It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do. -Moliere
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Book Review: Employees First, Customers Second

Author: Vineet Nayar
Publish Date: June 2010
URL: @ Amazon
Atul's Rating: ****

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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