Employees First Customers Second by Vineet Nayar

The book “Employees First Customers Second” (EFCS) written by  a highly successful CEO, with a foreword by the late Dr C K Prahalad, reviews on the back cover by Tom Peters, Gary Hamel, Ram Charan amongst others and published by Harvard Business Press makes more than enough reasons for the book to be purchased and read.

I picked the book because I have heard from friends at HCL that “Vineet is a great guy”. From my limited knowledge of organizations I know many of these people could not be reporting into him directly or meeting him too often; then how has he managed to leave such a strong impact and impression on them? I wanted to see if the book would give me reasons why so many within HCL think so.

Personally EFCS has been a true page turner. It has enough of practical ideas, first hand account of ideas put into practice, and a lot of radically different thinking (I personally loved this!) I will not be surprised if you read the book and call it “management fiction”; it does seems to be a real story well penned. The overall framework used in the book can be easily considered as “too simple” – but is it not the simple basic things that are most difficult to implement or rather practice? Here is where I liked the approach Vineet has taken in making every important change into a simple initiative and achieve the intended objective through a series of well planned simple initiatives.

The four phase approach taken by the organization has been evolutionary (important to note) as knowing the entire path at the start is a no-starter. The first phase of doing the “Mirror Mirror” test resulted in people getting to see the reality as it is. The challenge of people looking into the Mirror and wrongly treating it as a rear view mirror amongst other challenges were handled in real time.

The second phase of “increasing trust through transparency” of employees within the organization about senior management and the future of the institution was handled in absolute filmy style. Opening up of books of accounts, unblocking information holding power centers (valves) , making everyone in the ecosystem accountable two-ways, allowing employees listen to the customer feedback live and unfiltered, etc was phenomenal and bold. The story of the Amsterdam home and it being an inspiration for the transparency initiative and the live webcast of the customer feedback session impressed and thrilled me. The U&I portal through which he exposed himself and the office of the CEO using technology is worth learning and implementing from – though it may actually be a little too bold for many!

The third phase of “inverting the organization pyramid” was equally eye-catching. The story of the geography teacher’s lesson was fantastic and needs to be read by many more people especially Gen Y people – you guys have some serious take aways from this! The idea of orienting support functions as enablers of staff in delivering value to customers is enough as a singular takeaway from this section. The story of the poor boy who asked for books when offered food and relating it to the understanding of real needs was very touching and succinct. The class of Father McGrath is a must read for every teacher on how classes can be made to have impact on people.

The fourth phase of “recasting the role of CEO” is a topic that today has serious lacuna in literature and available management thinking. It is nice to see Vineet actually bring up this topic and provide some early thoughts and leading questions. In this book many of the initiatives are interesting and will go a long way in increasing sense of accountability and shared responsibility. The creating of Employee First Councils are more like special interest clubs. Putting the strategy document for comment to a larger group is a definite next practice.  While there is limited talk on the specific role or function of the CEO, Vineet has given all of us some pointers to individually mull and develop.  Some leading thoughts are presented at a very high level like removing the too much power at the CEO’s office. These are starting points for management thinkers and corporate leaders to further on. A definitive area of further thinking is also the difference between zones of control and span of influence.

The book has its own contribution to management lexicon such as smart service desk, reverse accountability, zones of control, span of influence, employee first council, EPIC, etc not that the title itself is an interesting choice. An interesting closing to the book is a chapter called “find understanding in misunderstanding” which talks about the challenges or general reasons people give when you try to do something against the norm.

Yes EFCS as a framework and the number of concepts, initiatives etc are very valuable and applicable to every institution. After reading the book I can understand why my friends felt so connected to their CEO.

A particularly interesting lesson for students is looking at the rise of Vineet from management trainee to CEO in the same company. I think there are opportunities for young students to join interesting start-ups and then look at rising up by practicing entrepreneurial skills (called intrapreneurship). Though this is not the intended lesson from the book, I hope readers will take this subtle lesson and put into practice.

Overall a wonderful book to be read by every aspiring leader, leader, entrepreneur, and whoever thinks revolutions are a thing of the past!


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