Undercover Boss

Leader’s authenticity devalued by undercover formula

It has been interesting looking at Undercover Boss Australia to see what, if any, lessons can be taken and applied to leadership, communication and results.

In previous weeks, I have been able to take away a tip, a strategy or a flaw and use that to look at a broader area of organisational communication or strategy. This week’s episode has frustrated me.  Toga Hospitality CEO, Rachel Argaman took on a number of roles from housekeeping to kitchen hand to concierge in hotels and apartments within the Toga group.

There were certainly moving stories from employees who had experienced difficulties or significant life events. There were issues in the business with evidence that social programs, training and development opportunities were not consistently communicated or applied within some of the establishments. Plenty of fodder for discussion. But not providing a standout theme. Something just didn’t feel right.

What was missing? The CEO. Rachel was certainly present for the people she was working alongside. Her manner was open and inquisitive. One of the factors that makes Undercover Boss compelling (at its best) is understanding the journey of the leader as they discover challenges within the business.  Unfortunately, this element was absent from Argaman’s quest: she wasn’t really present for us, the viewer. What did she learn? What were her insights? What did she reflect on as a result.

Leadership Skills Australia undertook a review of readings on authentic leadership and distilled 5 common themes that consistently featured in the literature:

  • Commit to the truth
  • Know yourself well
  • Show self discipline
  • Show compassion
  • Be genuine

Argaman, a CEO with a strong reputation for her vision and team approach for the organisation, is an articulate believer in the power of authentic leadership, as she has demonstrated elsewhere in local news and older interviews.

Unfortunately in this episode, we were not given a sense of Argaman’s self-knowledge and awareness. It is a shame this aspect of her experience was not more apparent in the production.


Two-way communication helps all parties in successful franchise. Lessons from Undercover Boss Australia Part 3

The third installment of Undercover Boss Australia saw Janine Allis, founder and head of Boost Juice head into her franchise network to see the operation up close.

A master brand is the key asset of any successful franchise.  Allis’ enthusiasm for the brand was clear. The employees and franchisees selected for inclusion on UBA represented a commitment to the healthy and youthful spirit of the brands – they generally seemed to be loving life.

For franchisees, there is a challenge in balancing being a small business owner at the same time as being part of a larger organisation.  Tina and Steve Wood, Boost store owners from Perth named hiring the right staff as one important factor in turning around the profitability of their store and increasing sales.

Franchises frequently rely on young, casual and part-time labour and as a result can struggle to retain employees. Brand strength is an important factor in being able to create an employee experience that can engage a young, mobile, award-wage workforce. Supporting the employment brand with access to development programs, networking opportunities between territories and the ability to move geographically can increase retention and commitment of employees.

MD Allis demonstrated considerable empathy towards individual franchisees and their employees in her interactions undercover.  However, not every franchise business experiences such open two way communication.

A comprehensive study of conflict resolution between franchisees and franchisors released by Griffith University earlier this year found that communication is an area many franchisees feel could be improved.

Professor Lorelle Frazer, lead researcher and Director of the Asia-Pacific Centre for Franchising Excellence revealed that only half of the study participants felt communication from franchisors was timely and accurate.

There is a risk for both parties when communication breaks down.  For the franchisor there is a risk to the brand and reputation. Franchising provides a centralised approach to marketing, advertising, product and promotion that creates a consistent quality experience across a dispersed workforce. Failing to communicate this to the franchise network will lead to erosion of the brand value.  There is reduced opportunity for collaborative innovation (ideas from the front line), and ultimately reduced profit.

For franchisees, there is a risk to their business if they do not have all the information a business owner needs. A lack of competitor or territory information, lack of shared information between other franchisees, and unmet expectations of support can hamstring a franchise from planning for and achieving growth.

Where a franchisee is unclear about the programs and support available, there is even less chance that this information will be made available to the face of the brand – the person making your smoothie.

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 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.