Leadership Lessons from Undercover Boss: Episode 1

The first episode of CBS’s new reality show “Undercover Boss” aired Sunday night right after the Superbowl. For those of you that may not have heard, each week the show will feature a CEO that goes “undercover” to find out what everyday life is really like within their own companies.

What a perfect opportunity for Great Leadership lessons and advice!

Each week I’ll provide a link to the synopsis and my own leadership lessons learned that I believe would benefit any leader or aspiring leader (so you won’t have to have watched the show).

The first episode didn’t disappoint. It featured Larry O’Donnell, president and COO of Waste Management.

O’Donnell, who has 45,000 employees, took on five entry-level jobs, which included: sorting trash at a recycling facility, collecting trash in a truck and by hand, working at a landfill and cleaning Port-O-Potty toilets.

Larry set out looking for more ways to increase productivity. “That’s what it’s all about”, he said at the beginning of the show. He ended up learning more than he bargained for.

Here’s the synopsis, or you can watch the full show here.

Leadership Lessons from Undercover Boss: Episode 1

1. Don’t let yourself get isolated from reality.
OK, so the first lesson is a no-brainer, and I assume will be a common theme for each episode. None the less, it’s a common trap for leaders to fall into, and gets worse the higher your position. While you may really be a well-meaning, competent, good-hearted leader, if you’re clueless, many people will assume you’re ruthless. In other words, they won’t give you the benefit of the doubt of just being ignorant – they’ll assume you actually enjoy making their lives miserable.

For an antidote, here’s a post I wrote called “10 more ways to make sure you don’t get isolated from reality as a leader”.

2. Don’t just mandate: explain the “why”.
This is a lesson that just about every senior leader needs to understand and embrace. How many times have you issued a company-wide edict to cut costs or improve productivity, but didn’t take the time to explain the “why” to everyone involved? Yes, it takes extra time, but its well worth the time and effort. Don’t underestimate the loyalty of your workforce or their capacity to grasp the big picture and numbers. They’ll be more on board if you treat them like adults and with respect by explaining the rationale behind your decisions.

3. Engage your workforce
Explaining the why is a great start. It’s even better if you can get your team involved in deciding how to achieve your objectives. Once you’ve explained the importance, they’ll be fired up to contribute. Some leaders don’t even give a target, or number – and their teams come back with even more aggressive goals. In addition to the buy-in and commitment, you’ll also get realistic, workable solutions. You won’t hear anybody saying “Yeah, it’s another one of those corporate things we have to do that don’t make any sense”.

Larry took the opportunity to get the female trash collector who had to pee in a can involved on a task force to make the company more female-friendly.

4. Give managers the tools they need to achieve your objectives.
If left to their own devices, your managers will figure out ways to meet your objectives. However, they may come up with ways that you wouldn’t approve of. The plant manager that was docking workers 2 minutes for every minute they were late is a good example. I felt bad for that guy when he got chewed out on national television. I’m sure he thought he was doing the right thing. It may have been the best he could come up with on his own. Instead, he could have been given some training in process improvement, management, or leadership.

5. Get to know your employees.
The employees that Larry worked with for a day all had amazing stories. Don’t we all? I can’t tell you how many managers I know that don’t know the names of their employees children. As a leader, your actions impact the lives of your employees and the communities in which they live in. It’s your obligation to embrace that awesome responsibility, to take a personal interest in the lives of each and every one of your employees.

Here’s the preview for next week’s show:
“Hooters” – When Coby Brooks, President and CEO of “Hooters” goes undercover in his own company, he finds himself struggling to keep up in a fast-paced kitchen and is, later, forced to take immediate action when a restaurant manager steps out of line, on UNDERCOVER BOSS, Sunday, Feb. 14 (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.

Oh yeah, this should be good.