The title of this blog is an inversion of the dominant notion in the business world of “customers first,” or “the customer is always right.” It’s also the title of a new, bestselling book by Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies, one of the largest IT outsourcing firms in the world. On its face it sounds like a radical departure, but in reality it constitutes a shift in thinking that will come to define the future of work.

It’s important to realize that when Mr. Nayar says this, it doesn’t mean “customers last,” or “customers don’t really matter.” Of course they matter. They are the lifeblood of any successful business, and no one is denying that. What it is saying, is that in holacracy, customers can’t truly come first if the employees serving them aren’t truly engaged as advocates.

So what does that look like in practice? Nayar says you must first create an environment of trust. Employees need to trust the overall vision of the company and trust each other to the point where they are fully confident that what they’re doing is having its intended effect out in the world.

By extension, you need to ensure that all the individual parts of the organization are equally responsible to the employee as they are to each respective part. The third is to make the managers (if there are any) and the employees equally responsible to each other, across the board.

Let’s bring all this back into focus a bit. By one measure, these are revolutionary tactics. Why take the risk? Rocking the boat to this extent surely has the capability to cause unrest and frustration among employees who are probably doing just fine. But on the other hand, HCL Technologies has turned into one of the fastest growing and most profitable IT services companies in the world. Business Week called it one of the 20 most influential companies in the world.

So, do you feel your organization starting to slip into complacency? Maybe it’s been lounging on an inner tube of its previous successes for a while now. I would recommend you check out Employees First, Customers Second and consider what organizational changes you could make that would give your employees a fresh shot of enthusiasm and as a consequence, remind your customers how much value they truly get from you.

The book is available from HBR Press. Check it out here.

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