Media Interviews

He’s Not Bill Gates, or Fred Astaire

13 February 2010 | Source: The New York Times

This interview with Vineet Nayar, chief executive HCL Technologies, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Q. Talk about some of the important leadership lessons you’ve learned.

A. The first day coming out of B-school, I joined HCL, and I became a boss of two people. And what I learned immediately is that they were as smart as me, their aspirations were just as great, but they did not know what to do. I also discovered that I did not know what to do, but I lied through my teeth in those early days, projecting this sense that I knew what had to be done.

I did not know where I had to go, and I was projecting as if I knew. I assume that you expect me to know where I am going, and you will respect me for that, and the day I tell you both of us are in the same boat, we would fail. That was a very big learning for me.

Q.But so many C.E.O.’s are expected to have all the answers.

A. Most C.E.O.’s are not as great as they’re believed to be. There are exceptions. There is Bill Gates. There is Steve Jobs. There is Larry Page. But I’m not one of them, and so many of us are not them.

So, if you see your job not as chief strategy officer and the guy who has all the ideas, but rather the guy who is obsessed with enabling employees to create value, I think you will succeed. That’s a leadership style that evolved from my own understanding of the fact that I’m not the greatest and brightest leader born. My job is to make sure everybody is enabled to do what they do well. This is part of our “Employees First” philosophy.

Q. Talk more about how you create that culture.

A. You have to create a culture of pushing the envelope of trust. How do we push the envelope of trust? By creating transparency.

Q.Give me an example.

A. All HCL’s financial performance information is on our internal Web. We are completely open. We put all the dirty linen on the table, and we answer everyone’s questions on our internal Web site. We inverted the pyramid of the organization and made reverse accountability a reality.

So my 360-degree feedback is open to 50,000 employees — the results are published on the internal Web for everybody to see. And 3,800 managers participate in an open 360-degree and the results — they’re anonymous so that people are candid — are available on the internal Web for those who gave feedback to see. So, that’s reverse accountability.

The other thing we did was make sure everybody understands that the C.E.O. is the most incompetent person to answer questions, and I say this to all my employees very openly.

Q.How do you communicate that?

A. One thing I learned was to communicate in extremes. So I asked myself, how do I communicate to employees to not look up to me, but to look within, to communicate that I’m one of you, to destroy that hierarchy? So I decided I’m going to go into this big gathering of employees dancing to a very famous Bollywood song. And I can’t dance for nuts, right? I was dancing in the aisles with these employees and making lots of noises. What happened? It completely destroyed the gap.

I’ll give you one more example with the way we handle business planning. So, what is the absolute power of the C.E.O? You come and make a presentation to me about what you’re going to do, and I will sit in this chair God has given to me and tell you if I like the plan or not. The power of the hierarchy flows from the fact that I will comment on what you write.

As my kids became teenagers, I started looking at Facebook a little more closely. It was a significant amount of collaboration. There was open understanding. They didn’t have a problem sharing their status. Nothing seemed to be secret, and they were living their lives very openly, and friends were commenting on each other and it was working.

Here is my generation, which is very security-conscious and privacy-conscious, and I thought, what are the differences? This is the generation coming to work for us. It’s not my generation.

So we started having people make their presentations and record them for our internal Web site. We open that for review to a 360-degree workshop, which means your subordinates will review it. Your managers will read it. Your peers will read it, and everybody will comment on it. I will be, or your manager will be, one of the many who read it. So, every presentation was reviewed by 300, 400 people.


Vineet Nayar is the chief executive of HCL Technologies, an I.T. services company based in India. To help bridge the gap between C.E.O. and the rank and file, he once danced (awkwardly) to a famous Bollywood song at an employee event. Credit Dan Neville/The New York Times

What happened? There were two very interesting lessons that I learned. One, because your subordinates are going to see the plan, you cannot lie. You have to be honest. Two, because your peers are going to see it, you are going to put your best work into it.

Third, you didn’t learn from me. You learned by reviewing somebody else’s presentation. You learned from the comments somebody else gave you. For the 8,000 people who participated, there was a massive collaborative learning that took place.

Q. You’ve done a lot of tinkering with how the organization operates. Have all the initiatives worked?

A. The failures are far in excess of successes.

Q.Give me an example of what didn’t work.

A. I used to write a blog every week because I thought people wanted to know what was going through my head. But one employee told me that, “Actually, we want to participate in solving a problem.” So, the blog got converted into me asking a question: “This is a problem I’m having. How will you solve it?” This is one example of how we started going in one direction, and the direction completely changed to another.

Q.How do you hire?

A. You have to want it very, very badly.

Q. How do find out if somebody really wants the job badly?

A. I ask questions that are very boring, and I see if you get agitated.

Q.Like what?

A. So, for example, let’s say it’s about writing. I’d say: “O.K., is writing a good profession? Don’t you think you get bored writing? You write up an interview; somebody else’s name appears on it. What other thing have you really wanted to do other than being a writer? What else excites you? So, compared to writing, does that other thing excite you more?"

Q. And how does that play out? Some people get agitated?

A. They’ll say: “What are you talking about? I completely disagree.” And they have a fight with me, and I keep going with the negative. The more agitated you get, the more likely you’re going to kick my butt and say, “This is what I want to do.” And I want people who will kick my butt on points where we disagree. I like to hire people who have the desire inside them because I can’t create it. I can help you find your desire, but I can’t create it.

Q. What percentage of people say, “You’re right, I actually want to do something else”?

A. Most of them — 90 percent of them. Most people are confused because they’ve not found their “true north.” They’re not passionate about it.

Q.What else are you looking for?

A. I want people to say they want to learn, and this experience will give me learning, and from that learning I will move on. I don’t want people who are coming here and teaching me something or teaching the organization something. I don’t want teachers. I want people who are not only charged up because they like it, but because they will learn from this experience. I’m looking for people who see experience as a continuum and not as an end in and of itself.

Q. What other key questions do you ask?

A. I think when you ask the question, “What do you want to do next?” you kind of get an answer. There are some people who want to do more of the same and some people who say I will learn from this and try something else. I don’t judge the interview on content. Judge the interview on intent. What is the real intention? Does he have the intent and the attitude to be in the continuum, and that he wants to experiment with newer and newer? It’s not about the title.

Q.Anything else?

A. What excites you most? What depresses you most?

Q. I’ll keep asking: What else?

A. I ask people about the three or four people they interviewed with at HCL before they got to me. I say: “Today, you are their boss. Which one will you hire and why?” That’s a question that has gotten me the right person all the time, because I know the three or four people you’ve interviewed with, and it gives me an idea how quickly you can find out their strengths and weaknesses. And then I ask the question: “Would you hire me and why? What did I say or ask that made a difference to you?”

Q. What about meetings?

A. I have two principles in life. Either there is something I have to give to you or there is something you have to give to me. In either case, let’s get down to that point, otherwise you do what you want or I’ll do what I want.

So, my meetings are not polite. They are fairly blunt on both sides, and they really come down to the crux of the issues, and we are done with it pretty fast. I’ll ask right in the beginning, “What do you want?” Sometimes it’s “I need your approval.” Approved. Thirty seconds, meeting is over. Go and do what you want to do.

Q. What’s your career advice for young people?

A. When you come out of college, you’re raw. You have energy. You want to experiment. You want to learn. You have hopes. You have aspirations. You want to be Oprah Winfrey. You want to be Steve Jobs. You want to be Bill Gates. You want to be all that. Slowly, over time, you lose it. And by looking in the mirror every day as you get older, you fool yourself that you’re O.K. There has to be another way of looking in the mirror and revisiting what you really want to do.

So I would say, maybe at the end of college, write it down honestly, in 100 words or whatever it is, and put it in a box. I call it the magic box. Revisit it once a year or once every two years and say, how honest are you to that? Don’t let anybody run your life. That, in my mind, is very, very important. You should be in control of your life.