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The new reality show Undercover Boss from CBS should be required viewing for every corporate executive and everyone who aspires to be one. It follows CEO’s as they slip anonymously into the rank and file of their companies. While working alongside their employees, they see the effects their decisions have on others, where the problems lie within their organization and they get an up-close look at both the good and the bad of work life in their organizations.
This show demonstrates the power of listening and the deeper understanding that comes from seeing a situation from the eyes of others. Years ago, Hewlett Packard introduced the concept of MBWA, Management By Walking Around. This show takes the concept one step further and introduces MBDTJ, Management By Doing the Job.
Larry O’Donnell, President and COO of Waste Management, found the experiences painful and eye opening. He had no idea that the corporate office’s demand to increase productivity would result in an employee having to run to a time clock so she wouldn’t get docked twice her rate of pay. He was shocked that a woman working on one of the garbage trucks has to “pee in a can” so she can meet her daily average of 300 homes a day.
As he said at the end of his episode, “In my role there are a lot of policies that I put out there and you all have to live with them. I feel more of a connection with the folks that do the really hard jobs of this company. I’m going to be a different manager because now I have a whole new appreciation of the impact of some of my decisions can have on you folks.”
In another episode, Dave Rife, one of the owners of White Castle, can’t keep up with the pace of a bun production line, and as a result, shuts it down causing waste of almost 5,000 buns. He talks about going into the role with a procedural mindset hoping to identify ways of making the operation better. What surprised him was the way he connected with the people.
Both of those comments show a very real leadership challenge. The demands of executive roles disconnect leaders from the reality of the organizations they lead. They risk being disconnected from employees, disconnected from customers, and disconnected from the realities of daily work life. That causes them to make decisions that are analytically incomplete because they lack a critical element of contextual understanding.
There really was something to the old school concepts of starting in the mail room and working your way to the top. Even in family owned businesses, offspring worked summers on the front lines and in the bowels of the factory before they graduated from college and were given an piece of the business to lead. You learned. You cultivated an appreciation of the heart and soul of the business. You developed empathy.
Empathy is a cognitive skill. It starts to develop by age two at the emotional level when kids begin to feel empathy for another’s pain. Later in childhood, kids develop the more cognitive aspect of empathy which involves the ability to understand that other people may have beliefs that are different from one’s own. Just because empathy is a natural stage of cognitive development, however, doesn’t mean that it ever develops fully. And this has a real impact on leading and managing.
A couple weeks ago David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a terrific Op-Ed piece called “The Power Elite.” He suggested that the meritocracy of our current world has made society fairer, but has created huge gaps in leadership capability. The modern era emphasizes technical knowledge over contextual understanding, encourages excessive dog-eat-dog competitiveness, and creates huge chasms between social and professional classes. He doesn’t suggest that we return to the days of white shoe elitism, but he does question whether the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction where our leaders lack the breadth of understanding required of their roles.
The lessons of Undercover Boss suggest that leaders can develop some of this insight when they actively listen to their organizations.
Unfortunately, the show becomes a narcissistic publicity stunt at the end when the executives provide grandiose offerings to their working class coworkers and stand on a stage spouting clichés that seem overly scripted and anything but heartfelt. That’s likely the result of unimaginative network producers wanting a tidy conclusion.
The ending aside, the undercover experience is powerful. Maybe if this became part of the regular routine for executives we would see higher levels of employee engagement, more innovation, real—not paper—gains to productivity, fewer layoffs, and best of all, leaders with the wisdom required to serve their organizations.