Could your CEO go undercover to figure out what was going on within the front lines of your company? I've got a couple of reactions to that. First, if they could do that, the fact that the visibility of your CEO is that low might be part of the problem. Notice I said "might", because there are multiple ways you could spin that....
The second thought is that if you go undercover as a CEO and let your employees know that you did it, you better do something with the results. It's the old employee survey condition - you surveyed, so now what?
Why all the chatter about an undercover CEO? Because a chief suit from the UK recently went undercover and took a film crew with him, which kind of raises some more questions in my eyes. From the Financial Times (UK):
"Employee attitude surveys, brown bag lunches, focus groups, informal chats: managers try quite hard to find out what their staff are thinking. But the results are mixed at best. What are your staff thinking? Admit it – you don’t really know.
Is there any way of finding out? Electronic surveillance would be a bad idea. Cloaks of invisibility work for Harry Potter, but are not available to the rest of us. One chief executive has done the next best thing. He went undercover in his own business for two weeks, disguised as an office worker, completing shifts on 10 different sites. He has heard for himself what his people really think. It has been a revelatory experience.
Stephen Martin is the 43-year-old CEO of the Clugston Group, a medium-sized civil engineering and logistics company based in the north of England. But for two weeks earlier this year, as far as his colleagues were concerned he was “Martin Walker”, an ordinary co-worker trying to earn a living like everybody else.
Ordinary, that is, except for the film crew that was following him around. The cover story was that this documentary team wanted to record how a clerical worker would cope with the demands of a physical labouring job. In truth they were making a programme, called Undercover Boss, which will air on British television (Channel 4) in two weeks’ time and then in a US version (CBS) this year.
How did Mr Martin avoid being found out? He is still a relatively new CEO, having started in December 2006. He grew a beard and turned up to work in protective clothing rather than a suit. His down-to-earth, approachable style does not mark him out immediately as “boss class”.
What lessons has he learnt? “Our key messages were just not getting through to people,” Mr Martin says. “People working a shift on a large site do not have time to read newsletters or log on to websites. You have to communicate with people on their terms, and it is different for every location. One size does not fit all.”
For example, Mr Martin found that an apparently sensible idea – encouraging his workers to take a tea-break where they were working rather than coming back to a canteen – was taken to mean that the break had been cut."
So, here's the point when it comes to the CEO going undercover. Not only did Martin go undercover, but he's going to make a TV show about it. That raises the ante in the minds of employees. It's one thing to go undercover, but now you're making a TV show about it. So work with me here: in the eyes of the employee - you came undercover, brought a film crew under false pretenses, then documented the stuff that was wrong.
If I'm the employee - you sure better fix the bad stuff if you thought enough to exploit it via a TV show. I don't want to hear the stuff about "that's just business" if you're bringing the TV cameras in.
Also, what about the things I complained about that didn't make the show and ended up on the editing room floor? What about Skip, the badgering manager? Or Lou, the guy who drinks cough syrup while he's running the drill press?
Bring in the cameras if you want. You're responsible for it all, including what you don't use on the show...
Can I suggest some intro music for the show?
"I Can't Stand It, I Know You Planned It
But I'm Gonna Set It Straight This Watergate
But I Can't Stand Rockin' When I'm In This Place
Because I Feel Disgrace Because You're All In My Face
But Make No Mistakes And Switch Up My Channel
I'm Buddy Rich When I Fly Off The Handle
What Could It Be, It's A Mirage
You're Scheming On A Thing - That's Sabotage"