How to be an “Undercover Leader”

Have you heard about the new reality show “Undercover Boss”? I’ve seen it advertised and recently read about it over at PunkRock HR.

It’s going to premier on February 7th, right after the Super Bowl.

I just looked at the extended preview:

This is an open appeal to CBS:


What an awesome concept. Each week, CEOs from big name companies like Waste Management, 7-Eleven, Hooters, White Castle, “will leave the comfort of their corner office for an undercover mission to examine the inner workings of their company. While working alongside their employees, they will see the effects their decisions have on others, where the problems lie within their organization and get an up-close look at both the good and the bad while discovering the unsung heroes who make their company run.”

As a leader, it’s easy to get isolated from the realities of the workplace. One of the 8 leadership lessons from David Cottrell’s book, Monday Morning Leadership, says we need to “escape from managementland”. It’s so true – as leaders, if we’re not careful, we can allow ourselves to become a part of an alternate reality. While it’s more common with CEOs and senior leaders, it can happen to front line leaders as well. All it takes an office with a door.

As leaders, do we need to go as far as disguising ourselves to find out what’s really going on in the workplace around us? Maybe, but here’s 10 more ways to make sure you don’t get isolated from reality as a leader:

1. Be an outstanding listener.
Listening is one of the most, if not THE most, important leadership skills. Unfortunately, it’s often one of the most lacking. Learn to “listen between the lines” and pick up on subtle hints that your employees are trying to tell you something.

2. Shadowing.
You don’t have to go undercover to experience life on the front lines. I knew a VP that spent 4 hours each month in a call center next to a customer service rep listening to customer calls. He not only learned the frustration that a rep goes through dealing with an outdated CRM, he learned what customers were complaining about. If you manage sales reps, then go out on “ride-alongs” on a regular basis. Listen and observe – don’t give advice and try to fix every issue.

3. Have regular 1on1s with your employees.
Is your reaction “Duh-uh” to this suggestion? Do you think sounds too obvious? Try asking a random group of employees if their managers have regular 1on1s with them. I do, and I’m no longer shocked at what I hear.

4. Town halls.
If you’re a really big cheese, informal breakfast gatherings, fireside chats, and town hall meetings can help. Just make sure you’re listening more than you’re talking.

5. Surveys.
Again, please don’t dismiss the obvious and assume all companies do employee surveys. I could write another blog post called “101 excuses for not doing an employee survey”. There’s only ONE good reason not to survey employees on a regular basis: if you’re not going to do anything about the results.

6. Break out of your office.
It’s easy to become a prisoner in your own ivory tower or even your own office. If you have employees in multiple locations, then get out and visit each location at least once per year. I knew a VP that had a map of the world on his wall, and put a pin in every location he visited each year. You don’t need to have employees scattered around the world to break out. I’ve seen managers (myself included) become isolated from employees that are just located on a different floor in the same building.

7. Leverage technology.
Use email, blogs, IM, social networking, and other digital communication tools to establish a “virtual open door” policy. In some companies, it can be career suicide to email the CEO. In other companies, it’s a regular practice that’s rewarded.

8. Eat with employees.
There are these rooms called “break rooms”, and “company cafeterias”, where regular employees go to sit with co-workers and grab a bite to eat. Give them a try – but don’t just sit by yourself or with other managers.

9. Establish a culture of candor.
This one’s easier said than done – certainly not as easy as eating in the breakroom. It’s about making it OK to challenge authority and speak up. If you’re not a CEO, you may not be able to change your company’s culture, but you sure can establish your own sub-culture.

10. Get regular feedback.
The research says that leaders who regularly ask for feedback are rated higher than leaders that don’t. Asking for feedback isn’t a sign of insecurity or weakness – it’s a sign on strength and confidence. Every leader should do a 360 assessment every couple years.

As I was writing this post, it occurred to me that after being a manager for over 20 years, what if I’ve become more isolated from reality? I hope not too much.

Are there other ways I’ve missed to prevent this from happening?

This post is supported by online CRM from Sherweb.