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What We Can Learn from Watching 'Undercover Boss'

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The CBS reality show "Undercover Boss" has captured the country’s attention. In every episode, the featured CEO of the week comes down from on high to anonymously work among his company's frontline employees. In the trenches of the company, the CEO discovers the challenges that go along with doing the company’s work and also witnesses bad managers, difficult working conditions, and employee struggles.

Not only is the experience eye-opening for the featured CEO, but we, as business leaders, can find some takeaways from "Undercover Boss."

Walking around your company works. Reading reports and management summaries is not a substitute for participating in the actual experience. That’s as true for our customers’ experience as it is for the staff’s. The more that management can serve on the frontline or experience the business as a customer, the more accurately that managers will view the business.

Be genuinely open to hearing the bad stuff. Most CEOs and managers only give lip service when they ask for feedback. Then, when an employee shares a complaint or concern, he quickly gets the impression that his input isn't really all that welcomed by the CEO or manager. In contrast to a dismissive boss, a CEO who actively seeks out criticism and constructive suggestions can create a safe environment that inspires employees to speak up. The same is true for our clients. By regularly asking for feedback and accepting critiques from clients, you can improve your business.

We are all teachers. A common insight learned in each episode is that people are often under-trained. It's not that people struggle with technical skills; it's that folks struggle with the softer skills that middle managers rely on. Remember that just because someone is a fantastic cupcake baker, it doesn't mean she is equipped to manage a team of bakers.

The common theme of the above lessons is to focus on communication.  The more, the better.

Have you seen the show? What lessons have you learned from watching "Undercover Boss"?


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Drew McLellan's a 25+ year marketing agency veteran who lives for creating "a ha" moments for his clients, clients' customers, peers and audiences across the land. Sadly, for his daughter, he attempts to do the same thing at home.

Drew’s favorite tools for creating these moments are vivid story telling, Italian heritage inspired hand gestures and the occasional tipping of a sacred cow.

Over the years, Drew has lent his expertise to clients like Nabisco, IAMS pet foods, Kraft Foods, Meredith Publishing, John Deere, Iowa Health System, Make-A-Wish, and a wide array of others.

Drew writes at his own blog, Drew’s Marketing Minute and several other hot spots.

He’s written the book 99.3 Random Acts of Marketing, co-editing the Age of Conversation series of books with Gavin Heaton and he launched his own firm McLellan Marketing Group in 1995.

Recently he has appeared in the New York Times, Entrepreneur Magazine, Business Week and Fortune’s Small Business. The Wall Street Journal calls him one of 10 bloggers that every entrepreneur should read.

Shoot Drew an e-mail.

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  • by Rachel Franco Mon Mar 19, 2012 via blog

    Great post. I love the show, "Undercover Boss" and think every single CEO should go through the exercise that the CEO's do on the show (if not undercover, then in some way). I think, ultimately, what CEOs gain (and other upper management) is, in one word, empathy.

    I think we often think of empathy mainly in respect to our personal lives, but I think the show, "Undercover Boss", shows how important empathy is to us professionally as well. By going undercover and experiencing or witnessing firsthand how less senior employees are affected by the decisions made at the C-level, the CEO (and other leaders) gain a true understanding - an empathy - for their employees and, in turn, can make better decisions that make for a more productive business and a happier employee.

    Really, every time I watch this show, I say to myself, "Every single CEO should do this"....

  • by Cathy Mon Mar 19, 2012 via blog

    A company must have in place a process to collect anonymous employee feedback on a regular basis. As I've watched the show, I notice a common theme that the employee used the time with the "trainee" to share their thoughts. I'm sure the CEO asked pointed questions to ensure the employee opened up, but the environment should encourage open communication and honest feedback from management to address. Be brave. We are all on the same team!

  • by Mariama Mon Mar 19, 2012 via blog

    Thank you for this great article. What I have learned from watching "Undercover Boss" is how much staff is hungry for a simple heart felt thank you from their big boss!

  • by Evan Mon Mar 19, 2012 via blog

    What a wonderful post! Undercover Boss is really the ultimate form of employee relations. It is so important to show employees that a CEO is willing to talk to them and change problems based on an employees perspective. This show is a great way to jumpstart that company culture.

  • by eric Tue Mar 20, 2012 via blog

    As an SEO company in Orange County, we see a lot of CEOs learning how to stalk employee social media participation, and filter for company gossip or feelings in general. It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of the Undercover Boss.

  • by Carlos Tue Mar 20, 2012 via blog

    Thats some CEO's appreciate their great employees more than others.

    That some Canadian CEO's are cheap.

    That giving disproportionate cash prizes is not fair. Only the Cuban CEO gave $40,000.00 to each outstanding Employee.

    AND I PUKE every time CEO's give a "charitable donation", in the employee's name! That does not put any cash in the employee's wallet! They work for you,not the charitable organization

  • by Melanie Deardorff Tue Mar 20, 2012 via blog

    I'm one of the millions of Undercover Boss fans -- love the show, even as it's become somewhat formulaic by now. But, hey, it works. I've learned several things from watching it. There are tens upon thousands of people who work at fast food restaurants or in manufacturing jobs that don't make a ton of money, but are more passionate about doing a good job than some corporate types I know. I've come to admire the featured CEOs and their companies. They're pretty darn brave for participating – showing us warts and all. They seem to be taking responsibility for getting things fixed and caring about employee feedback in a new way. This show, for me, reaffirmed the inherent good and hard-work ethic of the American worker – starting with the front line folks up to the C-suiters. Heck, where's my flag? I want to do some waving!

  • by Drew McLellan Wed Mar 21, 2012 via blog

    Rachel,

    I think one of the things that the bosses (and the viewers) gain is a reminder that behind every employee is a human being - with the same worries and wants that everyone else has. We're so data driven in today's world that, especially in a large company, it's easy to get lost in the whirl of numbers and forget about the human element.

    Drew

  • by Drew McLellan Wed Mar 21, 2012 via blog

    Cathy,

    How do you think a company should gather that feedback? Should it go up the chain of command? Or should it not be given to your boss (what if your gripe is about your boss) but to someone outside of your day to day work?

    Drew

  • by Drew McLellan Wed Mar 21, 2012 via blog

    Mariama --

    This is so true. Even in my little company -- I don't do this enough. My team is awesome and they wow our clients every day. But we get going so fast that sometimes I don't do a good job of this either.

    I need to send them a note right now.... thanks for the reminder!

    Drew

  • by Drew McLellan Sun Mar 25, 2012 via blog

    Evan,

    I agree but I think it goes beyond saying you are willing to talk to the employees. I think you need to find ways to make it safe for the employees to say tough/hard to hear things.

    That's where the rubber will meet the road and your company can really take a leap forward.

    Drew

  • by Drew McLellan Sun Mar 25, 2012 via blog

    Eric,

    LOL! A good point. I don't think that's what the show had in mind when they named it. But it is an inevitability of our new very public world, don't you think?

    Drew

  • by Drew McLellan Sun Mar 25, 2012 via blog

    Carlos,

    I believe there are good (and bad) bosses in every country. It seems to be more about having a clear perspective, being able to walk in the other guy's shoes and comprehending the concept that happy, productive employees make a company strong and successful.

    I think what ties all of the Undercover Bosses together is their willingness to listen and learn.

    Drew

  • by Drew McLellan Sun Mar 25, 2012 via blog

    Melanie,

    I agree -- it would take a lot of courage and self confidence to let your company 9and yourself) be featured. I think one of the biggest things I have learned from the show is that most bosses (myself included) have no clue what actually goes on in their company.

    They're either too far removed from it, people are afraid to tell them or they don't see it -- even when they see it. It's like every CEO should hire a "truth teller" whose only job is to give them the real picture.

    Drew

  • by Michael O'Daniel Wed Mar 28, 2012 via blog

    What we also need is a show (or a methodology) called "Undercover CMO." Marketing people need to get out and mingle with the line employees just as much as bosses do. The more you understand about what your company produces, how it's produced, who produces it, and the challenges inherent both in making the product and serving the customer, the better you're able to market the product. I can tell you from experience that it works. And why let the boss have all the fun?

  • by Zoe Avery Wed Mar 28, 2012 via blog

    Thank you for this post, I too enjoy Undercover Boss. I believe that the boss, manager, owner, whomever it may be running the company should perform every job in the company at least once. (Even if it's with an assistant.) It is invaluable for them to know firsthand what each job entails to do their job better. I have been the worker bee, the manager, the trainer and the owner of a company and believe there is no better way. Undercover Boss is a great example of this however; I do not believe that working with employees without them knowing gets the best feedback. I believe it could be highly misunderstood and mistakenly taken out of context given the situation. Anyone can react to a situation that was unforeseen and would be unfair to that employee given it is a negative one. Placing employees in a non-threatening environment where feedback is seen as highly valuable and no threat is posed to the employee in any way but the opposite, seen as a great asset would create amazing responses in a person whether they are a good or bad employee. The atmosphere in a company is immediately different from the foundation up, it brings employees and bosses together, it creates strength in each employee- it makes them feel heard and empowered, the workplace becomes a highly constructive environment where great teams and companies begin. I will not ignore that there is always an exception to this rule and there are people that should not be doing certain jobs and should be removed immediately. :-)

  • by Drew McLellan Wed Mar 28, 2012 via blog

    Michael,

    There are very few substitutes for seeing your products and services through a customer's eyes. That why secret shopping and other research tools can prove to be so valuable.

    The same is true for walking through your product's life cycle, as you describe. By literally experiencing it from origination to out to market -- you get a whole new perspective.

    Were you surprised by anything when you worked the line?

    Drew

  • by Monica Giffhorn Tue Apr 10, 2012 via blog

    Good article. I wrote a blog awhile ago entitled:
    Everything I need to Know About Business, I can learn from Undercover Boss
    http://marketingmirror.blogspot.com/2010/10/everything-i-need-to-know-about.html

    Some of the main takeaways are similar to yours.
    1. Treat everyone (client, co-worker, trainee) with as much respect as you would treat the CEO of your company.
    2. Budget cuts are not as easy when you live with the results.
    3. You need to focus on the core product or service above all else.
    4. Sometimes the best training is cross-training.
    5. Many U.S. companies need more diversity in upper management.
    6. There is hope out there for American businesses--look at how hard the front-line, minimum wage workers are working on these shows and all around us.

    My new favorite is Shark Tank. Maybe we can come up with some takeaways from that as well...

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