Are You Blocking The Way?

by Vineet Nayar via

On your ascent to the Corner Office, you’ve probably encountered an abundance of leadership theories. Which one do you subscribe to? Do you lead from the front? Are you in the back? Or do you walk shoulder to shoulder with your team?  For my part, I just get out of the way.

No kidding. I truly believe that the role of the CEO is overstated in business.  Just like a head coach in the NFL or a Major League Baseball manager, we often get too much of the credit when our team succeeds, when it’s actually the players on the field who need to get all the praise.

Let’s face facts. It is too simplistic to attribute outstanding performance to a leader. Just because you are the CEO, it does not mean that you have all of the answers. Nor does it mean that you are making all of the decisions.

Some of you might already subscribe to a participative style of management and arrive at solutions in collaboration with your leadership team. But that is not what I am referring to.

Think about it. In today’s market environment, who is really most important to your customers? Who lives in the value zone? Who is innovating to find new solutions to overcome the new challenges facing our customers? It is the employee at the customer interface. The CEO is too far removed.

So the business of a leader is really to enable employees in the value zones of the company; encourage them to actively seek and initiate new ways to create value for customers; and enthuse them to take on the responsibility for change. Then, most importantly, step aside as they get to work.

And I am not the only one who subscribes to this view. There are many forward-thinking leaders who take this approach as the new gospel truth. Brad Smith, President and CEO of Intuit, for example, concurred in a  recent interview, to Forbes, “Regardless of whether you are leading a large enterprise or a small team, you need to remove barriers to innovation and get out of the way.” A similar view was shared by Joanna Pineda, CEO, Founder & Chief Troublemaker at the Matrix Group, who  wrote in her blog recently, “The more I got to thinking, the more I realized that sometimes, CEOs should set goals and parameters and then get the heck out of the way.”

And why not? After all, it is the employees who have been at the core of every game-changing idea around us. Look around. Whether it is the iPhone, the tablet, digital cameras or any other recent technology innovation, employees — perhaps those tucked away in the research and development labs — are the ones who have built them. They have carved the shape of the products that defined the past and present. Without a doubt they are the ones who are going to build our great companies in the future.

No matter how much senior management might resist shedding the spotlight, the winds of change are swirling and hierarchical pyramids are getting destroyed everywhere we look. Social media has built a new world run on collaborative power and popular revolutions are leading political and social transformation.

It is time to actively channel the power of these winds by building windmills, rather than walls. It is time indeed for CEOs to move away from legacy management systems to decouple power and position. If we can just broaden the leadership franchise, we are sure to find new ways to transform business by letting the real people, making a real difference, come to the forefront.

There is an African proverb that goes something like this: A blade of grass does not grow faster if you pull it.  I think this is profound wisdom for CEOs today as they look to lead more effectively in the “New Normal.”

Vineet Nayar is Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of HCL Technologies Ltd. (HCLT), a $4.3 billion global information technology services company and author of the highly acclaimed management book “Employees First, Customers Second: Turning Conventional Management Upside Down” (Harvard Business Press, June 2010). He is also an acknowledged management visionary and a radical thinker who architected the company’s „Employees First, Customers Second‟ (EFCS) strategy, which transformed HCL’s business, through its inverted organizational structure which has helped create transparency and accountability within the organization and encourage a value-driven culture since its conception in 2005.