Initially, some people were a bit skeptical about the idea behind Undercover Boss, the television program that debuted several years ago in which the CEO goes undercover in his or her organization. The purpose is for the CEO to gain the inside scoop on exactly how well the company is performing. Employees interacting with the undercover CEO are given the fabricated story that the guest worker is being filmed as part of a reality-television program related to career changes. Think, “mystery shopper meets reality television on steroids.”
Me? I was never skeptical. What better way for the top dog to find out the good, the bad, and the ugly about his or her company? Having watched the entire series, both the original domestic-based one as well as the international spinoff version, I have been deeply impressed in so many ways. Here are seven reflections:
1—Extreme Value. I think the entire undercover CEO approach is extremely valuable. Repeatedly, the CEOs in these programs reported the experience was, “absolutely amazing.” Often they affirmed, “I will never be the same person,” and “it changed my life forever.” Regardless of the business or the industry, the CEO walked away deeply changed in a positive manner.
2—Business Improvements. When you run the business at the executive level, you periodically need to get down to the bench level to achieve new insights. Employees will say things to a colleague they won’t necessarily say to the boss. By getting down to the bench level and interacting on a daily basis with average employees, the CEO obtained powerful insights into enhancing efficiency and effectiveness. These improvement opportunities included areas such as training, customer service, operations, processes, sales and marketing, public relations, employee engagement, wages and benefits, corporate culture, health and safety, HR policies, business strategy, and succession planning. In some cases, without blowing cover, the CEO immediately stole a few minutes to make a private phone call to a key colleague for an urgent fix.
3—Human Element. We are all human beings with ups and downs. In getting to know regular employees on a more personal level, these undercover CEOs often discovered heart-wrenching, personal trials and tribulations plaguing their employees’ lives. In many cases, the CEO chose to become more personally involved just to see a struggling human being helped in his or her difficult situation. These extremely moving events, all caught on camera, clearly displayed the emotional, genuine, human intensity, often accompanied by tears shared between the CEO and the regular employee. Regardless of a person’s position within the organization, everyone was reminded of our universal human challenges.
4—Buried Talent. Tragically, some of a company’s best talent is its buried talent. As these CEOs navigated the various departments, offices, and locations of their organizations, in many cases they were pleasantly surprised at the wisdom, passion, experience, skill, and intellect brought to bear on every work situation by their frontline workers. Occasionally, the individual worker showed such marvelous performance that the CEO subsequently took specific steps to help promote that employee into higher levels of influence. The CEOs repeatedly stated that they wanted these workers to be given broader growth opportunities to tap their talents more thoroughly. These developments were always beneficial to the employee, the company, and the customers.
5—Communicate, Communicate, Communicate! Ultimately, the undercover CEO approach was maximally successful simply because it repaired old lines of communication or created new lines of communication. Executives were often perplexed about a decision or a problem that became almost instantly resolvable simply by connecting a bench-level employee with a key executive. Once that connection happened, all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Typically, these solutions became the genesis of major communications systems improvements.
6—Watch It. Regardless of your job title or your responsibility level in your business, I highly recommend you view the entire series of Undercover Boss. It consistently evokes a powerful learning experience at an intensity I have rarely encountered in the past from this type of television programming.
7—Brave Decisions. Finally, I admire each of the executives who made the brave decision to go all in on Undercover Boss. Those decisions emanated from men and women who were bold enough to try something new on the calculated hope that they would gain tremendous insights. The resulting positive transformations affected every level—personal, professional, and business. These made the experience well worth the sacrifices involved. These CEOs’ companies will never be the same again.