In the Age of the Customer, get out of your employees' way

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

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.

Success in the value zone requires getting the obstacles out of employees' way

Among both businesspeople and scientists, there's no debate that there is a direct link between happy employees, happy customers and long-term business success. The debate and misunderstanding are over what actually makes people happy at work and perform at their best. It's not bonuses, happiness committees or benefits packages -- these are contributors, but they're not the primary sources. The science proves that what makes people happiest at work is believing that their work matters, and being able to make progress toward it while improving their own skills, every day. There are few things as demotivating as internal mandates or policies that stand in the way of doing great work, yet much of what organizations do every day serves to force employees to forgo doing their best work in order to "feed the machine" with progress reports, managing up, being "on" day and night, and dealing with minutiae.

Success also means demanding the very best from employees and leading by example

The barriers to success aren't just within the organization -- they're within all of us. The science also reveals that emotions and perceptions play a key role. How we work, how organized we are, how mindful and intentional we are and whether or not we can interrupt negative thought patterns are all factors in the emotional component of our work. Our perceptions of our work come from what we observe -- things such as the integrity of our manager and company executives, the consistency between what leaders say they value and what they actually reward and promote, and whether or not things like technology policies are in harmony with what leaders say and expect from employees. It's a wise investment of leadership time to help employees develop impeccable work habits, but leaders must also live and do what they are asking employees to do.

Workforce technology strategy begins with knowing how people do their best work

So what does that mean for workforce technology strategy? Plenty. It means that success in the Age of the Customer starts with a complete understanding of how the people in the value zones for your company do their best work. Is it late at night after their kids go to bed, because it's the only time they can get enough uninterrupted time for creative focus? Is it while they're waiting around a train station on their daily commute? Whatever the case, thinking through the barriers that they face in trying to get things done, from their perspective, is a critical step. When you are able to do that, then you know you need to give them the VPN-equipped laptop they need to work from home late at night and the tablet they need to capture the ideas they get while waiting for the train.

Technology leaders in the Age of the Customer must ask: What can we do to help you?

After getting the organization's and people's limitations out of the way, answering the fundamental question of "What can we do to help you?" may be the single most important change you can make in transitioning your organization into the Age of the Customer. My job as a workforce technology analyst is partly to know what questions to ask of your value zone employees, but also how to help you achieve the conflicting goals of getting obstacles out of their way with more autonomy and freedom, and having less for IT to manage in making it happen. Our research on the workforce technology landscape we call Digital Workspace Delivery Systems is intended to do this. I look forward to sharing the results of our work with you in the weeks to come.

David K. Johnson is a principal analyst at Forrester Research serving infrastructure and operations professionals.

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