Undercover Boss Australia highlights power of listening

What if those in power could be ‘everyman’ for a day? The premise is simple and rooted in

Listening

Listening is a key leadership skill

dramatic tradition. In Greek myth, Zeus would disguise himself as a beggar in order to reward the kind and punish the cruel. In Shakespeare’s Henry V the king becomes a common soldier the night before battle. The latest incarnation of this idea is Undercover Boss, in which the head of a company takes on a series of frontline roles disguised as a new employee in order to discover first hand the customer and employee experience.

The format, created by ex-BBC documentary-maker Stephen Lambert, has run successfully in the UK, the US and is now commencing in other countries, including Australia. The popular US version has also been criticised for the PR element –  trying to provide a human face to CEOs, a group ‘suffering’ from poor public image after some of the executive excesses before – and during – the economic crises of 2008 and 2009.

Spin aside, the series shows that effective two-way communication in organisations improves engagement and leads to better business outcomes.

The newest spin-off in the franchise, Undercover Boss Australia kicked off Monday on Ten with Domino’s Pizza Enterprises CEO, Don Meij taking on a range of frontline jobs across the business he has been with for over 20 years, including delivery driver, human billboard and pizza maker.

“Australian workers are feeling the pain, working harder and longer. Are workers really asking ‘what about me?’” was the question posed in the opening sequence. The opening aside, on screen, Meij quickly demonstrated an authentic leadership style and openness in his interactions with his leadership team.

Since hearing of the Australian version, I have wondered how well the format would translate for Australia as there are a number of cultural differences that have seen other reality formats crash and burn here. The Aussie bullshit detector is particularly acute and ‘ra-ra’ sessions are justifiably viewed skeptically.

Also, Australian’s are not always quick to tell deeply personal stories. This was demonstrated in one of the more awkward exchanges in the first episode, where Meij sought to draw out the story of one of his young workers. This was the show’s weakest moment, but  is a central element of the ‘find it and fix it’ formula used by the American version.

The biggest problem with the overseas versions is in the ‘reveal’ and ‘reward’ section of the show. There have been many cases where the solutions are one-off donations for the individuals, as if we have slipped into Secret Millionaire, the other creation from Studio Lambert. This makes for great ‘tissues’ television for viewers, but from a business perspective, many of these solutions feel superficial and unsustainable – band-aid solutions that do nothing to address the root causes of the issues in the business, and that could (or would) not be replicated across a workforce of thousands.

However, it is here that Meij demonstrated some great authentic leadership. He owned issues where he saw the business needing to support the stores more effectively.  And although granting a number of personal rewards, these were clearly contexted as recognition for the efforts and commitments of the employees.

As he spoke to his employees he appeared humble, open and genuine in reflecting his experience of his time with them, their hopes and commitments, at one point saying “You’re doing an amazing job and I wanted to acknowledge that.” Recognising people not only for their achievements but also acknowledging their ambitions is a powerful approach.

Undercover Boss Australia has the ingredients: the implied drama of being ‘undercover’, the human interest stories of the employees, the leaders who learn about themselves in the process, the ‘reveal’ and the ‘reward’. And for leaders, some great lessons in the power of listening. In the words of one of the participants “Every CEO should get back down to earth level and see what we see every day.”

How well do you listen to your business?
Regardless of the size of your business, a real awareness of the operations and the people within your organisation is essential. The good news is it doesn’t always require glasses and a fake beard. Here are three ways to get closer to employees immediately. They key is to provide opportunities for the leader to listen. And if at first the issues raised seem unimportant, that is a failing of the culture and leadership, not of the employees. The quality of discussions will change over time.

  • Walk around. If you are visiting an interstate office, spend time in the office while people are doing their jobs. Show genuine interest. Practice deep listening. Ask open questions.
  • Open discussions. Whether sharing a sandwich and a coffee, or just getting out from behind desks and talking, small group discussions (8 is a great number) can be an effective way of increasing open feedback.
  • The CEO hotline. Can any employee in your business phone or email the boss if they need to? The first step might be to have a set time each week or month when employees can ring and discuss anything about the business they feel the need to talk about.

Don’t think that one shared sandwich will change your culture, but a sustained approach to talking with small groups of employees provides leaders an opportunity to listen to what is happening and speak openly about the business.

Undercover Boss Australia screens 8.30pm Mondays on Ten. Next week, Veolia Environmental Services.

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