Leadership

The Trouble With “Undercover Boss” (If You’re a Boss)

I’ve watched with interest as the CBS television program “Undercover Boss” has gained a large following on the network.  An average episode draws nearly 18 Million viewers (according to the CBS website).

Why so popular?  Think of the premise (again from the network site):

Each week, UNDERCOVER BOSS follows a different executive as they leave the comfort of their corner office for an undercover mission to examine the inner workings of their companies.  While working alongside their employees, they see the effects that their decisions have on others, where the problems lie within their organizations and get an up-close look at both the good and the bad while discovering the unsung heroes who make their companies run.”

It’s certainly heartwarming to see these “unsung heroes” get the recognition they deserve, and that goes a long way towards explaining the show’s popularity.

On the other hand, I’m sure there are a lot of people who marvel at the ability of these CEOs to walk among their employees without being recognized, and are entertained by the “eye-opening” revelations that they find at the rank and file level.

Nevertheless, the open question that has always been on my mind about this show was this – Is this show really a “good thing” for “bosses”, and the kind of leadership bosses should be providing?

I don’t think it is a good thing – and here’s why:  I believe that a CEO should be known to EVERY employee; that is, there would be no way that the CEO could go “undercover”.   He or she would be recognized immediately.

Why is that important?   A CEO sets the vision.  A CEO sells the vision.  Every employee, to perform at peak levels, needs to know why the vision is important to them.   Who better to be the human representation of the vision than the CEO?

I know, I know, many will say “oh, that can’t happen with a company with 50,000 employees”, but in this day and age, with the technology at our disposal, I don’t buy it.

As leaders, we need to get out there and visit as many locations as we can, and hold as many meetings as possible.  We need to get on video chats and conference bridges. We need to write in newsletters, on blogs, on Twitter, and Facebook.  Any way we can communicate the vision, in a way that resonates with everyone.

That’s hard work.  It takes time and effort.  The payoff, however, is huge.  By proactively talking, and then listening, all those “problems and effects” that the Undercover Bosses find out on national TV have long been digested and dealt with, on a real time basis.

And better still, the “unsung heroes” won’t exist.     Nope, you won’t find any.   That’s because the CEO will have built a culture where all the heroes are found, and celebrated, and rewarded, constantly.

Yes, the best companies out there are the ones that could never possibly make an appearance on “Undercover Boss”.  Everybody knows the CEO’s face and name.  And they like it that way.   Sure, the employees still wouldn’t mind if he or she would put on a uniform, or strap on an apron, or a hard hat, or a tool belt – and in those “best” companies, it most certainly happens.

Just not in front of a camera.


Category: Leadership

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Terry Starbucker About the Author: Terry Starbucker

Terry Starbucker has been in the business world for over 28-years, as a manager, leader and executive in the financial and service industries. He now writes about his multiple success stories and the art of leadership in his popular…

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  1. Terry – this is a very good point. I’ve only seen one episode where an employee recognized her boss, which seems strange to me. Of course, if you don’t know your leaders, it makes the “reveal” very humorous, as you can watch employees try to think back to what their complaints were. As each episode ends with a speech to the masses by the CEO, you would think the boss would be recognizable. Also, in an era of home offices, I’m waiting for the day my CEO shows up at my doorstep to “learn my job.”

  2. Terry – this is a very good point. I’ve only seen one episode where an employee recognized her boss, which seems strange to me. Of course, if you don’t know your leaders, it makes the “reveal” very humorous, as you can watch employees try to think back to what their complaints were. As each episode ends with a speech to the masses by the CEO, you would think the boss would be recognizable. Also, in an era of home offices, I’m waiting for the day my CEO shows up at my doorstep to “learn my job.”

  3. I worked for one small business where the founder/CEO made sure most employees had a certain image of him. The problem? It wasn’t the whole truth, and those of us who had been there the longest knew it. I understand why he wanted most of the company to see him a certain way, but at the same time I think he would have been a stronger leader if he had let everyone know where he really stood on certain issues and why.

    Even in small businesses you can hide to some extent.

    Great post, loved it!

  4. I worked for one small business where the founder/CEO made sure most employees had a certain image of him. The problem? It wasn’t the whole truth, and those of us who had been there the longest knew it. I understand why he wanted most of the company to see him a certain way, but at the same time I think he would have been a stronger leader if he had let everyone know where he really stood on certain issues and why.

    Even in small businesses you can hide to some extent.

    Great post, loved it!

  5. anonymous

    June 3, 2012 at 3:08 am

    Amazing…so much scrutiny of a good show set out to help people. Your time would serve better to uplift than to tear down.

  6. SethSonic

    March 26, 2013 at 10:42 pm

    I am the President of a small business and we recently filmed this Very Small Business Edition of Undercover Boss. Maybe some of the elements will resonate with your readers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tF3Yg7UhQGA

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