Undercover CEO: Do you know what goes on here?

I hadn’t watched an episode of the reality television show Undercover Boss for some years. But recently I came across an episode as I was browsing the channels. For those who are not familiar with the concept, in a way it’s good, very good.

The CEOs of large organisations have themselves disguised as someone applying for a low level job there as part of a “documentary”.

But the actual purpose is to reveal to the boss what’s actually happening on the ground, and the cameras follow their part-artificial part-genuine journey. The episode I watched was about the boss of a huge and very successful player in waste management.

We see the false-bearded roughly-dressed CEO being hosted by employees who have no idea that he is their ultimate leader. They work with him so they can assess his suitability for the job he is apparently seeking, and they also open up on their personal lives and on how they feel about their jobs and employer.

It’s all appealing, as the highly sympathetic anonymous boss (they always come across as really good folk) engages in one work environment after another with successive staff members. They are all knowledgeable and helpful, and they all come with major personal financial and other challenges.

Interestingly, many work in the most appalling settings, for many hours a day, and often far from home. They wonder whether to stay on with the company, but most seem to have been there forever: it’s just how their life unfolds.

During the show from time to time the CEO comments to us viewers as he reacts to what he has been seeing and hearing. He shows deep and genuine sympathy for his loyal people, and is determined to not only sort out their work challenges but also to offer them personal financial support for their marriage, for educating their children in college, for buying a house, for going on a family holiday…

Towards the end of the show, the CEO reverts to his normal look, and back at the head-office he hosts those who had been with him during his rounds. (As they are called for the meeting they have no idea it’s to chat with the boss, as they’d been informed the interview is about whether the person they’d been with should be employed.)

You can imagine how emotional the surprise reunion becomes, as the CEO appreciates those he had spent time with, recruiting some into head-office task forces to sort out the problems that had been revealed. The tear-jerking highlight is the offer of generous financial support packages to meet their various pressing needs. Happy endings!

So, why am I writing about all this? Because it’s so ridiculous! However gripping the viewing, to me as a director and a consultant I find it quite unbelievable that head-office leaders of long-established and financially successful organisations can be so completely ignorant of what’s happening in their environments.

Surely they don’t need to go undercover, surely no one does, to be in touch with conditions on the ground and with how their staff are being treated and the circumstances in which they operate. It’s as though there’s no board, no senior management team, no HR, no anyone or anything getting feedback on pressing needs.

My life is dedicated to ensuring that wherever I am I see people working happily and productively together, and being treated decently and fairly. Neither I nor those around me have ever needed to adopt a false beard or a funny wig to uncover inconvenient realities. Yes, in real life we have our “mystery shoppers” and suchlike.

But why wouldn’t our visits, our channels of communication, our performance management and so many other systems, be able to shine the light on the kind of issues the Undercover Bosses go to such lengths to reveal and that should be glaringly obvious?

This leads me to my conclusion. What if you, the CEO of an established organisation, went underground? What would you discover that you don’t already know?

Or to put it more soberly, how do you and your fellow leaders ensure there are no such howling skeletons hiding in plain sight in your cupboards?

Who rises to the top of pyramid?

For the first 12 years of my career I worked for a British IT multinational, in both field offices and in the head office, and it was in the late 70s, for the last two of these, that I came to Kenya to manage its local subsidiary here. So from different perspectives I was able to study the company’s organisational culture, who was likely to get and not get promoted…and why.

I was able to see how it was so often the crafty individuals manoeuvred their way up the corporate ladder, driven by politics and personal interest. Indeed their prime energy was devoted to such jostling, undermining competitors and cosying up to their seniors. Let me just say that when I finished my contract with this corporate I vowed I would never work for a large multinational organisation again, unwilling to engage in the unhealthy win-lose manoeuvring required to climb the greasy pole to its upper levels.

Since then, as a local business partner to a variety of multinationals, in both management and in board positions, and also as a consultant, I have seen the same patterns. This independently of whether the head office was in America or the UK, France or The Netherlands, South Africa or Egypt. The same is often true of multilateral development partners like the World Bank and the UN, bilateral ones, and international NGOs. And let’s not even talk about government administrations, never mind the disruptions that follow elections.

The pattern is consistent. In all such organisations, every few years the whistle blows and the next round of musical chairs is activated. New faces seek new structures that typically simply introduce a different mix of advantages and disadvantages. Too often the underlying motivation is for the new incumbent to show what great change champions they are — while being disturbingly indifferent to the chaos and confusion in the build up to their “brilliant” new set up and to its subsequent chaotic implementation. (See Boris Johnson!)

The actual purpose, I have seen, is to boost their short-term CV, showing what bold innovators they are…while ignoring the waste of energy and compromised productivity as staff must deal with the insecurities that have been activated within them during the transition. No wonder many will assume — however justified or otherwise — that they will end up as demotivated losers.

It is also worth mentioning the challenges that exist with voluntary organisations like business member and professional associations, and also ones like Rotary (where Yusuf Dawood in a recent Surgeons Diary article complained about dysfunctionalities at its highest levels). More so where volunteers are involved, the tendency I have witnessed is for those with high ego needs to find their way to prominence — and it is why I have never been shy to point out the particular requirement for low-ego humble leadership among such entities.

But let us not over-generalise. There are of course many exceptions to these dog-eat-dog cultures. Ones where their leaders hold on to the uplifting vision and values of the organisation and strive to help others do so, recognising and empowering those who perform in the interests of all.

My clear lesson over the years is to hold back from joining organisations where self-absorbed characters play with their selfish short-term agendas. I will only associate myself with a culture where I can feel at home with my ethical values, working with like-minded men and women for the greater and longer-term common good.

There are many good leaders around who seek nothing more than to be able to fulfill their potential by building responsible sustainable organisations around them.

The challenge is to create that coalition of the willing where such people strengthen and support one another, share best practice among themselves, and form role models for the rest of society.

Let us keep away from witnessing the “Peter Principle”, where people are “promoted to their level of incompetence”, and as a result “fail upwards”. We are better than that, and not least in Kenya, where over the years it has been my privilege to mingle with so many world class responsible characters, great leaders who would and often do thrive anywhere in the world. Not least in Rotary.