Dancing chief executive makes sense

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Employees First, Customers Second
Turning conventional management upside down

By Vineet Nayar
Harvard Business Press $24.95/£17.99

This book’s cover – which can be read the right way up or upside down – worried me. So did its subtitle, “turning conventional management upside down”, as in my experience, the origin of much management speak can come from either end of a manager.

I need not have worried. This short book by Vineet Nayar, since 2005 the chief executive of HCL Technologies, the Indian IT consultancy, is mostly written in an attractive, uncomplicated and direct style with not too many lapses into management jargon.

There is, however, one sentence that is so perplexing I feel obliged to reproduce it here: “It takes a village to make a man and perhaps a good-sized town to make an author.” Er ...

But for the most part the book is clear and explains the methods Nayar used to accelerate the exceptional growth of HCLT under his stewardship.

HCLT is a business largely reliant on its relatively educated and intelligent workforce rather than owning proprietary software or hardware.

It does not, therefore, seem remarkable that Nayar chose to focus on maximising the output and value of his company’s central and critical resource.

Nayar’s employee focus is widely illustrated in the text – indeed, his profitable obsession with employees is everywhere. He even thanks his 55,000 “co-authors”.

He divides the book into four largely sequential steps that affected the acceleration. “Mirror, Mirror” – looking for problems to solve and identifying a future vision for the business; “Trust through Transparency” – aligning staff behaviour with new objectives; “Inverting the Power Pyramid” – empowering the “value generators” (or employees, as they are also known); and, finally, “Recasting the Role of the CEO – Transferring the Responsibility for Change” – which seems to be an extension of distributing power and action throughout the organisation.

His methods were arrived at through extensive discussion with his employees and much management by wandering around the organisation.

Nayar transmitted his message using his own acronyms of which the book’s title “EFCS” – Employees First, Customers Second – is the most memorable.

The list also includes “Bait” – business-aligned IT; “Epic” – employee passion indicative count (Nayar clearly does not do double entendre); and U & I – oddly undefined. So only a bit jargony, then.

For someone short of management expertise, this is an excellent book; for anyone who is excellent at what they do, then this is too basic.

After all, little of what Nayar says or has done is unique – others have done similar things. His success is probably in effective communication and in the energy and pace of implementation.

Nayar clearly succeeded in getting his business into shape. However, he substantially changed the HCLT product strategy away from implementation services for medium enterprises towards targeting large but not giant companies for outsourcing contracts. So the relative contributions of the employee initiatives and of this strategic change are not apparent.

Nonetheless, I warmed to Nayar – he is a fellow eccentric who, notwithstanding a less-than-athletic build, dances at company meetings.

His personality comes through the text, which is mostly written in the first person. Nayar has a delightful way of dealing with people who oppose him, calling them “yes, butters”.

I feel Nayar is more of a leader than he claims. Or perhaps all that matters is that employees believe they are paramount; if this book is anything to go by, he must radiate infectious enthusiasm.

Timing is an unavoidable variable in running a business – or in writing, and Nayar’s book is lucky to have been written during HCLT’s period of spectacular growth. More recently, the company’s progress has slowed.

Keeping the dancing going famously failed for Chuck Prince at Citi – but those following this book’s advice stand a good chance of doing much better.

The writer is chairman of Better Capital and FinnCap

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