want to study the subject,” Maheshwari recalls his answer with a chuckle. He got admission. That he never took it is another story.
“I got admission at both St Stephen’s and the Delhi College of Engineering but then that would mean I would be close to home,” he says. He wanted to get away from Delhi. That was the simple criterion. So the shy boy who grew up in a nuclear family in Delhi, joined BITS, Pilani, for a dual degree in economics and engineering. “It gave me a shot to at least understand economics, while the engineering part satisfied my parents and family,” he says.
It was a whole new experience, meeting people from diverse backgrounds and regions. Those five years went by in a tizzy. And Maheshwari went on to do an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.
Fresh out of management college, he joined as a management consultant at global consulting firm McKinsey and Co. in Mumbai, where he worked on a variety of projects across multiple industries, including telecom, IT and e-commerce, private equity, engineering equipment, automotive, steel and pharmaceuticals. Looking back, Maheshwari reminisces: “At that time, I used to feel a little unlucky because everyone else was doing these quick two-three months strategy assignments and kept moving to new things in life, while I had these long 9-12 months projects at McKinsey. But in the five years that I spent there, and the fact that I did these multiple industries and went deep, was amazing for the rest of my career because it taught me the relationship between ideas and getting things done.”
This was followed by the long stint at Honeywell India. In September, Maheshwari will complete two years at Microsoft. “The last two years have been truly phenomenal—so much so that the decade at Honeywell is a blur in the rear-view mirror,” he says.
For it has been a period of rigorous learning and unlearning, fundamental transformation, he adds. “Each day I wake up thinking, what am I going to learn today, and that energizes me.”
Maheshwari comes across as an enthusiastic and enlightened leader. He ponders frequently over the meaning of success and its relevance. Part of this quest, he says, was a result of his association with the Aspen Global Leadership Network—a forum for a worldwide community of entrepreneurial leaders from business, government and the non-profit sector. During the “immersive” Aspen sessions between 2014-16, one thing that kept resurfacing was the “meaning and purpose of success”. “Is it just to attain a certain designation or position of authority or is there something else to success?” asks Maheshwari.
When the Union government announced corporate social responsibility, or CSR, guidelines for big companies in 2014, Maheshwari was ready with a plan. He started the Honeywell Foundation. “I am really proud of the legacy of the Honeywell Foundation. This is one area that will grow on its own; as companies keep making profits, this will continue to keep ploughing back to society,” he says.
Maheshwari believes data and Artificial Intelligence will help humanity, despite concerns about it playing out the wrong way. He offers two examples. In education, a simple application of machine learning and AI can help predict when a student will drop out after class X. So educators can engage with that student and keep her back in the system. Similarly, simple AI applications in agriculture can help increase productivity by almost 30%.
“Besides technology, privacy and security issues are very core to our thinking. Look at general data protection regulation (GDPR) and what’s happening in Europe is a lighthouse for the world,” he says. The GDPR proposed by the European Commission will strengthen data protection for individuals within the European Union, while addressing the export of personal data outside the EU, a regulation that Microsoft supports. “I am happy that conversations around privacy are happening because, frankly speaking, how many people are aware of this issue and how they navigate the tech world?” asks Maheshwari.
His corporate philosophy is simple. He believes in two things that he was told by a Honeywell CEO, David Cote (2002-17), whom he holds in high regard. “David always said that the trick is in the doing. The say-to-do ratio is very important; do more than say is critical in my philosophy too,” he says. And always be in great positions in good industries. He explains this with a swimming analogy. “If you are swimming in a river, and the current is against you, even if you are a fantastic swimmer it’s difficult to gain distance. However, if you are swimming with the current, then you will achieve a lot of distance. This has been my fundamental strategy,” he says.
It’s almost evening as the conversation winds up, the cup of coffee long over, and Maheshwari is ready to leave. “I’m very happy to have achieved this much and I am thankful for all the opportunities that came my way,” he says. “Frankly, if someone had asked me three years ago about Microsoft, I would have laughed about it. Maybe also felt a little stupid.”