I’ll be honest–with two young girls at home, I really don’t watch a lot of TV that doesn’t involve Dora the Explorer these days.
But two years ago I saw a television show that introduced an idea that was both simple and brilliant. In fact, it was so simple and so brilliant that I wondered out loud to myself “why in the hell aren’t more people doing this?”
The idea in this television show is completely free of charge, it can be implemented immediately, and best of all, it could increase the happiness of millions of people practically overnight.
So what is this magical television show and the brilliant idea hidden inside of it?
If you never heard of this show before, allow this blog post to share it with the world.
The show is called Undercover Boss.
Truth be told, I have a serious love/hate relationship with this show. I believe that the part of the show that I love could change the world as we know it.
But first, the “hate” part.
The premise of this show is innocent enough. This is taken directly from the show’s website:
Each week, UNDERCOVER BOSS follows a different executive as they leave the comfort of their corner office for an undercover mission to examine the inner workings of their companies. While working alongside their employees, they see the effects that their decisions have on others, where the problems lie within their organizations and get an up-close look at both the good and the bad while discovering the unsung heroes who make their companies run.
Sounds great, right? What’s to hate about that?
I hate the fact that the phoniness and cheesiness of this show detract from the important message hidden within.
If you’ve ever watched an episode of this show, you’ll know what I’m talking about:
- The disguises are ridiculous. Absolutely ludicrous. Costume mustaches, silly wigs, etc. I’m not saying that they need to hire the makeup crew from Avatar, but at least make it somewhat realistic-looking. The employees who were unable to figure out that their new “coworker” was wearing a disguise should instantly be fired based on stupidity alone.
- Do the producers really expect the viewers to believe that these front line employees are comfortable with consistently sharing their personal life challenges and struggles with a complete stranger that they just met and with a television camera in their faces? Seriously, would you ever consider telling a coworker who you just met that you’re about to lose your home because you can’t pay your bills? Or that you can’t afford to pay for your child’s daycare? Would you ever do that? Yeah, me neither. Yet this phenomenon seems to occur in almost every single episode. Very strange and not very realistic.
- Consistently portraying the executive in each episode as a bumbling buffoon who can barely complete the simplest of front line tasks is disingenuous at best. Stop insulting the viewers’ intelligence.
The costumes, disguises, and the other foolishness on this show absolutely kill me. But enough about that. Let’s talk about the good parts of this show and how it could potentially change the world.
The Biggest Problem of All
By far, the best part of Undercover Boss is that it exposes the biggest problem facing corporate America today:
The fact that the people who are in charge of running their companies have no clue what’s going on in their front lines.
This is rather scary. If you work for a large company, it should scare the hell out of you too.
Allow me to speak frankly and challenge these executives for a moment.
As an executive of a company, how can you not be acutely aware of what is going on in your front lines? How can you not have an intimate understanding of the customer experience in your company? How can you not know the challenges that are facing your front line employees? Can you afford not to know these things? Many executives will proudly state that their customers and their employees are their top priority, but do your actions support that?
Your top priorities should be in direct proportion to the amount of action you put into making it happen.
That’s why the (sometimes tearful) epiphanies that the executives experience on Undercover Boss ring hollow like a nickel in an old tin can. As an executive, you are paid to know what’s going on in your company. That’s your damn job. If you’re not doing that, then what else are you doing?
I understand that as an executive you have a lot of demands on your time, but in reality, truly understanding your company’s operations should be priority #1. If that’s not your #1 priority, then what in the hell do you do that’s more important? Seriously, I want to know. Sobbing like a punk that you didn’t know that Freddie Front Line’s job was so difficult, just doesn’t cut it. It’s actually more pathetic than it is empathetic.
So, I’ll ask again. What’s more important to you than understanding what’s going on in your front line? Dialing into another conference call? Discussing a new strategic plan for your organization? Planning another urgent meeting?
None of the above, my executive friend.
Your new #1 priority must be to personally check-in on the front line in order to truly understand how the plans constructed in the boardroom are being carried out. Spend time talking to your front line. Ask them what their challenges and frustrations are. Most importantly, act like you care about these men and women, because if you don’t then you’re crazy.
After all, they’re the people who are paid to keep the lights on in your organization and ensure that you get to keep your job.
Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
Is the customer experience in your company as important to you as you say it is? Prove it.
Do you really want to know what the customer experience is like?
Spend a Monday morning fielding customer phone calls in your call center.
Spend an hour bagging groceries at one of your supermarket chains.
Spend an afternoon waiting tables at your restaurant.
Walk around the distribution warehouse and have meaningful conversations with the workers.
Check the bedside of your patients to see what their experience at your hospital has been like.
I understand that as an executive you have Directors and middle managers who are paid to keep you informed of what’s really going on, but let’s be real–do they tell you what’s really going on or what you really want to hear? Remember, these same people are also motivated to keep their jobs too.
So, if that means that these middle managers will tell you what you want to hear (“everything is running smoothly boss!”) instead of what you need to hear (“our front line people are completely unequipped to solve our customers’ issues”), then please believe that’s exactly will happen.
Keeping yourself away from the cold hard truths of the front lines by insulating yourself in a warm and cozy sycophantic bubble is not a sound business strategy. That may temporarily feed your ego, but your financial bottom line could starve if you don’t have a talented team willing to keep it real with you.
The best way to find out what your customers and your employees really think is to step out of the boardroom and experience it for yourself.
Changing the World by Leaving the Boardroom
Yes, I believe that if senior leaders took the time to sincerely understand the challenges facing their customers and employees firsthand, that it really could change the world.
What if an executive spent some time talking to her front line employees and found out that workplace bullying was running rampant in her organization? She’s in the position to do something about it.
What if an executive walked among her cubicles and discovered that the computer systems that the front line staff are working on everyday are basically worthless? She’s in the position to do something about it.
What if an executive fielded calls in her call center and learned that her customers are leaving her company for the same reason time and time again? She’s in the position to do something about it.
The idea is so simple: just by having executives spend some time on their front lines, they would be made aware of the issues that get in the way of making their employees’ work lives happier and more productive. And equally as important, they could take immediate action to fix those issues too.
What choice would they have? Now that they know the issues plaguing their companies, they can no longer ignore them. And if they are stupid enough to ignore these issues, then the blood of their companies’ inevitable failure will fall directly on their hands.
There can be no doubt that making workplaces all over the world happier and more productive for millions of people is a world-changing act, and it’s one that’s worth doing immediately.
As an executive, I’m calling you out to leave the boardroom and spend some quality time on your front lines. Today.
Executives, your legacy will not be built based on the amount of meetings that you attend, the conference calls that you dial into, or your quarterly dividend report. It’s about the connection that you can make with your people.
Never forget that.
And if for some crazy reason, you’re still craving the opportunity to be on camera, you don’t need to get on Undercover Boss. Instead, why not have a video town hall session with your staff and answer some tough questions from them? I can guarantee that act alone would go much further with your employees than an appearance on a cheesy TV show.
And as an added bonus, you can leave the wigs and phony mustaches at home too.