Author interview: Vineet Nayar

Nayar’s new book outlines the changes he has introduced at HCLT over the past five years. The driver for these was his belief that HCLT management was getting in the way of employees creating value for their customers. This led to HCLT taking a series of steps towards becoming a self-governing organisation.

A key change involved combining HCLT’s traditional pyramid structure with an inverted pyramid, in which the boss is as accountable to the organisation as the employees are to their boss.

As part of this shift, Nayar also needed to rethink the role of the chief executive, transferring responsibility for change to the employees. The belief behind this is that when the chief executive focuses less on governing and more on enabling, employees can accomplish much that might otherwise have been too risky to undertake.

The cultural shift also changed the role of HR- ensuring this and other enabling functions could focus on supporting employees. One successful initiative has been the Smart Service Desk, in which employees raise their problems as ‘open tickets’ and decide when these tickets should be closed. HR and other functions are now pro-actively focused on driving towards zero tickets by understanding and removing common problems.

Asked whether he would have done anything differently if he’d been leading the same change process again, Nayar explains there was a reason he did what he did: he didn’t know if what he was doing was right. This was why he led the change process in such a collaborative and experimental way.

Today, he “knows a few things” but says he would still experiment and collaborate on new issues. He believes the problem with putting people who know how to do a job into a role is that they end up telling people what to do and preaching about things that have worked before.

I challenged Nayar on this and suggested that he’d still be quite directive in setting HCLT’s change agenda. So he shared his management philosophy with me.

“You have 100 people in a desert at 12 noon. And me – I’m the 101st person. There’s no north, no south. People will start walking off in different directions. And you can’t just start a conversation with everyone about what direction to go in.

“Instead, you need to plant a flagpole in the middle of the desert – then everyone can walk towards it or away from it, or they can move the pole. The job of a leader is to start with a point of view. This opens up choices (which means that you need to be prepared for the conclusion and result to be inverted). It creates discussion and people will either say: ‘Yes’, ‘I don’t know’, or ‘Yes, but…’.”

We talked a little more about the need to listen to the ‘yes, but’ managers. Nayar admitted they had been proven right in many cases. So it is important to listen to them, and also to give them time to sleep on it – something Nayar sees as management’s biggest motivator.

The changes seem to be working well for Nayar and HCLT. Fortune has called the approach ‘the world’s most modern management’, and the impact on the business has been very positive – with the company growing 20% year on year during the worst period of the recession.

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