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Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Chicken or the Egg... Employees First or Customers First

Employees first, Customers Second?  It goes against everything we have been taught.  The nice thing about things we are taught is that they are the beginning of the real learning process.  Opening yourself up to learning is the root of real understanding.

So... The Chicken or the Egg?, Customers First or Employees First?. 

I wont begin to address the age old chicken or the egg but I will tackle customers or employees first.

Customer or Employees first was addressed in 2010 in a book by Vineet Nayer, "Employees First, Customers Second: Turning Conventional Management Upside Down".  Nayer is the CEO of HCL Technologies.  HCL is a $5.5 billion global IT Service provider, based in India. Credit for HCLs rise to a world wide powerhouse in IT services is attributed to Nayer's "Employees First" philosophy.

The Employee First philosophy has always been a part of the Starbucks culture.  CEO Howard Schultz presented this culture as follows
"We built Starbucks brand first with our people, not with customers. Because we believe the best way to meet and exceed the expectations of our customers was to hire and train great people, we invested in our employees."

If you look at the history of management, employee relations, Employee First is a natural progression of this relationship.  Early management philosophy, coined theory X, was dictatorial.  Management considered workers as lazy. Fear of consequences was the prime management motivator.  As business matured, theory Y came into practice.  Theory Y assumes everyone wants to succeed and achieve.  People are motivated through recognition and want to be challenged.  Employee First is the next step.  Employee First establishes the team as the only important factor to success.  If you have a great team, success will follow.  It requires transparency and involvement of all team members in the organization.

Introducing Employee First into an organization is difficult. Even with open minded management, Employee First creates apprehension.  Establishing a level of trust when providing transparency to the entire team is a difficult step.  Employee First literally turns the organization upside down.  It creates an inverted organizational chart.  first line employees are at the top and senior management at the bottom, serving the levels above.  Management becomes accountable to the employees.  I call this organizational chart the inverted pyramid.  With honest examination it makes sense.  The worker produces the goods and services the customer pay for.  Management simply provides the workers with the tools and materials they need.  The worker is the profit generating level of the company, not the management.  If the organizations purpose is to produce profits, it should be led by the group that generates that profit, with all other levels supporting them.

How does this apply to Ebsco?  Actually it has been a part of the Ebsco culture for the past 10 years.  It is ingrained in the personality of our current CEO, Ms. Dooley.  From personally serving hot cocoa on cold days to investing in additional AC units to make the shop more comfortable, Ms. Dooley simply cares about the team.  As we grow and define our company, we included Employees First in our Mission Statement.  One of the four pillars that guide Ebsco is our employees.

Mission statements are great and make great plaques and posters but how does Ebsco practice Employees First in day to day operations?

It starts with the courage to honestly listen.  If employees are first, you must listen to what they have to say. This take courage.  Many times you will not like what you hear.  It can be easy to take their criticisms as personal.  You may find policies you instituted for their benefit have failed to deliver results.  They may tell you some policies and directions you have set are not making their way through management to the team.  You will probably be surprised to find how out of touch you really are.  It's hard to hear about your failures, especially when you had such great intentions.  If you want to put employees first, you must muster the courage to listen.

We're doing this at Ebsco.  We have created several employee teams.  Not only are we listening to their input, we have empowered them to make and implement decisions.  Who better to understand what is important to the team than the team members themselves.  We have instituted monthly departments meetings.  In our meetings we ask for the teams input.  We have established an employee survey.  We ask for honest anonymous input from everyone.  After grouping their responses we sit down with small groups and drill down on their responses.  We dig to understand what they are really telling us.  Then, with that information we address their concerns and discuss how to make things better.

Transparency is another major factor in Employee First.  If the team is first, they must know how the organization is doing, what directions and changes it is making, and what other areas of the company are involved in.  It is intimidating to some leaders to share this much information with workers.  They hesitate to trust and question the importance of such detail communication.  Again, if employees are first, it is a must.

At Ebsco, we are becoming transparent to our team.  This Blog is one such example.  I attempt to explain the reason behind the direction and decisions of Ebsco.  Our department meetings are another factor.  We attempt to keep all employees informed on our progress and current strategies.  They can't make it work if they don't know what "it" is. We believe the employees will make the customers first if we make them first but they can't do that, without having all the information.

Training is an essential element to Employees First.  Without providing the tools to succeed you are not making employees first. You must provide employees with training beyond how to do their jobs.  They must understand the whys and how their job contributes to the entire organization.  You must also provide them the training to advance beyond their current level.  This is one of the major stumbling blocks for many companies.  Training is expensive. The time and lost productivity during training is seen as waisted overhead in many organizations.  This is short sighted.  The result of training is better equipped, more productive team members. Training is an investment that almost always pays huge dividends.

We are embracing training at Ebsco.  I have spoken about our commitment to training in several previous Blogs posts.  Our training program is still developing.  We have moved beyond task training into developmental training at all levels.  We are committed to training and look at it as an investment in our future, both short and long term.

The Employee First philosophy is relative young in the history of business.  It is not a "fad" but a logical step in the progression of employee management relations.  The lines between worker and management  are becoming less rigid and blurred.  Employees are finally given credit for their contributions to the company.  Companies are realizing that the "worker" is the one that generates the profit, understands the system and are the key to the companies improvement.  Ebsco is committed to our employees and is a leader in realizing their importance and contribution to the companies success.  As we re-invent ourselves for the next decade, you will find the employees leading the change.  At Ebsco, Employees are First.

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