One of the biggest issues facing the owner of a company – particularly as it grows larger – is keeping a pulse on the thoughts and feelings of the company staff. As every smart business owner knows, your front-line people are often the most critical to your organization, but they also tend to be the ones a company CEO has the least contact with.
Below please find the story of one CEO who took a bold step to learn the thoughts and opinions of his front-line staff so he could insure that his decisions were being properly implemented – and he could insure that the decisions he was making that would affect those staff members were the proper decisions based upon all necessary facts.
While most business owners would not be able to initiate this type of plan, reading about it may cause you to develop other ideas that can be implemented within your firm to obtain similar results.
The undercover boss
By Stefan Stern – Published: June 8 2009
Employee attitude surveys, brown bag lunches, focus groups, informal chats: managers try quite hard to find out what their staff are thinking. But the results are mixed at best. What are your staff thinking? Admit it – you don’t really know.
Is there any way of finding out? Electronic surveillance would be a bad idea. Cloaks of invisibility work for Harry Potter, but are not available to the rest of us. One chief executive has done the next best thing. He went undercover in his own business for two weeks, disguised as an office worker, completing shifts on 10 different sites. He has heard for himself what his people really think. It has been a revelatory experience.
Stephen Martin is the 43-year-old CEO of the Clugston Group, a medium-sized civil engineering and logistics company based in the north of England. But for two weeks earlier this year, as far as his colleagues were concerned he was “Martin Walker”, an ordinary co-worker trying to earn a living like everybody else.
Ordinary, that is, except for the film crew that was following him around. The cover story was that this documentary team wanted to record how a clerical worker would cope with the demands of a physical labouring job. In truth they were making a programme, called Undercover Boss, which will air on British television (Channel 4) in two weeks’ time and then in a US version (CBS) this year.
How did Mr Martin avoid being found out? He is still a relatively new CEO, having started in December 2006. He grew a beard and turned up to work in protective clothing rather than a suit. His down-to-earth, approachable style does not mark him out immediately as “boss class”.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear unfiltered what my employees were really thinking,” Mr Martin told me when he came in to the Financial Times office – clean-shaven and in a suit and tie – last week. “They said things to me that they would never have told their managers.”
What lessons has he learnt? “Our key messages were just not getting through to people,” Mr Martin says. “People working a shift on a large site do not have time to read newsletters or log on to websites. You have to communicate with people on their terms, and it is different for every location. One size does not fit all.”
For example, Mr Martin found that an apparently sensible idea – encouraging his workers to take a tea-break where they were working rather than coming back to a canteen – was taken to mean that the break had been cut.
What is more, having worked these physically demanding shifts, which involved pouring concrete, laying kerbs and clearing drains, the boss now has a better informed view of the job. His conclusion: “We were asking the impossible of some of them.”
This TV-inspired experiment has highlighted a classic management problem. Leaders may know exactly what they want to see happening. They send out messages down the management line. Employees ought to understand. But between the top table and the shop-floor something goes wrong. Leadership teams can be scarily ignorant of how badly their wishes have been distorted, and how much unhappiness there is among those on the receiving end.
And right now there is a bigger, more urgent point. In a recession it is even harder to have an effective, open dialogue with an anxious workforce. Mr Martin shared what he had learnt with his team of managers after filming was over. It provoked a (frequently repeated) response: “They’ve never told us that!” But “Martin Walker” had seemed like someone it was safe to talk to, a regular guy, working night-shifts and staying at a £27-a-night ($43) bed and breakfast hotel called the Cocked Hat. “Even we wouldn’t stay there,” his co-workers had told him.
Mr Martin feels he needs to “over-communicate” to reassure staff who have seen big redundancies in recent months. “If you don’t pass on enough information, even if it is bad news, they will fill the gap with something else, probably worse than the truth.”
That view is supported by Robert Sutton, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University in California, and author of the cover story in the June issue of the Harvard Business Review: “How to be a good boss in a bad economy”.
Prof Sutton says there are four things in particular that managers need to provide if they want to avoid this false anxiety syndrome: predictability (over-communicate); understanding (keep it “Sesame Street simple”, advises Procter & Gamble’s AG Lafley); control (break down big challenges into manageable ones); and compassion (show that you care).
Having had a chance to eavesdrop on his employees’ hitherto private conversations, Clugston’s Mr Martin has been forced to rethink much of what he thought he knew about management.
Convincing employees that the company has their best interests at heart is hard work. Key messages to staff should never go undercover, even if one boss had to don a disguise to find this out.