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Employees first, customers second

A case of divine reversal? Turning the world of management upside-down.

employee-first BOOKEmployees first, customers second. For anyone coming from a retail background such a phrase is a difficult one to swallow. Particularly for a local business, how could one imagine not doing everything possible to keep customers happy, ensuring every possible penny would come one’s way? But for Vineet Nayar, author of the book Employees First, Customers Second: Turning Conventional Management Upside Down by Vineet Nayar, there is a strategy involved for the health and wholeness of both company and client. Nayar posits that the gifts and insights employees have to offer no only serve as catalysts of growth for a company, but that the openness required by management to observe, absorb and listen to those insights, incorporating them into the company ethos, create trusting and secure relationships with clients.

Nayar is the CEO of one of India’s largest IT suppliers, HCL Technologies (HCLT). He started at a smaller, entrepreneurial unit of HCLT (p.3) and was later asked to head the entire $700 million-dollar company because of his enthusiasm and passion for offering the best. If one were to apply the theories of Putnam (2009) to public relations in the case of HCLT, we understand the innovative leadership style of Nayar. Heading a company that was doing well but growing stagnant in a competitive and stressful economy in 2005 and 2008, respectively, Nayar’s vision for growth was a radical one – basing customer relations in trust and transparency.

Anyone who seeks to understand messages and audiences in the realm of strategic communication may have just shuddered at the thought of such transparency. Traditional public relations as a field once consisted of a company’s presenting a message to its publics and working to persuade them that it was true. The post-modern realm of public relations is more dialogical and participatory, understanding that publics help form message as much as do institutions. Nayar, whether or not a student of public relations, has a modern approach to managing companies: in his case a large, international, firm. Yet his theories can be applied to institutions of all sizes. Nayar’s approach is to take the responsibility for change from the office of the CEO to the employees in what he calls the “value zone.”

The definition of audience shifts in Nayar’s description of his four-pronged method for transformation (1. Mirror, mirror; 2. Trust through transparency; 3. Inverting the organizational pyramid and 4. Recasting the role of the CEO). The audience shifts from being the institution’s clients to being made up of its employees. In turn, the CEO becomes the audience of the employees.

Central to Nayar’s book is the redefinition of management, summed up in the Employees First, Customers Second (EFCS) concept. Nayar proposes that in order to remain competitive in the modern market, the traditional, hierarchical pyramid of classical management must be turned upside-down. Though he has no one formula, transparency and providing information to employees plays a large role in fostering dialogue and innovation. Nayar describes each institution as an individual that must do what is in its own best interest. And the way to discern what that interest is? – communication, dialogue and conversation with the company’s employees. After being convinced to become CEO of HCLT, Nayar knew he must do it his own way and set out on an unknown path to innovation. Beginning by traveling to the company’s global offices and listening to those involved from the ground up, seeking their insights and inspirations on what was wrong with the company and what deserved celebration.

Nayar’s discovery is that the employees he considers to be in the “value zone,” those not only in a position to see things management can’t see, but those who have the passion to transform and invest themselves in the company, should be the resource valued above all else. Anyone can develop IT products and anyone can offer services. But most companies cannot provide full-service solutions that include hundreds of invested people, willing to provide transparency and offer clients their best talent, care and attention.

Employees First, Customers Second is a resource to be valued by communications strategists in all fields. As communications is understood more and more as the organizing principle of communities, publics, organizations and companies, communications professionals are increasingly sought for leadership positions. If called into such position, Nayar’s book provides a four-fold strategy (with flexibility to add components and cycle through them in an order best adapted to the individual company) from which a leader can enter the scene and begin to understand what makes an institution relevant in today’s public relations climate.

A resource applied in the book that applies to all seeking to build a communications strategy is Nayar’s understanding of the point A, point B continuum. Nayar concedes that most would acknowledge that a straight line exists connecting point A to point B. This line must be traveled to get from one to the other. Many companies and employees of companies think that they understand what point A is, but admit they don’t know where or what point B is. But what if we hold up a mirror in organizations in which we work and realize that not only are we unsure of the definition of point B, but we no longer can define our current point A? Nayar demonstrates that point A is not stationary, not a thing of the past; it is a thing of the present.

To build relationships with others (in this case, our customers) we must first understand ourselves through reflection and contemplation. Hence the notion of holding up the mirror on a regular basis. Holding up mirror and facilitating conversation often can help a strategist discern the ever-shifting point A so that point B might become a thing of clarity. Particularly for institutions with historical precedent (we’ve always done things the way we’ve done them), reevaluating point A is a critical step in creating a communications strategy. It is a form of self-orientation in the fields of competition in which a company finds itself.

Communications strategists, with the help of Nayar’s practices, can try to convince the management of the companies they consult to shift responsibility from the CEO to the company’s most valuable resource – its employees, the transformers with vision and passion. Tapping into this resource may not be an easy process Nayar claims it will allow authenticity to arise, creating bonding capital among teams in the company and bridging capital with the companies’ clients, who were also later invited into conversation. There is risk involved in being vulnerable in dialogue, but the risk is such that a communications professional can embrace. Taking the risk of transparency opens the company to wider inspection, both from the public and from the employees within. Nayar uses the metaphor of large glass windows in Amsterdam (p.68) to illustrate this point. The bigger the window, the cleaner it must be kept to gain credibility, and the more can be seen.

In the end, the collaboration and transparency Nayar proposes, coupled with the credibility trust that builds among employees, builds trust with an organization’s clients. Slowly but surely, for Nayar, HCLT’s clients began to see the benefits of engaged, thinking and contributing employees. HCLT began to win bigger clients and again become competitive in the global market. There is rightly fear of the former status quo returning with success, but because of the cyclical nature of Nayar’s practice, the mirror is discernment is regularly held up, inviting old and new employees into the conversation.

Communications strategists should read Nayar’s book in order to instantly understand where the most valuable resource of a company lies – in its employees. Like Nayar as CEO, communications consultants, as a result of reading his book, can understand a paradigm of listening and dialogue that celebrates communication as an organizing principle and helps a company determine the true publics to which its public relations work should be directed.

Nayar, V. (2010). Employees first, customers second turning conventional management upside down. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

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Buy book at Indiebound here https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781422139066

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