CBS’s reality TV show, Undercover Boss, provides viewers with the thrill of schadenfreude when they see a highly paid CEO receive his comeuppance as he experiences first-hand the dirty, difficult, dangerous, or demoralizing reality of many of the jobs in the company. We snicker at the clueless CEO who didn’t know that the air conditioner in the warehouse (in Alabama, in the summer) has been broken for three weeks because of his order to cut expenses; that it takes four levels of approval to order more paper for the copy machine; that demands to increase productivity mean that there’s no time to go to the bathroom.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. One of the fundamental precepts of a lean organization is that leaders at all levels go to the front lines to see what’s actually happening. And as I argue in Building the Fit Organization, it’s also essential for leaders to actually spend some time each week or month doing the work that you’re asking others to do—it’s the only way to earn trust and to gain true understanding of what your people are dealing with.
Of course, you don’t have to know about lean to understand the value of this behavior. Look at the sidelines of any football game this Sunday, and you’ll see the coaches standing on the sidelines—not spending time in some fancy conference room. Or consider spin class instructors, or personal trainers—the best ones spend their time with you, in your world. They don’t just email in your workout. They participate, they model, they observe closely in order to better understand your reality so that they can improve your performance.
Check out this story on Peter Aceto, the CEO of Tangerine (formerly ING Direct). In his first year on the job, he worked in the call center everyday:
I took customer calls every single day. I sat down, got on the phone and really began to understand the challenges the call centre staff were facing. It was very tiring but also very exciting. There was a lot that had to change at Tangerine—I mean, even today, even though I behave in a very different way, there are still people who are intimidated just by the role and title of CEO. So I’m trying to constantly break down those barriers. I think [my taking calls] made people feel a little uncomfortable, but sometimes that’s what it takes.
It’s not always easy to do. As Aceto points out, people are usually intimidated (and probably scared) when the CEO plops down next to you and puts on a headset, or processes an invoice, or picks and packs an order, or cleans the drill press. But if you do that on a regular basis—if you make it part of your standard work—it’ll become more than just a CEO flyby that makes people nervous. In fact, it’ll reduce your daily load of meetings and build morale incalculably.
Oh, yeah. And you won’t look like a clueless ass when CBS puts you on Undercover Boss.