What I Learned About Leading People Watching Undercover Boss


One of the most fulfilling things for me over the holidays is watching the TV marathon.

I sat today with TV as background and watched the show Undercover Boss. Eventually, the multi-tasking stopped and I had a laser focus on this show where CEO’s go undercover in their own companies and interact with employees who have no idea who they really are.

There is something amazing about seeing grown men tear up or remark, “I am speechless.”  This is all in reaction to the CEO/Leader giving back after they witnessed the hard work of their employees.

As I watched this TV marathon, I could not help but think of how each leader should preview one of these shows and not wait for a once in a lifetime opportunity to help one of their employees’, but live each and every day with that focus in mind.

There is a new sheriff in town

There is a new dynamic that is percolating within the workforce. That dynamic is going to cause leaders to be pulled, some screaming, into this new realm.

Remember this: Your employees are important and they want to be appreciated for what they do. The paycheck as a motivator is no longer the silver bullet.

How can I be of service to you in this company?” How do you make things better for your employees?

Such a simple question, yet it was posed by one CEO on the show. Each episode provide nuggets of leadership truisms. My takeaway was these nuggets came not from the normal workers.

No, those every day souls who drive our business is where the true insights and innovations come from. These unsung heroes who carry the load of businesses throughout the world are the ones that will need the organization’s focus going forward.

A key strategic thrust

The organizations that tap into this vein as much as possible will, in return, reach unheralded heights. The secret for survival is already there for the most part.

Our problem, as we see in Undercover Boss, is that we depend so much on the thinking of the executive team with not enough input from the people that, for the most part, actually do the job. Decisions are made and strategies are developed from the top of the management pyramid. That is the normal process and has worked in the past.

But in this new dynamic, everyone is involved — not just the suits. Vineet Nayar touched on this principle a few years back in his book, Employees First, Customers Second: Turning Conventional Management Upside Down.

His radical approach tapped into this thinking and turned his company around. Profits followed.

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“I am so happy to be recognized” was the statement from one worker on Undercover Boss. A CEO talked about living her brand promise. There were just so many learning touch point from these shows that would rival any off-site exercise. However, these learning touch points were not high-level strategic mindsets.

Lead with the basics

What transpired during the course of each episode of Undercover Boss came down to the basics: Listening, empathy and a caring attitude. It is definitely not Harvard Business School stuff. These three basics were probably taught to us as kids growing up.

So as we move into this new year, make sure to rely on the things that we were all taught at some stage in our life:

  • Listen – truly listen — to people. Listen with your ears, eyes and heart. Pay attention to others body language, to their tone of voice, to the hidden emotions behind what they are saying to you, and to the context
  • When we communicate, spend some time understanding how we come across when we communicate with others about our feelings and attitudes.
  • Be fully present when you are with employees and other people. That means no checking of email, looking at your watch, or taking phone calls when a direct report drops into your office to talk to you. Put yourself in their shoes; How would you feel if your boss did that to you?
  • Give genuine recognition and praise. Pay attention to what people are doing and catch them doing the right things. When you give praise, spend a little effort to make your genuine words memorable: “You are an asset to this team because…” As one of the workers tearfully stated, “I am so happy to be recognized.
  • Take a personal interest in people. Show people that you care and are genuinely interested in their lives. Ask them questions about their hobbies, their challenges, their families, their aspirations.

Remember — a true leader inspires more so than leads.