Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Undercover Boss and a Lesson in Leadership

Like a lot of you on Super Bowl Sunday, the game was the show to watch. My normal routine is no pregame, just enjoy the game. I do not want to sit through all the hype, recycled stories and the endless commercials. In previous years once the game was decided, I would turn off the TV and call it a day.

This year was different, because I did buy into the hype, but it was not football. The previous week I saw commercials about a new reality show called “Undercover Boss”. I have to admit that I have never watched a reality show. I have always found them to be contrived and just too much BS.

This year I could not wait for the Super Bowl to end so that I could watch this show. I had talked to a few friends in the HR space and we were all kind of wondering how this TV show would play out. Was it really going to show the disengaged employee? Was it going to be stoked in the company's favor? A friend of mine at a major trade publisher said they had been inundated with the publicist of this show.

Well I must tell you, from an HR perspective, this show was awesome. This show is a must see for not only senior leaders but for any manager who seeks to become a better leader. So many times when decisions are made at the top, it is done in theory based on non-emotional data but when the rubber meets the road that is the real test. Whether it be; layoffs and the remaining employees doubling up workload ,process redesign which may save money in the process but had no input from the folks that carry out the process.

How will the results of all those decisions play out are questions that always linger in the back of a leaders mind. Will we achieve the desired results? Will we lose the trust of our workforce in the process? Will these decision increase employee engagement or begin the slide downward? Will we achieve the desired returns that were projected when we made the decisions?

The first episode featured the CEO of Waste Management who goes through 4 or 5 different jobs. The premise of the show was for him to really see how his company was operating internally. And I got to tell you, it was an eye-opener for him. Executive decisions that he had made now gave him the opportunity to see what effect it placed on his workforce.

What I also found interesting was the look on his executive team faces when he announced to them that he was going to be performing these different entry-level jobs. The smug look on their faces basically told the story as their facial expressions, and body language said that they thought this was a bunch of crock.

When the CEO began this journey he went through a steep learning curve, because he got a chance to see how the bottom of the corporate chain lives and works. He was able to see decisions that were made within his group and the impact it made of the workforce. He was also able to see that numbers and data for the most part drove the executive level decision making process and that the human element did not factor into his deliberation.

At the end of the show he met with his team and employees and shared his thoughts about what he had learned. While his proclamations about the employee councils and other improvements were great starts, I felt that his experience would allow him to be a more insightful leader

I would have loved for him to allow his executive team to partake in this same experience for a period of time each year in which they would be required to work within their divisions a few levels below them to get a feel for what and how those jobs are being done. Imagine the impact this could do for employee engagement if this was a part of the management process!

During my tenure working at Martha Stewart Living, I would frequently put together focus groups or luncheons to keep a pulse on the issues. This approach proved highly successful as we faced major issues over the years.

Our CEO at that time, Sharon Patrick was the one of the most amazing and personable leader I have ever come across. Not only did she build Martha Stewart into the brand that it is today, she was the founding CEO. I often tell the story of coming out of the elevator one day and heading to the mail room and finding Sharon sitting in a chair talking to all the guys in the mail room. Her level of engagement to the employees was a model that I have always admired. You could find her all over the building at times, just sitting with workers finding out what they were working on and just basically showing an interest in them. She built up such a loyal following that our engagement level was through the roof, such that when the “clouds and storms” that we faced we had basically no voluntary turnover.

It is important that not only senior leaders engage their staff, but all levels of management need to dig down and understand the jobs that their folks are doing. They are the ones that will drive not only your success, but the team and the company’s success. Great leaders listen and always solicit input from their people.

There is a category of worker that I often speak of that I affectionately call "COI". This is not to be confused with the C-level. This has more to do with influence, thusly "Centers Of Influence". Every company has them; they are the ones that people gravitate to, regardless of the reason. They possess an incredible amount of influence within their peer group. They are in a lot of cases not managers per se but are leaders within their core groups. Stay close to them because whether you want to admit it or not they have a level of trust within their peer group. They have their ears to the ground and believe me they know what is going on.

So as leaders, you too should become an undercover boss albeit without the cameras.


  1. Ron nice piece on Undercover Boss, I went into this experience very skeptically and jaded but I was hooked and found the first subject CEO very engaged in a hugely empathetic manner with his "supervisors". I agree if only more leaders would go into the trenches and see what the various realities of the world their employees work in is like. Management would be less reactive and more expansive in their vision when decisions, policy changes and reorganizations are planned. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Nice post. One needs to learn about working as a team from the Olympic gold medalist rower- Sir Mathew Pinsent.
    At the IMD OWP 2010 Pinsent will share his experience from four Olympic campaigns, which resulted in four gold medals. He will highlight the importance of goal setting, communication, trust and ultimately the courage it takes to win in the toughest of conditions.