Connecting with the frontline: no disguise needed

April, 7 – BY TAM SANDEMAN – It’s not often a business blog entry is inspired by reality TV – but here goes…

Countless CEOs encounter some of the same conundrums on a daily basis – how do I really know what’s going on in the depths of our organisation?  How can I get more in touch with our people?  How do I become more authentic? 

Although pitched as a mainstream TV show, Channel 9’s Undercover Boss, tackles just this. It follows CEOs from large companies as they head off ‘undercover’ into their own businesses.  With a splash of hair dye, addition or subtraction of facial hair, and a fresh perspective, they arrive at the coalface under the guise of someone wanting to return to the workforce and being tested across a range of different frontline roles. 

The show contains all the elements that today’s reality TV viewer loves.  A dash of deception; the ‘Big Guy’ being made to look foolish by the ‘Little Guy’; warm and sometimes heart-breaking tales from unsung employee heros about life struggles; the suspense of the ‘reveal’ as the CEOs disclose their identities, and finally, reward – usually financial – recognising their efforts for the company.  It’s dramatic, funny and heart-warming and unsurprisingly its format has been syndicated across the world.

It does however, from a leadership perspective, highlight a very important initiative that can help find answers to the questions raised at the start of this post.

Back in the UK, I worked for eight years with one of the UK’s largest pub, restaurant and hotel retailers.  Across that time, saw a raft of people initiatives introduced across what was a 52,000 disparate workforce.

None however so powerful as their senior leaders having to spend a mandatory week a year working out in the field.  Serving customers, checking deliveries, stock-checking, etc.  The success factor?  How the company then ensured they talked about their experiences through both formal and informal internal communication channels.

Fact.  We have a reduced talent pool in Australia, so focusing on ways to retain employees is critical.  A demonstration of leadership empathy and connection with the frontline MUST be a part of this.

Nothing is so powerful, in portraying authentic empathy with employees, than having real stories from the frontline.  Truly understanding the tough stuff employees put up with everyday can clearly close the gap that currently exists between the frontline and senior leaders.

My advice:

  • Implement a simple ‘ride-along’ program for senior executives, or the top 10% of the business (across all roles).  No matter your industry, you can make it work
  • Just Do It  (as the good people at Nike say) – ensure appropriate processes are in place to ensure accountability
  • Make changes – ensure improvements are made based on what leaders experience
  • Talk it Up!  – share stories, recognise the great (people) and the not so great (systems and processes).  

 It’s an inexpensive and powerful way of driving true connection and understanding with the frontline.

And the better news?  Unless your PR team advises you otherwise, you don’t have to do it on national TV.