Would YOU be an Undercover Boss
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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
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 UK
version, was CEO Stephen Martin who had recently taken over the reigns 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 website, 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
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
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 over a decade.
About the Author
Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.is an international
Keynote speaker on collaborative leadership and the impact of
language in the workplace.
coach to executives to improve their leadership presence and
Leadership blogger for Forbes and author of "The Silent Language of
Leaders: How Body Language Can Help - or Hurt - How You Lead.”
Carol@CarolKinseyGoman.com Authors Google+
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2010-02-03 11:52:11 in Employee Articles