Management Consultant Mike Eldon

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?