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Employees first, customers second

Prithvi Shergill 

It’s not important to be called the boss in the work place. What is needed today, especially with a younger workforce, is a sound participative culture

Two years back at the Frankfurt airport, I struck up a conversation with a German gentleman who looked a bit ruffled at the flight delay announcement. He told me how critical it was for him to reach his company headquarters in Berlin to precipitate an “employee impasse.” As I probed further, I realised much to my shock that the “impasse” had to do with a group of young campus hires, who had decided to protest against their manager’s lack of respect for “their space”.

This was getting interesting, so I asked him to tell me about what they meant by “space.” I remember he took a full minute and two to describe the situation, which looked to me an issue of micro-

We live in strange times, I thought to myself. When these same youngsters demand “space” at home, we bend over backwards to accommodate the extra legroom but in office we call it an “impasse”. This shows just how disconnected we have become to what’s happening at the grassroots. The command-and-control style is still widely prevalent and we still revere stiff pyramids. This, when Gen Y is increasingly becoming a big part of our workforce, and customer dynamics have fundamentally changed with a demand for faster, more innovative and flexible experience/service delivery mechanism. In fact, Fortune magazine deemed Generation Y as the most high-maintenance, yet potentially most high-performing generation in history because its members are entering the workplace with more information, greater technological skill and higher expectations of themselves and others, when compared to the prior generations. With such a high potential and “differently oriented” workforce, it’s high time the art of went through a fundamental overhaul to swap command-and-control methods with democracy and collaboration. The good news is that there are organisations that are taking the lead in rewriting the rules of management and encouraging leaders to change their outlook and work styles.

Here are some practices that are worth investing in:

Get ‘social’: A manager needs to support the technology the Gen Y use in their personal lives — from social networking forums, to mobile apps and devices. Managers and organisations need to work out how to accommodate these new technologies in the workplace, because millennials gravitate towards organisations that harness the best information technology and want access to the hardware and software they use in their personal life. At HCL, for example, we have developed a social networking application called MEME that allows employees to interact with their colleagues in a Facebook kind of forum.

Be collaborative: Unlike the industrial age, where a manager assumed supremacy, today he has to be just as accountable to the team as the team is to the manager. Also, unlike in the past, where giving orders and offering feedback was the norm, today a team leader has to deliver a value beyond just doing performance appraisals. In our organisation, for example, we are focused on ‘inverting the pyramid,’ so our leaders focus on enabling employees to increase the value zone between them and their clients, creating a culture where empowerment and engagement — and not hierarchy — drive performance.

Improve your EQ: In the past it was considered taboo to get emotional at work and we were all tutored to maintain a “strictly professional” front in office. Today’s Gen Y, however, is confident to carry their emotions and opinions on their sleeves. They also look for a deeper purpose and meaning in work than just a way to make a profit or earn money. In short, they have a high emotional quotient (EQ) and a manager is expected to know and be cognizant of their personal priorities and emotions as much as their professional talents. Social scientists, like Daniel Goleman, go so far as call our times the ‘emotional economy’.

Install ‘big windows’ in your cubicle: In HCL Technologies, vice chairman and CEO, Vineet Nayar’s book Employees First, Customers Second: Turning Conventional Management Upside Down there is a mention of how a friend of Nayar once explained the reason of having big windows at his home: they served as a reminder to keep the house clean. The more it is visible to people, the more clean we’ll want to keep our house, he’d said.

I believe it’s time we managers installed these ‘big windows’ in our cubicles, too. The Gen Y workforce born in the age of Facebook is driving a wave of participative culture change, where transparency is a given. These youngsters put their entire life’s ‘timeline’ on the public domain, and they expect nothing less from us. Yes, even at work! At HCL, all leaders are encouraged to share the inputs they receive as part of a 360 degree -feedback process with their teams, exemplified by Vineet himself. Honesty, openness and consistent communication, therefore, will be cornerstones of management.

Get out of their way: The more you try to micro-manage the millennials, the less you can harness their talent. Create processes and resources to enable them instead. For example, rather than asking why a certain task wasn’t done or when will it be done, ask what you can do to help them meet their client’s commitments. Help them connect to the right subject matter experts, solve the bottlenecks in the system and share your knowledge with them. Last but not the least unless you are a Bruce Springsteen, stop others from calling you, the boss.

Prithvi Shergill
Chief Human Resources Officer, HCL Technologies

First Published: Mon, September 17 2012. 00:37 IST