by Meridith Levinson

Leadership and Management Lessons from “Undercover Boss”

Mar 04, 20107 mins
CareersIT Leadership

Yes, it's reality TV. Yes, it's formulaic. Yes, it's produced with carefully selected characters and edited to tell a particular story. Despite those caveats, Undercover Boss should be programmed into every CIO's TiVo.

With the Olympic fanfare over, I finally had the chance to watch Undercover Boss, CBS’s new reality TV show about corporate executives who go undercover to observe first-hand what’s happening on the front lines of their businesses and find out how their almighty management decisions really get implemented.

I expected to hate the show and to be disgusted by a blatant display of slick PR for the companies and CEOs featured. After watching all four episodes of Undercover Boss two nights ago, I can say at the very least that it makes for good television. I’ll spare you my critical analysis of the show, but I want to share a few of the leadership and management lessons Undercover Boss highlighted for me. Of course, I want to get your views on the show, too.

First, I was struck by the heartfelt appreciation the bosses expressed to their employees for their hard work, dedication and positive attitudes, both while they were undercover and after revealing their true identities to the employees. The executives seemed genuinely humbled by their employees and the work they do—sorting trash in a recycling center, cleaning out port-a-potties, working on assembly lines, flipping burgers, and working the graveyard shift at a convenience store.

I was equally struck by how much the bosses’ appreciation meant to the employees, especially when they realized the praise was coming from the top dog. Most employees don’t experience truly sincere appreciation from a top executive who’s taken the time to walk in their shoes. The big lesson I learned is that genuine appreciation for the work employees do goes a long way toward boosting their morale and making them feel valued. But it has to be genuine. (See clip below, fast forward to 2 minutes, 32 seconds.)

The CEOs did more than just praise the employees: They acted on what they learned while undercover, too. And in many cases, they subsequently made process changes to improve employees’ working conditions.

For example, when the CEO of 7-Eleven called corporate headquarters to request new fluorescent light bulbs for the store where he was working undercover, he was told it would be a month before the store received the light bulbs because corporate didn’t view the lighting issue as critical. The CEO, on the other hand, witnessed how the poor lighting created a bad experience for customers and raised safety concerns for employees. He realized that the way corporate prioritized various store facilities issues was out of step with store and customer needs, and he vowed to change that.

In other cases, employees received raises, promotions or new career opportunities inside their companies after the executives learned of their hard work, personal interests and career aspirations. The lesson here is simple but important: Actions speak even louder than words. Though the executives’ earnest praise appeared to be sufficient for the employees, the executives’ efforts to improve their personal and professional lives demonstrated that the execs truly care about their most valuable assets. (See clip below.)

Leaders Need to Listen. Often.

A third lesson that Undercover Boss makes clear is the importance of listening. Each episode shows that employees want to be heard but have little opportunity to vent or share ideas that might improve their companies. When the bosses, while undercover, ask the employees about their jobs, challenges and personal lives, they receive an earful. The employees talk about their health problems, their financial difficulties, their children’s disabilities, the stress of their jobs, their fears of being fired for improperly placing a pickle on a hamburger.

It’s as if the employees never had the chance to vent, and when the undercover bosses prompt them to talk, a dam breaks. The bosses are repeatedly overwhelmed by what the employees confide in them.

If senior leaders take the time to listen to their employees, their employees will speak frankly, and they’ll get tangible ideas for improving their businesses. They’ll also discover talent worth rewarding and cultivating.

For example, when a female garbage truck driver vented to her undercover boss (the COO of Waste Management) about dictates from “corporate” that had the effect of forcing her to urinate into a coffee can because she didn’t have time to stop at restrooms and still meet her trash pick-up quota, the COO was appalled with himself. He realized that the efficiencies he was driving from corporate made for a less than humane work environment. After he revealed his true identity to the driver, he asked her to chair a committee tasked with identifying ways to make the company more female-friendly.

Power to the People

Another theme that resonates in each episode of Undercover Boss is the lack of empowerment minimum- and hourly-wage employees feel. An egregious example of this comes in episode two, which features Hooters’ CEO. At one Hooters restaurant in Texas, the undercover CEO discovers that the general manager degrades the waitresses. He calls them “primadonnas,” lines them up before the restaurant opens to judge their appearance, and he forces them to play degrading games according to his whims. (See video)

Needless to say, the undercover CEO is astonished by the general manager’s behavior. It’s a good thing the CEO went undercover. If he hadn’t, the general manager’s abhorrent treatment of the waitresses might never have been discovered. (Who knows how many other general managers of Hooters restaurants treat the waitresses the same way.) The waitresses certainly didn’t feel empowered enough to contact someone about it, whether a district manager, an HR person at corporate headquarters, an attorney, or women’s rights/anti-discrimination group. (Of course, this example also demonstrates that the company has larger HR and legal issues to address—not the least of which is sexual harassment training for ALL employees.)

To me, the lack of empowerment issue seems so easy to remedy. Companies could establish an “Employee Bill of Rights” to communicate, for example, that all employees have a right to be treated respectfully by their managers, or that they have a right to a 30-minute lunch break and two 15-minute breaks during their shift. An Employee Bill of Rights should be posted in break rooms and handed out to all new employees.

Another measure companies can implement to promote employee empowerment is to develop a confidential 1-800 phone number that goes directly to the HR department at corporate headquarters where employees can report unfair or abusive treatment. Again, the hotline should be distributed to all new employees and posted in break rooms.

The last lesson I want to highlight has to do with talent management. All of the executives were amazed and humbled by the employees they met. The workers picking up trash, cleaning port-a-potties, brewing coffee, making pastry, managing a late-night convenience store, driving 18-wheelers, and serving burgers at a fast food joint knocked the executives’ socks off. There has to be a better way for companies to identify top-talent at all levels and groom them for promotions.

It shouldn’t take an undercover executive or a reality TV production crew to shine a spotlight on outstanding employees.

Have you watched Undercover Boss? Do you like it? What leadership and management lessons have you learned?

Follow me on Twitter at @meridith.