How To Learn The Truth

How to be an “Undercover Leader”

Have you heard about the new reality show “Undercover Boss”? I’ve seen it advertised and recently read about it over at PunkRock HR.
It’s premiered on February 7th, right after the Super Bowl. I just looked at the extended preview:

This is an open appeal to CBS:

What an awesome concept. Each week, CEOs from big name companies like Waste Management, 7-Eleven, Hooters, White Castle, “will leave the comfort of their corner office for an undercover mission to examine the inner workings of their company. While working alongside their employees, they will see the effects their decisions have on others, where the problems lie within their organization and get an up-close look at both the good and the bad while discovering the unsung heroes who make their company run.”

As a leader, it’s easy to get isolated from the realities of the workplace. One of the 8 leadership lessons from David Cottrell’s book, Monday Morning Leadership, says we need to “escape from managementland”. It’s so true – as leaders, if we’re not careful, we can allow ourselves to become a part of an alternate reality. While it’s more common with CEOs and senior leaders, it can happen to front line leaders as well. All it takes an office with a door.

As leaders, do we need to go as far as disguising ourselves to find out what’s really going on in the workplace around us? Maybe, but here’s 10 more ways to make sure you don’t get isolated from reality as a leader:

1. Be an outstanding listener.
Listening is one of the most, if not THE most, important leadership skills. Unfortunately, it’s often one of the most lacking. Learn to “listen between the lines” and pick up on subtle hints that your employees are trying to tell you something.

2. Shadowing.
You don’t have to go undercover to experience life on the front lines. I knew a VP that spent 4 hours each month in a call center next to a customer service rep listening to customer calls. He not only learned the frustration that a rep goes through dealing with an outdated CRM, he learned what customers were complaining about. If you manage sales reps, then go out on “ride-alongs” on a regular basis. Listen and observe – don’t give advice and try to fix every issue.

3. Have regular 1on1s with your employees.
Is your reaction “Duh-uh” to this suggestion? Do you think sounds too obvious? Try asking a random group of employees if their managers have regular 1on1s with them. I do, and I’m no longer shocked at what I hear.

4. Town halls.
If you’re a really big cheese, informal breakfast gatherings, fireside chats, and town hall meetings can help. Just make sure you’re listening more than you’re talking.

5. Surveys.
Again, please don’t dismiss the obvious and assume all companies do employee surveys. I could write another blog post called “101 excuses for not doing an employee survey”. There’s only ONE good reason not to survey employees on a regular basis: if you’re not going to do anything about the results.

6. Break out of your office.
It’s easy to become a prisoner in your own ivory tower or even your own office. If you have employees in multiple locations, then get out and visit each location at least once per year. I knew a VP that had a map of the world on his wall, and put a pin in every location he visited each year. You don’t need to have employees scattered around the world to break out. I’ve seen managers (myself included) become isolated from employees that are just located on a different floor in the same building.

7. Leverage technology.
Use email, blogs, IM, social networking, and other digital communication tools to establish a “virtual open door” policy. In some companies, it can be career suicide to email the CEO. In other companies, it’s a regular practice that’s rewarded.

8. Eat with employees.
There are these rooms called “break rooms”, and “company cafeterias”, where regular employees go to sit with co-workers and grab a bite to eat. Give them a try – but don’t just sit by yourself or with other managers.

9. Establish a culture of candor.
This one’s easier said than done – certainly not as easy as eating in the breakroom. It’s about making it OK to challenge authority and speak up. If you’re not a CEO, you may not be able to change your company’s culture, but you sure can establish your own sub-culture.

10. Get regular feedback.
The research says that leaders who regularly ask for feedback are rated higher than leaders that don’t. Asking for feedback isn’t a sign of insecurity or weakness – it’s a sign on strength and confidence. Every leader should do a 360 assessment every couple years.

As I was writing this post, it occurred to me that after being a manager for over 20 years, what if I’ve become more isolated from reality? I hope not too much.

Are there other ways I’ve missed to prevent this from happening?

These are all great techniques for Learning the truth. I have tried to practice all of them throughout my career….Lee



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  1. For me this program is a nice concept of how (one of many) a ceo or general manager or owner can be involved in the inner working of a company.
    I dont think he have to be undercover, undercover can be defined by the employs as joke or spy, is better that every employ in the company know that the owner, ceo etc, sometimes goes to the field and play one of dirty or hard position in the game and not always looking from a nice office with ac and a leather couch.
    One example that I had few weeks a go, the owner order some merchandise to sell because HE THINKS that product is cheaper and can be a good sale, but there is one BIG problem, that accessorie thoesnt fit in the main product that we sale, so we have more inventorie without selling. Solution: Be part of the sales (in this case).
    Another example that for me is important, exCEO from Continental Airlines, Mr. Gordon Bethune he used to deliver personally some employees checks with gratitudes. I admire that.

  2. Lee,

    Agree with all of your thoughts, but I am a little leery of this show. Doesn’t the fact that the “undercover” boss have a camera-crew following him around act as a bit of a tip-off to the front line workers that some out of the ordinary is going on?

    I can’t imagine that most of the front-line workers (or the CEO’s themselves for that matter) will be giving a truly honest performance. Perhaps its just a inherent dislike of reality TV, but it seems like these CEO’s would benefit a lot more from less showy methods of evaluation and observation.

  3. The only down side of trying to get feedback to travel backwards up the food chain instead of down is the natural fear of what will happen to you if “Really told your Boss what you thought” Then there is always the “just tell them what they want to hear so they go away approach” Trust is a very fine line.

  4. Lee, good to be reading your messages again. I lost you for a few months. This program is awesome! I saw the 7-Eleven one and admired the CEO for what he did to learn about the operation. Somehow you always seemed to have a sense of that while you were at Disney. I love reading your writings. They keep my responsibilities to my Cast top of mind and always give me new ideas to be a better leader. I hope you are blessed with continued energy to keep this going.

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