The new TV season brought with it a spate of new reality shows, but CBS’ Undercover Boss caught my attention. The premise is quite simple—senior executives take on front line roles at their own companies to see what’s happening where the proverbial rubber meets the road and to observe the results of the executive decisions made from their ivory towers. To ensure they receive an untainted and real experience, their temporary reassignments are done without the knowledge of their employees. The results range from eye-opening and informative to surprising and heart-wrenching.
I was sceptical about the concept and the executives’ abilities to make this work. First, I was surprised that these senior managers were not recognized as the companies’ leaders, but when I witnessed the size and nature of the companies, as well as their disguises, I quickly realized that this was possible. The bulk of my scepticism, however, was reserved for the lack of visibility that these executives possessed about what was actually happening in the trenches, in particular how their managerial decisions translated to these same front lines, but more importantly how they impacted business operations, their employees and the company’s customers. How could they be totally blind to this precise interface between their company and the market?
More than 25 years ago,Tom Peters and Robert Waterman Jr. penned In Search of Excellence, a best-selling, business book that focused on concepts to achieve corporate superiority. As part of this treatise, Peters and Waterman intimately discussed the concept of management by walking around (MBWA) and the value that executives derived by engaging in such practices. The idea of mingling with the troops, observing what was happening and seeing how things were done, offered executives an unfiltered feedback mechanism. For years after the book’s launch, you would hear the MBWA term employed, or you would see managers wandering around their companies.
Although I’ve enjoyed the episodes of Undercover Boss that I’ve seen, what I find most disheartening is that such a wide chasm continues to exist between the executive offices and the troops on the front line. You would think that Peters and Waterman’s instructive work would have educated management about their need to be aware, but Undercover Boss confirms that this is not the case. How can we ensure that executives have the vision that extends all the way to the front lines?
Ryck Marciniak - Guest Blogger