Nothing New Under the Sun

I’m pleased yet not surprised at the popularity of the TV series Undercover Boss, and it’s Canadian version. Although it’s a bit puzzling how intelligent employees (and all of the ones seen in the episodes I’ve watched certainly have been intelligent) cannot recognize the CEO or President, or even be suspect of the fact that a camera crew is filming the orientation of a new employee, the shows do bring the public’s attention to effective leadership behaviors that are transforming organizations in the fast-changing world of commerce. It’s encouraging to watch these CEO’s feel a sense of pride, and also humility, as they witness the day-to-day commitment and effort demonstrated by line employees and supervisors, and equally engaging (though at times a touch maudlin) is the employee response to the human gestures of kindness extended in gratitude by the appreciative CEOs.
Hopefully, the popularity of the series will prompt water-cooler or social media conversations that will spill over into and positively affect every company; perhaps spur CEOs to embark on similar incognito adventures within their own organizations.
But while this is an interesting and effective exercise, it is not new in any way. “Management by Walking Around” (MBWA) was cited in Tom Peters and Bob Waterman’s famous book “In Search of Excellence” way back in the early 80′s, and rumor has it that they got it from Hewlett Packard. Generals like Napoleon and Patton were renown for wandering around their regular troops to gauge morale and gather first-hand intelligence, as was apparently, Abe Lincoln during the Civil War.
When you think about it, it makes perfect sense: information reaching the top of any organization has been repeatedly filtered (sub-consciously and perhaps consciously) to the point where ‘reality’ is often quite distorted. The best way to really get a sense of what’s going on, is to go there and experience it first-hand. Why? Because one can receive information with multiple senses as opposed to homogenized data in a report. Asking a question of a line employee, a savvy CEO can see the look in their eyes, sense nervousness or hesitation in their voice, feel nuances that indicate the true state of employee morale, even if unspoken. Being there is a richer experience; more likely to reflect their true ‘reality’.
So kudos to the Undercover Boss creators for bringing to the mainstream what effective leaders have done for decades: come down from the tower and wander among the doers. As Rudyard Kipling suggests in his poem “IF”:
“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
or walk with Kings, nor lose the common touch,”
No matter how elevated one becomes, staying genuinely and closely connected with those who execute the strategy yields the best odds for success.

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