Over the past week or so, due to health issues, I have been getting very little sleep. At two or three in the morning, I would lie in bed, concentrating too hard on falling asleep, which would, of course, make it worse, and get me annoyed! The result of being awake and agitated at such an ungodly hour was that I found myself watching night-time TV.
At the moment, it seems that it is almost impossible to switch on the television without some kind of reality show coming on. There are two kinds of reality show; the “Big Brother” type, where viewers send text messages to vote for which members of the public or “celebrities” stay on the show, and the “documentary” type, where the cameras follow someone on a journey -often to learn more about themselves, while at the same time allowing us to watch their highs and lows from the safety of the sofa with a cup of camomile tea at hand. I happened to catch two of the latter kind -Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares, and Undercover Boss.
I’ll write about Gordon Ramsey another time, but for now, I’ll describe Undercover Boss, and the message I took from it.
Basically, the idea is that the CEO of a large company disguises him or herself, and pretends to be taking part in a TV reality show where people try to do different jobs and then get hired or not. This allows them to spend some time working at entry-level jobs in their organisation while being followed around by a film crew.
I am aware that the production companies that make “reality TV” shows carefully edit material to achieve the desired effect, but what usually happens at the end of the week is that the CEO comes back to the board and demands that more investment is made in ground-level staff, and that more attention is paid to the details and feedback sent by operational staff -feedback which, quite often, the management have received!
I’m sure one could argue that the production company sets out with the goal of showing these messages to a public which may not be experienced in the corporate world, but the summary which can be made of this is this: as managers, we should remember that the people actually doing the job often know best how to do it, and while we may have access to other, influential information necessary to make a decision, the person who knows best what customers want is the person who talks to the customers most.
A British documentary, “Back to the Floor” had a similar idea, but without the boss hiding their true identity. While this did miss out on some of the drama (or comedy), the results were the same. One participant, Jacqueline Gold, chief executive of Ann Summers, found the experience so valuable she implemented a programme throughout the organisation, insisting that all directors spend time on the shop floor at least once a year.
It is highly probable that the first reaction of operational staff to the boss coming along and whispering “pretend I’m not here”, or “you just show me what to do” would be mild paranoia at best, and crippling indecision at worst. However, when the team are comfortable with being so close to their supervisor, you could learn a lot about what you’re doing right, what you’re doing wrong, and what you aren’t doing at all.