Have you ever seen the reality show Undercover Boss? I highly recommend it.
On the show, the CEO of a company, disguised in casual clothes and with a made-up back story, spends time working incognito alongside his or her front-line employees. There are the predictable inter-employee spats, miniature crises, and times when the CEO just doesn’t “get” how to do some simple task.
It’s all in good fun. The dramatic buildup is to the big reveal at the end where the CEO takes off the disguise, rewards the freshly discovered unsung heroes of the business with money and promotions, shares and fixes lessons learned about the company.
What I recommend about Undercover Boss is not just that you watch it for fun, but that you copy it in your own life. I believe that the leader of an organization should find a way to see his or her business through the eyes of the employees, just as on the show.
I mean, consider: Do you really know what your front-line employees face on the job every day? It’s unlikely; even if you are present in the office, do you really think they behave the same when the boss is standing there?
So try it. Come in to the office in jeans one day, don’t introduce yourself, and try using the mail room. Contact your HR as a “new employee” and ask questions about health insurance and educational or learning opportunities. If you are in retail business, go to a store anonymously or call one with a question. How are people treating each other? The customer? Is the environment bustling and productive or lethargic and unhappy?
Let People Talk to You without Disguises
Of course you don’t always have to do the James Bond thing and show up in a disguise. Try the classic manage-by-walking-around strategy and make it a regular part of your schedule to go talk to people. Ask about what procedures (or lack thereof) get in the way of productivity. You’ll have to build trust, of course, that talking frankly and even complaining will not be penalized. That’s why you have to do it more than occasionally.
If you are the leader, chances are you don’t really know what it takes to get something done. You haven’t walked down all the pathways that are required to get an idea from Point A to Point B. You probably just say some variation of “Make it so,” and then you’re on to the next thing.
Meanwhile, your employees might be forced into a convoluted process that is not of their choosing. Sometimes they might even have to drop an initiative altogether, or hollow it out until it’s meaningless, simply because of an inefficient structure that gets in the way.
How much more effective could you be if you really understood where lack of procedure and murky channels of communication are bogging things down? After all, you’re the person who has the clout to change all that—so you need to know.
What ends up falling by the wayside because no one is paying attention to the pathways? That’s why you need to get out your best hourly-worker costume and go find out. It might not make you a TV star, but it will definitely make you a Boss and Leader. (But if you want to see the real Undercover Boss show just for fun, check out the one when my colleague Bryon Stephens, CEO of my Extreme Leadership Institute, was the star of an episode.)