Management Undercover

Posted: February 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

After the Super Bowl, CBS aired the premier of its new reality show, Undercover Boss.  While I’m not usually a fan of most reality TV, I actually found the show to be interesting and worth a watch.  While its merits as good reality TV may be debated, the show’s concept is one that all managers should stop and pay attention to.

I think it’s fairly common for those being managed to think that their corporate overlords don’t understand what they do, how hard they work, and in general, feel under-appreciated.  It certainly doesn’t necessitate that a company have 45,000 employees (as Waste Management does, the company in the first episode) to find a couple of steps in a chain between policies being set at a company-level and workers implementing those policies.  And the more steps you have, the more of a disconnect you get.  Just ask any elementary school kid playing whisper down the lane.

Why don’t more corporate executives and managers try to step into their employees shoes every so often, to see how their policies are actually being implemented?  Why is this a novelty fit for reality TV?  Shouldn’t this be good management practice, that we see all the time from executives?  Especially in a world where executives are trying to determine which jobs aren’t important any longer and should be on the chopping block?

In the corporate world, the practice seems to be for policies to be set, then communicated down the series of managers and their underlings via all-hands blast emails and quarterly conference calls.  Sure, your direct manager might have a decent understanding of how hard you’re working and what resources are needed to increase performance.  But, the farther up the chain you go, the more quickly individuals just get rolled up as metrics in a spreadsheet.  Looking at a spreadsheet with your employees as numbers quickly makes you lose perspective on what those numbers actually mean in human-terms.

If more executives took some time to come out of the corner office and actually work with their employees in their jobs, they’d learn a lot more about how to set effective policies.  It wouldn’t even have to be undercover management style – just watch the show to see what an impact it makes for your employees seeing that an executive cares enough to come out and see what they’re doing and how hard they’re working to contribute to the company’s success.

Startups don’t have to worry about this (as much) at the beginning. Everyone is usually in the same room.  There’s only one level separating the executives from the worker-bees (not that anyone uses those terms).  It’s very easy to see when a policy doesn’t work out, and everyone usually shares roles.

But startups (hopefully) grow, and grow quickly!  This has the “executives” learning on the job how to manage people in the larger company.  And then you need to start worrying about how to retain folks, that your company is a company people want to work at, and make sure that everyone shares the vision.  How do you do that?  We haven’t gotten there, yet, but I suspect that making sure you understand what your employees are doing (again, not necessarily “undercover management” style) will be a good start and an important way to make sure that you’re not setting policies that have employees thinking “that guy in the corner office has no idea what I do all day…”

Hm.  Maybe there is something we can learn from reality TV after all?


  • http://steveclancy.com/ Steve Clancy

    I believe Jeff Bezos works in one of Amazon's distribution centers once a year, it got a bit of publicity this year: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/27/curiou…. Seems like a good idea.

  • http://www.robertshedd.com Robert Shedd

    Thanks for the link, Steve! I think that's a good example of what I was talking about. I also remember reading about the new Starbucks CIO and how they had him working in a store for the first week (http://www.cio.co.uk/slideshow/3206236/a-week-i…). Also a good idea, but I think too few executives take the opportunity to do this regularly, like Jeff Bezos.