If You Have to Go Undercover to Find Out What's Happening, Then You're Not Much of a Boss

May 18, 2010
Why not create a culture and a team that will allow you to see what's really happening even when people know you're the boss?

Have you seen CBS's new reality series, Undercover Boss? I have, and I must admit, I like it. At first I watched out of morbid curiosity. I thought the show would be silly and unsubstantial. I was wrong. It turned out to be interesting and heartwarming as is often the case when real people face and overcome genuine challenges.

Who couldn't be moved by the 7-Eleven driver who spoke so passionately about being able to reach for the American dream of individual opportunity? However, I also had another reaction that grew stronger with each episode that I watched. Why did these CEOs have to go undercover to learn about such fundamental things going wrong in their organizations? In the end, I know the show is ultimately entertainment, but these CEOs were passionate about the depth and value of the lessons that they learned while undercover. For me, their reactions raise three important and potentially disturbing questions that we would be wise to consider as we lead our own organizations.

  • Why weren't the respective management teams at these companies identifying and dealing with these seemingly fundamental issues?

    Most senior level teams talk a lot about the key drivers of their businesses, but too often they don't act accordingly. For example, in one episode, the CEO kept talking about how the front line people were the company's key to success, however, he also learned through his undercover time that very few of these front liners were taking advantage of the company's assistance programs. Subsequently, these "keys to success" were struggling, and in some cases, they were ready to give up. How could there be such a lack of knowledge and disconnect between what was said (people are our greatest keys to success) and what was understood and managed (we're hindering and in some cases losing our best people)? It all boils down to focus and consistency. One of the most important things a leader does is to relentlessly challenge the organization to focus on what's important (i.e., what most impacts outcomes and objectives) and to continually ensure consistency between words and actions.
  • Why couldn't these CEOs get straight answers without going undercover?

    There are two likely reasons. First, it's could be because they don't ask. Second, it could be because the people they ask don't give them a straight answer. Either way, it's not good. A CEO's primary responsibility (or that of the leader of any team or organization) is to deliver results. Undoubtedly, achieving results, especially over longer timeframes, requires the full engagement, continuous effort and honest perspective of the entire organization. If something's not working, it must be quickly identified and dealt with. This demands an environment that's built to deliver candor and honesty. An outcome focused leader continually asks a diverse audience (many levels with differing functional views), "What are we doing wrong, and how can we fix it?" Then, the answers are analyzed and acted upon. Lip service is easily seen for what it is, and it's toxic to any organization.
  • Since stories like these reinforce the perception that management is routinely "out of touch," and assuming this isn't an accurate assessment, how can we combat this image?

    First, be seen. Second, be genuine. I vividly remember one of my most challenging and eventually most successful jobs. I followed a senior executive in the UK who was seemingly chained to her desk. Other than a bathroom break or meetings with someone higher on the food chain, she rarely left her office. Everyone had to come to her. When she did venture out (on her way to somewhere else), she hardly made eye contact. However, when she gave tours for corporate executives, she really turned it on and acted as if she was everyone's buddy. Net effect -- no credibility -- no loyalty -- no results. What an easy act to follow. All I had to do to improve things was to show up, be genuine, listen and act upon the suggestions people readily gave once they believed that I was actually interested in their ideas.

Step back and take an honest look at your own leadership approach and at the team with whom you surround yourself. If you have to go undercover to get the truth, do it, but why not create a culture and a team that will allow you to see what's really happening even when people know you're the boss?

Cory VanBuskirk is President of CVB Consulting Group. CVB Consulting Group is focused on helping their clients grow profitably by embedding strategic thinking throughout their organizations as well as developing and implementing innovative customer relationship building processes.

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