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Book Review: Employees First, Customers Second
Any book with a foreword by the great C K Pralhad is bound to attract one's attention.
More so when its published by Harvard Business Press and is written by the CEO of a USD2.5b
technology services organization in India. You look at the cover and the intrigue intensifies.
While the world raves about how they put customers first, the title says something that makes
one read again to make sure one's reading right - "Employees First, Customers Second" it says,
the latter two words being in smaller print. Now thats much more than a hint, isnt it. Plus,
the lower half of the cover has a mirror image of the title and now one's sure that there something inside thats
counter intuitive and in contrast with the thought currents. But then again, one needn't have concluded
this oneself - its written on a bold red strip - "turning conventional management upside down".
This is a concise book and Mr. Vineet Nayar's revelations start right from the introduction. "Through a combination
of engaged employees and accountable management, a company can create extraordinary value for itself,
its customer, and the individuals involved in both companies. Thus when a company puts its employees first, the
customer actually does ultimately come first and gains the greatest benefit, but in a far more
transformative way than through traditional 'customer care' programs and the like.", we learn.
All improvement journeys start with identifying the problem. HCLT journey in the book is no different. The
phase of reflection is called Mirror Mirror. What is perhaps different is the way it is articulated and
communicated. Also the way in which concensus is built. Quite refreshing are the focus on integrity of
a professional, in the way he would think about his family as well as his business, and the deep thought
about transperancy and the culture of trust. What I found unique to this book is Mr. Nayar's way of taking
everyone on this journey of trust, not just employees but customers too, as also the gratifying outcome of
enhanced business result while being candid and not claiming to 'know' his way through and employing
fearless listening skills in practice. "Catalysts are simple actions ... that help transform", he says,
and urges the reader to "find your own and push them hard, and then find new ones, and push them even
harder still". Simple and powerful, no ?
Every organization has hierarchial command and control rooted in its DNA, there are good reasons why
it is so, and when and while it works, it works wonderfully well. The problems start when the building blocks of
the pyramid outlast their utility, and they aggravate, as this hard fact finds it harder still to be
acknowledged. Mr. Nayar describes this as the disconnect of the 'Control Zone' from the 'Value Zone'. Techniques
like the 360 degree survey, and not the 'usual' one but the 'open' one where the reviews are published to peers and
subordinates, can be powerful transformative instruments towards 'Spans of Influence'. 'Collective wisdom
outshines individual judgement' he notes.
One cannot help but marvel at Mr. Nayar's courage, even has he subjects himself and the office of the CEO
to evaluation, equivalent to the rest of his leadership team. He is honest about the CEO not having
all the answers all the time, and quite fresh about his approach of getting best possible answers
by asking for ideas across the organization. One feels happy on reading the success stories that finally
confirm the inversion of the pyramid.
Even as he recasts the role of the CEO (his role) and really engages
with employees (the 'whole' person) for things like 'strategy' and 'responsibility', one is sure to be
astonished when the principles one's read so far are applied to, of all things, acquired organizations !
'And as CEO, I gained bandwidth to do more and more, or perhaps, less and less. Much of the responsibility
that would typically have transferred to the office of the CEO, went in the opposite direction', he writes.
'Blasphemous!' one can hear barks from the authoritative types. Nothing, however, succeeds like success, and hence
one reads 'We saw that the EFCS concept ... could generate such powerful results that we completed four more
successful acquisitions in that year'. Silence. 'The role of the CEO is to enable people to excel, help them
discover their own wisdom, engage themselves entirely in their work, and accept responsibility for making
change'. Pindrop silence.
For the redoutable doubters, misunderstandings are addressed in the last chapter.
This book is not for casual reading at your office cafeteria or a cafe. The library or the study is more like it. Find a
quiet place where you can concentrate. You will need to re-read paragraphs. Remember the experience with
the cover page ? You will find it repeating as you read the book.
Mr. Nayar is very humble. At the outset, he says that he is telling the story of what worked at one specific
company in one specific business area. But careful reading of the book makes one suspect, at the least, that
universal principles are being discussed and that should reflect on where they apply.
Now go read the book and change your organization. May the force be with you. :)
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