It is surprising what the boss will discover by going undercover at work. At least this was the case for numerous chief executives who accepted the challenge on the Emmy award-winning television series Undercover Boss.
Seeing their operations in action, even for the sons and grandsons of the founders, who grew up in the business and assumed they knew everything, shocked them. It became clear that "corporate" can impede productivity and that the business is about people, not numbers. This left me wondering what leaders in this region would discover if they went undercover.
Not everyone was excited by the decision of the bosses to work undercover in their own company to investigate how their firm really works and to identify how it can be improved, one of the key attributes of high-performing leaders. The top management teams' faces are stricken with utter shock and surprise when the chief executive announces he will spend one week undercover, working in various areas of their company operations, with a different job and in most cases a different location each day.
These executives take "make it better" to the front line as they alter their appearances and assume an alias and fictional back story. While working alongside their employees, they see the effects their decisions have on others, where the problems lie within the organisation and get a close-up look at both the good and the bad while discovering the unsung heroes who make their companies run.
At the end of their week undercover, the executives return to their true identity and summon the employees they worked with to corporate headquarters to review what they found and what they will do differently to help the employees and business improve.
In each episode that I watched, the boss was greeted with accolades of support from the employees after discovering his real identity and motive.
The employees saw the "big boss" coming to the plain workers as a message of caring. One even said of the boss: "God bless him". When was the last time that one of your employees issued such a blessing towards you?
In addition to sending a message that "corporate" cares, which by the way was regularly criticised for being out of touch with the real operation of the business, spending a week undercover had a profound impact on the bosses. They all commented that this experience would change the way that they worked.
The main message is the employees make or break the business and it is corporate's responsibility to picture their faces when they make decisions. And to make sure that the business does all it can to help the employees succeed, which results in an increase in motivation.
There is a great deal that can be learnt from Undercover Boss. From a leadership perspective, it would benefit almost any executive to borrow insights from it. But more than just learning from others, take a hint from them and go incognito yourself to see what you can discover to improve your business.
Tommy Weir is an authority on fast-growth and emerging-market leadership, an adviser and the author of The CEO Shift. He is the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center