Q&A: Vineet Nayar on Employees First, Customers Second

MT caught up with HCL Technologies boss Vineet Nayar in London to talk about why companies need to start putting employees first...

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
MT: Did your customers object to being relegated to second place?
VN: Our customers are very happy, as long as we take care of the employees who take care of them.  If I tell them that by putting employees first, I put customers first… Then they get it completely.

MT: Will this approach only work for big service companies? Or is it applicable more widely?
VN: We have a lot of CEOs asking this. The first thing to say is that I don’t know. But I’d encourage you to ask the following questions:  Firstly, where is your growth going to come from.  The answer is going to be emerging markets and new products. Second, what is unique about emerging markets and new products? Innovation.  Third, who is going to do innovation? Employees. Fourth, is the trust between you and your employees more or less than it was 3 or 4 years ago? The answer is maybe less. So the fifth question is: what are you going to do about it? I believe most management teams are standing on a ledge of a building which is on fire. So you have to do something.

MT: Tell us about this ’Mirror Mirror’ process of self-scrutiny.
VN:  The problem is that this department called marketing got created, and they’re extremely good at slicing and dicing the data so you look like the number one. Everybody’s the largest, everybody’s the best, everybody’s the fastest.  But if you start believing in that, the mirror is completely broken. ‘Mirror Mirror’ is an exercise for you to honestly look at where you are, and set the benchmark correctly so that your end point is defined.

MT: You talk a lot about trust. Do you think most senior executives are less trusted than they think they are?
VN: Yes – including me. I think somehow at senior exec level we may not have assigned enough importance to the fact that we need to address it. I think most CEOs are very smart.  The only reason they reach that position is because they are smart, and in their smartness, they have defined a priority – customers, shareholders, strategy etc. Creating trust with employees is not high on their agenda because they’ve not seen a correlation between trust and growth. What I’m trying to do is to make the employee a priority, because you need that if you really want to grow fast.

MT: Who should read this book? Is it aimed at CEOs?
VN: This book is for young managers, not for transforming CEOs. CEOs are bright and they’ll figure out their own way of doing it. If you’re a young manager, this book is for you.  Don’t complain about your manager - make a difference. If you start an evolution at that level then you can change the organisational culture. But you have to ask the fundamental questions. One, what is the core fundamental of a business? To create value. Two: who’s creating the value? Employees. So what should be the role of management? To enthuse, encourage, and empower employees to create the value. Once you as a team leader understand these core principles and change your management style, you will succeed better than anyone else.

MT: Becoming more transparent brings its own problems. How did you deal with that?
VN: I’ve always believed in balancing what you are going to gain versus what you’re going to lose. On transparency there are downside risks, yes. But what are the upside risks? At the juncture I was at, I had to create trust by sharing information which you don’t expect me to share.

MT: But it means being prepared to hear things you don’t want to hear…
VN: When the majority of the feedback was negative, I was scared. Did the entire 60,000 population of the company think it was bad?  Then one of these young kids came and educated me that I was taking too much credit for my answers. What happens is when a person asks the question, lots of his friends/colleagues/managers can give him an answer. And that changes things.  So if you think that people are going to wait for your answer as if it’s the most important thing in the world, don’t kid yourself.  

MT: By recasting the CEO’s role, aren’t you in danger of talking yourself out of a job?
VN: I think what I’m trying to say is: phase one of my job as CEO is over, and I have to find a new job. Which is: creating a better organisation where the employers are accountable to the management, but where management are also accountable to employees. The CEO’s job should only exist so long as he’s listening, correcting and experimenting.

MT: What do you see your primary role as being now?
VN: To encourage people to experiment collaboratively, and to continue to experiment. Never declare victory. Always say this is an experiment. And make sure the organisation does not start believing in its own marketing.

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