To Transform, Believe You Can Achieve the Impossible

Dori Meinert By Dori Meinert June 25, 2019
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LAS VEGAS—Vineet Nayar took a radical approach when he was asked to transform HCL Technologies in 2005. The company was losing market share, so he knew the old way of doing things no longer worked.

He chose not to focus on customers, as conventional wisdom would dictate. Instead, he focused on the employees. Since they were interacting with customers, he realized they were the key to successful transformation. Under Nayar's leadership, HCL became one of India's fastest-growing global information technology services companies. It grew from $700 million in 2005 to $4.7 billion in 2013, with more than 85,000 employees across 32 countries.

He achieved what many had thought was impossible.

"Do you know how to overcome the constraints that surround you to do what you are meant to do? To get to the higher purpose that you signed up for when you became an HR person?" Nayar asked thousands of HR professionals attending the Society for Human Resource Management 2019 Annual Conference & Exposition on June 25. Nayar is the author of Employees First, Customers Second: Turning Conventional Management Upside Down (Harvard Business Press, June 2010).

He recalled a circus act he saw as a young boy. The acrobats were doing seemingly impossible things. "Then it dawned on me that the reason they could do these 'impossible' acts was because they practiced. What I considered impossible is possible for them," he said. "They are bending the boundaries of logic and reason for them, and it's outside the boundaries of logic and reason for me."

Likewise, the transformation of a company or an individual can be done only by breaking through the boundaries of expectations, he said.

"The impossible is possible only if you expand your boundaries of logic and reason," he said, urging HR professionals to go back to their workplaces and find the inspiration to transform practices and cultures, despite those who doubt their success.

To illustrate the unconventional thinking required for companies to change and survive in the current business environment, he told the story of an ant who wanted to be a butterfly. The other ants told her it was impossible.

"Ants do not become butterflies unless they choose not to be ants anymore," Nayar said.

Nayar shared key steps that he took to achieve his vision for change at HCL:

Build trust. "Employees do not trust management. The reason is that employees don't understand the intention behind the management decisions," he said. To build trust at HCL, he made all business decisions fully transparent. He put financial data and other key information on the company intranet. Everybody could see the company's problems. The company advertised for employees who wanted to help improve the company, rather than pretending all was well, and it was flooded with applications because people want the chance to make a difference.

Invert the company's management hierarchy. Nayar's performance appraisal was done by all employees, and he promised to resign if his ranking was below a certain level. When he survived the first year, many other managers joined him in becoming accountable to their employees.

Don't launch initiatives. Launch experiments. Initiatives that come from the business leaders don't invite feedback. "You have to launch it as an experiment so employees can add to it and make it happen," Nayar said.

These and other changes brought about a financial turnaround for the company, as well as improvements in customer and employee satisfaction. But the true test of whether employees owned the change came after Nayar left HCL in 2013. He was pleased that the company continued to grow after he was gone.

"It is actually the butterflies who run the company," he said.

Nayar, along with his wife, put their novel ideas to work running Sampark Foundation, which is transforming education in rural India. The foundation is improving the learning of 7 million children studying in 76,000 rural schools across six states in India. The foundation started by inspiring teachers, who were demoralized by poor conditions, with training and new equipment.

In closing, Nayar urged HR professionals to become "butterflies" and inspire employees to become "butterflies," as well.

"Is this not the time to try and be a butterfly for yourself, for your team, for your organization? Is this not the time to transform yourself irrespective of the fact that others call it impossible?" he asked. "Because magic is created by people who make the impossible possible."

Conference attendee Kelly Drummond of Knoxville, Tenn., loved the butterfly analogy, understanding "that the transformation begins with knowing you can do this." Steve Brown of Seattle said he was inspired to question whether an idea is really impossible.

 


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