No Need to Go Undercover to Learn from the Front Lines

If you haven’t watched an episode of the Undercover Boss reality show, surely you’ve heard about it. CEOs work with front-line employees, experiencing their challenges first-hand. Hidden cameras capture them rewarding good behavior, berating bad and applying what they learned to improve their company and culture. By connecting directly with lower-level employees and managers, the CEOs learn to appreciate their struggles, identify issues to resolve and recognize that most workers just want to do their best.

The upshot: Front-line relationships matter. And you know what? You don’t have to go undercover to cultivate them. You also don’t have to be the CEO. Engaging directly with working-level employees brings long-term benefits – for them, for you and for your organization. Here’s how:

Shared Ownership of Success

When you invest time with front-line employees, you’re demonstrating you value them, their work and the impact they have on your organization. This encourages top performance at every level. Example: Before he became CEO of Pancheros Mexican Grill, Rodney Anderson worked every job in the restaurant – from cashier to janitor to dishwasher. With this first-hand understanding of the work and the relationships he forged with employees across the company, Anderson created an ongoing open dialogue on how to improve the business. Pancheros has seen steady growth over the past 20 years, from a single restaurant to more than 65 outlets.

Intel to Influence Decisions

When you have the pulse of the front lines, you can share valuable insights with leaders inside and outside your organization. That can influence decisions and perceptions. Example: Two years ago, I worked some eight-hour shifts on the assembly line at General Motors stamping and assembly plants. The lessons I learned from hourly employees and the relationships I forged increased my value to the leadership team and to media – especially during labor negotiations. I strengthened my role as a go-to resource, helping my clients “hear” the voice of the employee, and sharing insights with reporters. My counsel helped the negotiations decision-making process and influenced more accurate media coverage – benefiting the company and the front-line team.

Full Team Turn-Arounds

When an organization faces a crisis or major change, engaging the full team is critical. Strategies are strengthened with input from those closest to customers and product, and execution happens at the working level. Example: Fred Hassan, former CEO of Schering-Plough, Pharmacia and Pharmacia & Upjohn led the companies through multiple crises during his tenure. In all cases, he focused on front-line managers to help shape and execute the transformation strategy. He engaged with them directly and often, encouraging them to question traditional processes, make fast course corrections and mobilize the full team. His approach worked – when he left Schering Plough, it was one of the top growth companies among its peers and a leader in relative total shareholder return. The front-line team played a key role in that success.

The link between these real-life examples and the “Undercover Boss” reality show is clear – engaging with the front lines benefits everyone. It drives shared success, improves decision making and helps transform organizations.

An investment well worth making.

Katie McBride
About the author: 

Katie McBride was an executive with General Motors for 33 years prior to retiring as Executive Director in May 2016.   She has a robust record of developing and executing communication strategies that drive positive business results and improve internal and external corporate reputation. Her background includes consulting and partnering with CEOs and multiple C-suite executives across numerous General Motors business units.  Ms. McBride earned her MBA from Wayne State University. Follow her on LinkedIn.