One of the highest rated television programs during Super Bowl Week last February was “Undercover Boss”. According to the Nielsen ratings, it drew 6.8 million viewers. By contrast, the Greatest Super Bowl Halftime Shows had 5.72 million.
Viewers’ watched CEOs leave their comfortable corporate offices, disguise themselves as workers, and risk the humiliation of doing something wrong. It is all about an awakening to what really happens on the company’s front lines.
Too often people see “big bosses” as aloof and guiding the organization using impersonal computer generated reports. But, at the end of each TV episode, CEOs realize the people who make the products and service their customers are the keys to their success.
For example, in 2010 Frontier Airline President Bryan Bedford went undercover finding himself cleaning the inside of airplanes, serving sodas as a flight attendant, and emptying jetliners lavatories on the tarmac.
He soon realized Frontier workers had to move fast without making mistakes. Keeping airplanes flying is critical to airline’s bottom line. On-time performance in tidy jets with friendly crews keeps passengers flying Frontier.
Bedford also learned balance-based sheet decisions can mask problems. Frontier cut wages by 10 percent to save the company. It had real impacts on its family budgets and affected worker retention. It moved him to expedite restoring lost wages as the airline’s bottom line improved.
Leaving corporate headquarters is risky, but it was a way of life for Jim Sinegal, co-founder of Costco. It also was rewarding. By time he retired, Costco was America’s second largest retailer.
In 2009, U.S. News and World Report called Sinegal one of “America’s Best Leaders because he’s not a typical CEO.” Many bosses rely on trusted subordinates and seldom visit the places where people work, but Sinegal made it a point to visit every store each year. He was visible to Costco workers walking through the stores and interacting with them.
“Undercover Boss” focuses on a one-time CEO experiences. At Costco, employee focus is embedded in the corporate culture.
Costco’s way is similar to a 1980s management style attributed Hewlett Packard founders David Hewlett and David Packard called “Management by Walking Around” (MBWA).
It is not complicated, but it is a way CEOs connect with their companies and employees. It fosters two-way relationships which benefits everyone.
MBWA has six guiding principles: make it part of your day, don’t bring an entourage, visit everyone, don’t criticize, ask questions and solicit ideas, and follow-up. Noted business leadership authority Ken Blanchard added: “Catch People Doing Something Right” and recognize them for it.
MBWA is a way to sustain a company’s culture shift. It build teams and recognizes the value of each worker’s work. Suddenly, CEO is a real person not just a name on the company annual report
When MBWA was introduced, communications were more personal. People met face-to-face and directly talked by phone. There was no voice mail, automated answering machines, texting, video conferencing or e-mailing.
That personalization has faded with the shift to text and e-mail. Today, it is not uncommon to see people, including some CEOs, texting during company meetings or checking e-mail.
Often it is inadvertent, but it sends the wrong signal. It says what the boss says is important, but it discounts the views and work of others.
Our culture has shifted to digital communications. People now have a hard time talking with and listening to one another. It is becoming a huge barrier in the workplace.
But the lessons undercover bosses learned are people and relationships still matter.
There is no substitute for getting to know your employees and talking with them at their place of work.
By Don C. Brunell
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.