Undercover boss

Last night I watched the American version of Undercover Boss. Featured was the President and CEO of 7 Eleven which has some 32,000 convenience stores operating 24/7 365 days a year around the world. On that kind of scale it is hardly surprising that nobody would recognise the CEO, though Americans are prone to having the picture of the main dude (the company is based in Dallas) in the lobby (see any Marriott Hotel).

OK – I confess – I have watched the programme before, but only the UK version. The formula is simple – the boss or a senior executive goes to work in various front line positions throughout the company and discovers hidden heroes in the organisation. Why they never find the disasters is not clear to me, but perhaps they edit those out. These heroes are then invited to the headquarters where the boss reveals his or her identity and they get promoted or receive some other special consideration.

In Enterprise Britain this is slightly more challenging as in all likelihood you are closer to the front line and you probably know all the staff, or at least most of them. It still surprises me though to see the many managers who appear to have no idea what is really happening. Sending out a memo (emails are even worse than the old memo culture – there are simply too many of them) or policy does not mean it is actually appropriate and whatever you wanted to happen is going to happen.

I worked with a company for some time with a couple of dozen locations. Each location did the same work and in the same manner, or so I was told regularly by the CEO. One day we were having a coffee across from one of his operations and I asked him to look across the street at what was actually happening. There was no resemblance with what he had told me should happen, and it was a standard procedure. More worrying is that he did nothing about it. His company went bust.

No matter how large or small your company is, you need to spend time at the coal face. This is where it all happens. The ivory tower of the head office only exists to support the digging at the coal face, not the other way around. All salaries, dividends, shareholder value are a direct result of what happens at the coal face.

So how do you address this before you are so big nobody recognises you? Spend at least half a day a week talking to people in your organisation but who do what may be considered the more menial tasks. Sometimes this will be over a cup of coffee, sometimes watching them do their work and talking about it with them. You will be surprised what you learn and how your organisation grows.

And whilst we are on this topic, government organisations, especially local councils should head this advice more than anybody. With their dozens of layers of management and the complete insulation of the decision makers, they have lost touch with what makes their organisations work – the front line. Don’t lay off the front line – reduce the levels of management!

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