On Monday, the noise around the web and the water-cooler will undoubtedly include a post-Super Bowl review of the relative merits of the various advertisements, the half-time performances, and possibly even the quality of the football game itself (in which, as we recently discovered, less than 12 minutes of each three-hour-plus extravaganza is actual playing time). But I'm going to ask you to keep an ear open for another conversation...a conversation about what went on after the Super Bowl ended.
After the game, the reality show Undercover Boss will air. It's the latest incarnation of an old idea: To put a CEO "anonymously" into harness on the front lines, side-by-side (and reporting to) regular folks, who are seemingly unaware that their newest co-worker is actually the Big Cheese. For a moment, ignore the fact that the CEO might be recognized by employees or that this new regular Joe just happens to have a TV crew following his every move.
Instead, focus on the main idea here. What might you see, what might you learn by spending some meaningful time shoulder-to-shoulder with those in your organization, understanding what goes on in their jobs, and how it affects what you do and how you manage?
More than forty years ago, Robert Townsend, the former head of Avis Rent-a-Car described how he had his executives spend time every month working behind a rental counter, and similar versions of this activity were documented many years ago in HBR and elsewhere. They serve as valuable, first-hand reminders for managers of how difficult certain jobs are, how hard their people work, and how silly or unfair some of their company's rules can be. And that is where the opportunity lies.
So now here comes the big question: What's stopping you from doing this?
Other than carving out the time on your schedule, the obstacles are few and the payoff is quite high. In recent conversations, two senior executives who engage in this — George Colony, CEO of Forrester Research, and Tom Leppert, the Mayor of Dallas — offered a number of reasons why they do it:
· Gets me an unfiltered finger on the pulse faster than anything.
· Gives me a clearer sense of what our people are doing with their time, and what the little annoyances are that can grow big.
· Lets people know, first-hand, that I am pretty accessible, that I'm interested in their work, and that I actually do care.
Here are some suggestions to get you started, each of which you can adapt or modify depending upon the location, the circumstances and the type of work you or your organization performs:
1. Change location. Move your desk to the middle of the action or the middle of the workforce. Do it for a period of no less than three weeks — the longer, the better. Some executives I know have moved there permanently.
2. Take a trip. Ride, walk, or travel with the frontline people, on off-hours and in less-than "showcase" locations. More than two years into his term, Mayor Tom Leppert still rides with firemen and policemen on a regular and irregular basis.
3. Shadow your workers. Go to meetings and sales calls, not just with the big clients or customers, but with more representative ones as well.
4. Make it personal. Write personalized notes of thanks to your employees, and keep the channels and the communications open with them afterward.
Think how cool it would be if you actually started down this path, even briefly, this week. On Monday, at the water cooler, you might have a story to tell that is more interesting than anything you might have seen on TV.