So here’s the deal: As the chief executive officer, you are asked to go undercover in your own company to “walk a mile” in your employees’ shoes. You must agree to let a television crew film the entire process – while giving up all editorial control.
You probably balk at the idea. You don’t want employees to think that you’re taking part in a publicity stunt, you don’t want to let millions of viewers find out what isn’t working in your organization, and – perhaps most of all, if you’re honest with yourself - you don’t want to risk looking like a jerk on national TV.
Yet this Sunday CBS is launching a series called “Undercover Boss” about executives who do just that: go to work incognito on the front line of their organizations. And to do so in front of the American viewing public.
Like many other televisions shows (“American Idol”, “The Office”, etc.), this is a British import. Among the executives featured last year in the original United Kingdom version, was CEO Stephen Martin who had recently taken over the reins at a struggling construction company, Clugston Group, a large construction company in the business of building roads, schools and supermarkets.
Stephen stepped into this position during the worst recession since World War II, at a time when the construction sector had been hit harder than most and thousands of jobs had already been lost.
Under these circumstances, many leaders would have stayed in their offices, “safely” isolated from the consequences of their executive decisions. Not Stephen. Instead, he signed up for this “formatted documentary” television show and spent two weeks pouring concrete, working in blast furnaces, trying his hand at carpentry and joining the night-shift crew repairing roads – all the while searching for the best way to run the business.
The only advice Stephen was given by the production company (other than “Don’t blow your cover!”) was to try not to “fix” anything prematurely. Instead, he was instructed to spend the full two weeks just listening to the concerns and challenges of the people who were doing the work. It turned out to be invaluable advice. The more Stephen listened, the more he learned.
One lesson, he later wrote on his company’s Web site, was that “suits and ties can be a barrier.”
Comparing his experience as a suit-and-tie-wearing executive visiting a job site and his time undercover as a line worker, he wrote that “no one really notices or listens to ‘the suits’ and would rarely give them honest feedback if asked for an opinion.” He advises leaders to “create more informal ways to communicate and listen.”
That’s valuable advice, even if you’re not ready to have a camera crew follow you around all day. Leaders of any type of organization can make an effort to get involved with people on the front line. If done with the right motives – to show that every job has value and to better understand how your leadership policies are helping or hurting the organization – you can go into the field (even if only for a day and even if everyone knows who you are) and still learn a lot. Just be sure to stay long enough and listen hard enough to be more than “a suit.”
A risk worth taking
After the premier of “Undercover Boss” on Superbowl Sunday, you may even reconsider the incognito option. Sure it’s a risk, but maybe one worth taking. It worked out well for Stephen Martin. When he returned to tell people who he really was, Stephen was met with genuine surprise and delight. Workers expressed amazement that he had taken the trouble to listen to them and work alongside them, even during the freezing cold night shifts and beside the boiling hot blast furnaces.
As Dick Sutton, a man who had been with Clugston for 37 years, said during one of the shows, “It’s a hell of a thing for you to come out here – it’s the first time someone has approached me like you have. So how good of a fella are you to me? It’s brilliant – it’s just brilliant.”
In the end, Stephen’s bold foray was more than a “touchy-feely” employee morale booster. Although it can’t be attributed solely to his going undercover, the 2009 financial results are the best Clugston has produced in more than a decade.