Leading From the Front

Lately I’ve enjoyed watching “Undercover Boss” on CBS when I can. In the show a CEO goes incognito to work among employees in the trenches. The boss takes on jobs prepping food, washing windows, cleaning bathrooms, or driving a truck.

In the process he learns the tough work his employees do day in and day out, hears their personal stories, and learns firsthand about the challenges of the jobs that keep the company running.

At the end the now-humbled CEO reveals his true identity and rewards employees who went above and beyond the call of duty without knowing who he was. The boss then addresses the company where employees see humorous clips of him bumbling through the jobs they have to do every day.

One day at a company I worked for the CEO happened to be passing through the client service department as the phone rang at an empty desk. He stopped mid-stride and picked it up. As it turned out the caller was an angry investor and lambasted the “phone rep” with a littany of complaints. She demanded to speak to the president of the company.

The CEO then identified himself and we later replayed the call to hear her surprise; the wind completely yanked out of her sails at the notion of the president of an investment company answering the 1-800 line. After listening to her concerns, the CEO jotted down her information and assured her that there would be follow-up.

The boss could have used that situation to lambast the department, or the manager, about the importance of vigilant phone coverage. Instead, he turned it to opportunity to demonstrate that it was key for everyone in the company to pitch in and help out when it comes to getting a job done, particularly when it comes to clients.

He conveyed that message through his actions and without saying a word to everyone. It had a powerful effect on those of us who were there.

Critics might say that the big shots in “Undercover Boss” are just promoting themselves and their organizations. Perhaps. And after all the show is entertainment.  But employees have always respected those who truly try to understand and appreciate the work they do. Military officers leading from the front have always known this–nothing garners more respect than a willingness to do the dirty work.