Leaders Who Thrive//

Don’t Take Life Too Seriously, You Can’t Fix Everything, and That’s Okay: Antara CEO Rajit Mehta

Dispelling the myth around strength as the key feature of good leaders, he stresses on the role of authenticity and emotions too.

Rajit Mehta, CEO and MD Antara Senior Living. Photo courtesy Antara Senior Living
Rajit Mehta, CEO and MD Antara Senior Living. Photo courtesy Antara Senior Living

My advice to my younger self will be to not take life too seriously, take things in your stride, and move on. You can’t fix everything. And that’s okay.

With a growing elderly population, India is poised for  multiple socio-economic hurdles if timely attention is not paid. People over the age of 60, the “senior citizens”, face a variety of problems, from access to healthcare, to affording a decent living and even mental health issues. We speak to Rajit Mehta, CEO and Managing Director, Antara Senior Living, a Max Group initiative focused on providing care, comfort, and companionship to seniors on how to make life better for our elderly. 

From healthcare to senior living, Mehta has seen his share of stress in life. Ask him why corporate life is stressful and he says, “Everybody seems to be running a race as if they are in the Olympics. You just have to be honest and authentic. You can’t be a different person in office and a different person outside it. Be yourself and have the courage to do what you are happy about.”

“Also, speak up! For heaven’s sake, have a voice. My hope is that one day we’ll be able to make an office full of happy souls where everybody owns a part of the organisation like it belongs to them.”

He names 3 Idiots as the movie that has made him think differently. “It turns the concept on its head. You go after a purpose, outcome is guaranteed. If it is the opposite, you’ll fail. That movie just reiterated that, and it impacted me.”

Mehta spearheads the operations and future growth strategy for Antara Senior Living. He was the MD and CEO of Max Healthcare before this. He was also a founder member of Max Life Insurance. Edited excerpts from an e-mail interview: 

There’s a lot of stigma attached to living in a care home or retirement home. Most of us feel the guilt or the social pressure of putting our parents in an old age home. But we’re living in different times, and we need to make bold decisions to build a robust ecosystem for seniors. 

Thrive Global India: Why is there a stigma attached to living in special care homes? 

Rajit Mehta: The idea of ‘senior care homes’ brings a certain image to our minds. We end up comparing ‘senior care homes’ with ‘charitable homes’ or a dilapidated, unhygienic, gloomy looking place. But this is not true. 

In the past and to an extent, even today, living alone in old age is often equated with social isolation or family abandonment. However, that is changing with time. Today, older people prefer to be in their own homes and communities and are opting to live alone. This preference is reinforced by greater longevity, expanded social benefits, increased home ownership, elder-friendly housing, and an emphasis on community care.

TGI: Why do the old not get the love and respect they deserve?

RM: I believe a lot of people find it difficult to take care of their parents/ grandparents. There are several reasons for this. Maybe because they are physically away, or they are required to travel for work. The changing lifestyles and shrinking family structure often deprive elders in the family of the love and care they deserve from their children or grandchildren. 

Western countries especially the US, Japan and many parts of Europe have found a solution to this problem by adopting the idea of Assisted Care Services. But in India, even today, I know there’s a lot of stigma attached to living in a care home or retirement home. Most of us feel the guilt or the social pressure of putting our parents in an old age home. But we’re living in different times, and we need to make bold decisions to build a robust ecosystem for seniors. 

And we need to be a lot more professional about providing care. A handful of private entrepreneurs have stepped into this space to redefine senior care in the country. We need a lot of advocacy and awareness to better the market perception and acceptance especially when COVID has accentuated the struggles for seniors.

A pattern I’ve noticed with people in our country is that we don’t plan our retirements better. It is often a few years before retirement that we start thinking about retirement savings.

TGI: In your years in the corporate arena, what do you perceive as the biggest myth about leadership?

RM: The biggest myth I’ve observed that exists is that leaders are not supposed to be like regular people. They are not allowed to be authentic, vulnerable, and emotionally expressive especially when put on stage. I have been quite vulnerable at times; I did not have all the answers. 

I remember an incident when I was in the insurance sector. The sector was going through a difficult phase, and we had to downsize. I stood up with the CEO on the podium to address our colleagues. I was very emotional about the whole situation. Because we had built the organisation brick by brick from scratch and now, we were forced to let a lot of people go; people we had hired and nurtured. So, it is perfectly alright to be authentic and to be yourself. 

TGI: What are the two most important things you think the elderly get wrong in their lives and what would you have them do differently?

RM: I come from an insurance background. The experience I gathered from working in the insurance sector is helping me employ my learnings in the senior care space. Over the years, a pattern I’ve noticed with people in our country is that we don’t plan our retirements better. It is often a few years before retirement that we start thinking about retirement savings. There is a strong notion in India that somewhere, someone will help us, and it doesn’t work that way. Life expectancy is going up and to be financially independent is imperative.

There is always family and children. I am not saying they don’t come forward because India is also a culturally strong nation that holds elderly care in extreme importance. But, proper financial and retirement planning, cash in-flows as opposed to blocked asset investment is still a problem that comes in the way of a happy retired life. So, there has to be a good level of financial planning.

Another important area that needs attention is planning how a retired life will look like. That is subjective, aligned with your lifestyle choice, whatever your MOJO is and, it needs to be considered and referred to as an important factor while planning for the second innings in life. Generally, we don’t think of that, and then we end up struggling for options. We need to keep ourselves stimulated physically, mentally, and emotionally.

TGI: How do the elderly do things differently from us that helps them cope, better than we do perhaps, in your experience?

RM: Over time, I have realised that this is one demographic segment that has seen the highs and lows, conflicts, some unfortunate social events, partition, diseases, and pandemics from really close quarters. They have seen a lot more in life. They can offer a much more balanced, pragmatic view. I have seen seniors who have been affected a lot in this pandemic; they become very anxious, even if they have seen a lot more in life. But it is their experience and the lessons that they have learnt that is standing them in great stead and helping them smile at life.  

Being connected with your spiritual self, taking the time to remind yourself to be in the now, as meditation helps you remain grounded.

TGI: What is the best professional advice you’ve ever got?

RM: I’ve been very fortunate to have many mentors who have helped me in my professional life. First advice I got was, ‘Always be in the flow.’ I was told that when we do things, and if we are physically, mentally, and emotionally aligned with it, the stress is minimal. This isn’t about the work stress. It means to say that when we do something against our natural self, we may end up in a tricky situation. 

So, I stick by the first advice I got, that is to always be in the flow of things. If you follow it, you won’t have to look at the watch, the hours, goals. You will just move with the flow.

Another important advice I got was to purpose backwards. The numbers can’t motivate you beyond a point. You cannot start a business saying, ‘I want to build a five-billion-dollar valuation company’. For instance, the purpose of our insurance company was to secure India. There were so many families I saw destroyed due to lack of insurance planning. So, we made it our focus to ‘Save and secure, and give India more’. 
If you have a purpose to what you are doing and what your goal is, you’ll get there and in a much more impactful way. Therefore, always purpose backwards. 

TGI: Have you ever felt burnt out? How did you cope?

RM: Very few times. It was perhaps when I was in the healthcare space that I felt burnt out. There was a lot of public and government scrutiny, and we had to align with that all the time. But, that’s okay. I coped maybe because of the high spiritual quotient in my family. My parents are spiritual. My wife and I are believers. We meditate. Being connected with your spiritual self, taking the time to remind yourself to be in the now, as meditation helps you remain grounded. It also helps compartmentalise your digital access. I have set apart time during the day when I do not use my phone and other gadgets—9pm-9am is strictly no phone hours. It has helped me immensely. 

My mantra for a happy life is: Do your bit, and enjoy life. 

Never take work to your weekend because then you can never rest. Finish things on Friday, so there’s peace time on Saturday and Sunday.

TGI: Your productivity or motivation hacks for when the to-do list gets overwhelming?

RM: This is what I am criticised most at home for! This is not your office I am told. (laughs) I am not perfect, I do fail. 

Two things that can help: I have learnt to make a system around me—delegate, delegate, delegate! Delegation of not the work, but the authority. I believe that we have to make people feel empowered by trusting and delegating to them. There will be mistakes, but I believe every mistake is also a learning experience.

Second, I can never say NO. But once I start prioritising, to-do lists come down. Another important practice is to never take work to your weekend because then you can never rest. Finish things on Friday, so there’s peace time on Saturday and Sunday.

TGI: What is your personal policy towards gadgets when working or at night-time?

RM: Firstly, use gadgets the way they are meant to be used. Phones are meant to receive and to call. End of story. 

Of course, there’s WhatsApp but nothing else. Similarly, my iPad is for board meetings because there’s a software we use. While travelling, I never carry my laptop, phone and iPad together.

Also, I follow the no gadgets rule from 9pm–9am, and that has helped.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have this luxury while working in the healthcare sector due to the nature of the industry. Having worked in the healthcare sector, I’ve also been lectured by people who are masters of radiation explaining how they are harmful. That’s another motivator to ensure distance from my gadgets.  

TGI: If you could give your younger self any life advice, what would it be?

RM: I would say, ‘everything will not be perfect.’ I am a perfectionist and that puts me under a lot of stress. My advice to my younger self will be to not take life too seriously, take things in your stride, and move on. You can’t fix everything. And that’s okay.

TGI: Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve it.

RM: This is a lesson I learnt from my sons when they grew up. I am a strict disciplinarian because that’s the way I have been brought up. There’s a time for everything for me. 

One small change that has helped me is being non-judgmental. It has taken a lot of pressure off me. I am learning to accept people as they are. I learnt to be happy and be more easy-going. People will want to do different things, and it’s their life at the end of the day. Once you accept that, you’ll feel the difference.

TGI: What was the biggest turning point in your life?

RM: My stint at Max Healthcare has been quite a turning point. I was quite enjoying my stint in life insurance. I was with that company from scratch and was quite reluctant about moving to healthcare.

It was very intense; it was a 24/7 job but it was also very enjoyable. We were touching and impacting lives every moment in healthcare. My office was just outside the emergency room. Every day, for 10 minutes if you stand there, you’d see both life and death together. It was a humbling experience that compels you to focus right. I formed some deep relations within the industry, the government and developed a deep respect for nurses, doctors and frontline healthcare workers. It just changed me, made me more purpose driven. It is serendipity that I am working in senior living, combining all the experiences together under one roof with comfort and companionship for seniors.

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