Transcript of Vineet Nayar on Employees First, Customers Second @ TEDxAix Conference
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Vineet Nayar – Former CEO of HCL Technologies, Founder, the Sampark Foundation
Thank you so much.
Just close your eyes for a minute. Just go ahead. Close your eyes for a minute.
And imagine, that you’re standing on the ledge of a building, which is 3 stories high, and imagine that the building is on fire, and if you knew that the right answer for you is to jump in the next 30 seconds, how many of you would jump? I guess everybody.
Imagine you are on that ledge of a building, with your entire team, ten, hundred, thousand, and the building is on fire, and you are the only one who knows the right answer is to jump in the next 30 seconds for all of you to be saved, and you turn to your team, and you say: “Jump!” What do they do? They jump, because you said so. Or they don’t jump, because you said so.
Think about it.
I was standing on the ledge of a building in 2005 with 25,000 of my colleagues, as the new leader, and they looked up to me as to what to do next. I knew that the right answer is to jump but somewhere in my heart I knew that we as leaders have done nothing to win the trust of our employees, and therefore, even if I say: “Jump!”, would they jump? Did they jump? I will come to that story in a bit, but let’s rewind a bit, and tell you a story about how did I get on the ledge of that building, in the first instance.
In India, as is true with many parts of the world, when a child is born, it is considered auspicious for the grandmother — I call her Amma — to walk up to the child — she is the first to pick up the child and she picks up this child, in her hands, and defines a vision for that child. That vision has no data. That vision has no logic. And she says: “Your fingers are so long, you’ll be an artist.” “Your forehead is so wide, you’ll be a NASA scientist.”
Everybody in the family believes in that vision. When the girl grows up that vision becomes her ambition. Becomes her pursuit, and then becomes her reality.
I was fortunate to be born in my Amma’s house. Those days children were born in homes, not in hospitals, on this huge bed, which could sleep 9 people. My Amma picked me up, and I guess I was waiting for this vision, and she picked me up, and defined this vision, and said, “Vineet, this boy is going to do good, and he’s going to have a steady job.” What? I guess my grandmother didn’t see anything to say something more profound. But not true.
Twenty three years later, armed with this MBA degree I walked through the corridors of my first job at HCL. Four weeks later, I was called into the room with these four grim looking people who had this single sheet of paper in front of them. They sat me down, and said, “Vineet, we don’t think you fit into our organization.”
I don’t know what I was most disappointed about. The fact that I was rejected, or the fact that even that vision that my grandmother thought of me has collapsed.
I still remember that night. It was very long, very painful, very frustrating. But by the time the morning came, my life had changed.
With the sun rays I made two commitments to myself. The first, that I will do everything in my power to outsmart these self-proclaimed gods, who believe in leading by rejecting, rather than accepting. And second, that one day, I will be the CEO of this company, and show them the way.
Somebody has rightly said, “You need to be a bit careful about what you wish.”
Two decades later, time had turned a full circle. The Chairman of HCL, who’s a brilliant man with uncanny intuition and foresight, invited me to be the CEO of HCL. I was afraid, not that I was not happy to be a CEO, but I was afraid, not because my first commitment was turning right, but my second commitment, that did I know how to lead by accepting, rather than rejecting.
And I said: “How would I know, unless I try?” And that is the reason I was on that ledge of the building with 25,000 other employees, who were waiting for my direction to jump. Because we wanted to transform HCL to be the best company in the world. Transform is a very interesting word. Changing the form of something permanently. In my mind, you can transform the company in two ways. First, by innovating in what you do, which is the obsession of the world. To be a Google, to be a Facebook, to be a Tesla. But it is a more interesting, human way of transforming yourself using innovation about how you treat your employees, about how you run your company. By increasing the clock speed of your organization, you can actually outperform all your competition, with the same product, the same customer, the same market. Why don’t people get it?
Our journey of thinking about innovation on the how-axis rather than what-axis started with 3 fundamental questions. The first: what is the business we are in? And our answer, we are in the business of creating unique experiences, unique value for our customers, and the more unique we are, the higher market share we will create.
Second question. Where does this unique experience, unique value get created, and who creates this unique experience and unique value? Answer: it gets created where our customers and our employees meet. In that interface, we call the value zone, and our employees in that value zone create that unique experience.
Thus, the third question. If our employees are the unique value, are creating the unique value, which helps us grow faster, then what should the role of managers and management in any company be? And the obvious answer for us was nothing but enthusing, encouraging, enabling those employees to create the unique experience so that we can grow faster.
What is not obvious about that? And that is how employees first, customer second was born, where the management is in the business of enthusing, encouraging, enabling people, and employees are in the business of customers first.
Ideas are great, but they are — many, many of them fail on the pedestal of execution. Our study of revolutions, our study of Indian revolutions with Mahatma Gandhi came to the shores of India in 1915 with this inspirational idea of non-violence. He came to the shores — In 1915 we had this inspirational leader, with the inspirational idea, and yet it took 32 years for India to gain independence.