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When Vineet Nayar became CEO of HCL Technologies in 2005, the company was in trouble. The IT firm was profitable but it was losing ground to major competitors and risked slipping into irrelevance. Some CEOs might have been tempted to hire a new team of executives from the outside to revitalize the company. Not Nayar. He did what great CEOs do: he looked inside the company and found a vast untapped resource: its employees.

His new book, Employees First, Customers Second, is the first-person account of HCLT’s transformation from a company mired in complacency into a one of the fastest-growing global IT service firms. The first thing that strikes you about the book, and most especially when you speak to Vineet as I had the opportunity to do recently, is his sense of humility. Change at HCLT began with Vineet; as he looked to his employees he also looked inside himself to determine his own role in the change process.

Nayar would become the enabler. "I didn’t follow a planned approach," Nayar told me. Together with his senior team, "we discovered, we experimented, and we implemented." The goal was collaboration, that is, to leverage the skills and talents of HCLT employees. That entailed a lot of face to face communication with employees at all levels, a practice that continues to this day.

For Nayar, passion is essential to sustaining the enterprise. An engineer by training, Nayar takes an analytical approach to it by defining its principles in three ways: awareness that it is necessary, action to put it to good used, and measurement to focus attention on the right issues. Ultimately passion succeeds if a team achieves its intended results.

Passion at HCLT is not simply about the work; it is also about the environment. It is important that employees want to come to work not simply to do their job but also expand their learning opportunities. For that reason, HCLT provides much training as well as mentoring and teaching opportunities. Over and above this, Nayar seeks to foster a liberal arts atmosphere where employees can indulge in personal passions: sports, music, the arts or other forms of enrichment. It is an approach that other companies, namely Google, have fostered and according to Nayar makes coming to work more enjoyable.

Part of this emphasis on culture comes from the need to engage the interests of Generation Y. This is an issue upon which Nayar himself is expansive. [He writes about it frequently in his blog.] Young people have multiple interests therefore employers need to tap into their desire not simply to earn an income but also to grow and develop their skills, including providing an avenue for their outside interests.

HCLT, as the book notes in its title, is an employee centric company. Only by meeting needs of employees will companies be able to serve the needs of their customers. When I asked Vineet what advice he had for fellow CEOs, he was characteristically humble, as well as direct. "No advice."

But he quickly followed up by explaining that he would ask them five questions, which I am paraphrasing in the form of a Socratic dialogue to include his own responses.

·       One, from where is your future growth coming? Emerging markets and emerging products and services

·       Two, what do you need to do ensure that you grow? Innovate

·       Three, who will innovate? Your employees

·       Four, has trust in senior management increased or decreased over the past two years? Decreased in most companies

·       Five, what will you do about it?

How you answer that last question, according to Nayar, determines how you and your company will succeed in the future. "The CEO will not be the one thinks of the best and brightest ideas," Nayar writes in Employees First, Customers Second. "The role of the CEO is to enable people to excel, help them discover their own wisdom, engage themselves entirely in their work, and accept responsibility for making change." 

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2010 Top Leadership Gurus named John one of the world's top 25 leadership experts. John's new book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up (Amacom 2009). Readers are welcome to visit John's website,