In the Age of the Customer, Get Out of Your Employees' Way

Your company's value zone has more to do with the employees who deliver your services than the services themselves.

By David K. Johnson
Mon, January 20, 2014

Computerworld — A few weeks ago, I had the honor of spending a fantastic hour with Vineet Nayar, former CEO of the Indian technology services firm HCL and author of the book Employees First, Customers Second. In the book and in our conversation, Nayar made several great points, but central to his case is the assertion that the role of the CEO (and the leadership of a company overall) is to "enable people to excel, help them discover their own wisdom, engage themselves entirely in their work, and accept responsibility for making change."

What?!?! Isn't the job of the CEO and the leadership team to have all of the answers and make sure all of their employees know which way to march? Aren't they supposed to have all of the orders in hand and then surround themselves with managers who will track the progress and make sure that every employee is in lockstep with their orders and following the rules? Not in the Age of the Customer -- executives don't have enough visibility.

From top-down to bottom-up: The customer value zone

Shortly after taking over the helm at HCL, Nayar started looking into what the company's customers valued about its services. He learned that it wasn't what the company delivered that mattered; it was how its people did it. HCL's customers saw more value in the company's employees than they did in the services and technologies that the employees delivered. With that discovery came the idea of the value zone, and in the middle of it were the employees working directly with HCL's customers. This epiphany led to deep soul-searching about the relationship of these employees to the hierarchy of the organization and its rules and policies. Nayar realized that the executive team wasn't asking the key question: "What can we do to help you?" He said, "Instead, we were wasting these employees' precious time and energy by requiring them to make endless presentations about irrelevant things and write reports about what they had or had not done." He realized that the company itself was the largest obstacle to employees' success in the value zone.

Do you know where your company's value zone really is?

Where is the value zone for your company? Who works in the value zone? Your sales reps? Your professional services people? Your engineers and innovators? And what is your attitude toward their technology needs? Few businesses are able to clearly distinguish who is or isn't in the value zone. For a pure services business, it's not hard to understand that it's the people delivering the service. But in diversified businesses that offer a combination of hardware, software, services and support, the value zone crosses multiple boundaries.

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