Ideas to Read and Pass Along

Kevin & Jackie Freiberg

Are You Over or Underexposed?

We remember watching the first episode of Undercover Boss following the Super Bowl, a few years ago. Unfortunately it seems more people were criticizing the show than celebrating it, claiming things like: it‘s just another example of how out of touch executives really are, it is highly unlikely that any real changes will happen and the cameras must have influenced the employees to put on a “show.”

Whether you buy into those claims or not, we took a totally different approach. We didn’t add any more to the growing list of flaws, instead we watched with an eye for gaining ideas and lessons to be learned….

Waste Management’s CEO, Larry O’Donnell, was the first featured executive on the program. We are reminded that O’Donnell is a real guy with a real family, as he introduces us to his daughter who has suffered brain damage due to a doctor’s negligence in a routine procedure.

After a brief get to know you segment, O’Donnell goes undercover in his own company, and lives several days performing the jobs of frontline workers. On his first day, while sorting trash he clogs a conveyer belt when a piece of cardboard slips by him and gets stuck in the machine. It’s upsetting, for a number of reasons. Hey, he screwed up, that never feels good! He also happens to know how expensive the machinery is and the cost of the down time that’s required to fix the problem. Next up, Larry goes to a landfill and ends up getting fired by a frontline worker because he “just isn’t cutting it.” On another day he cleans toilets with one of the most optimistic employees he’s ever met. Next, he discovers a supervisor is docking hourly people two minutes for every one minute they clock in late after lunch. At another site a superstar employee who is doing the work of three people invites him to her home for dinner. And finally, the clincher is a female garbage truck driver who pees in a can because of productivity goals that Larry, himself, drove from the top. It’s an eye-opening experience that gives Larry insight into the policies he is responsible for and the changes needed to help his employees be more satisfied and the business more efficient.

At the end of the show, Larry speaks to each of these employees one-on-one and he outlines the changes he is going to deploy as a result of their input.

We started our careers more than 25 years ago with the good fortune of getting to know the maverick leaders and unconventional culture at Southwest Airlines. We wrote about them in our book NUTS! Today, Southwest Airlines remains a company to follow… they get it. The funny thing is, we highly doubt a leader at SWA could go under cover because they have created a culture where leaders are FULLY present and engaged throughout the company. The standard and expectation of leaders is to get to know and serve people all over the system. We know for sure that co-founders Herb Kelleher and Colleen Barrett couldn’t go under cover; they are overly exposed! And today their CEO, Gary Kelly, makes it a habit to be in the trenches with the true experts—those who, on a daily basis, know what can be done to improve the company. No doubt, Gary is overly exposed too. BTW, we consider this a good thing.

And not too long ago, we had breakfast with Ratan Tata, the Chairman of one of India’s most respected conglomerates, Tata Group. Mr. Tata is the leader whose vision inspired the Tata Motor’s Nano, a $2500 car that has revolutionized the auto industry. Mr. Tata knows the value and importance for leaders to “be there,” that means personally present and involved in projects with people at all levels. In fact, Tata rolled up his sleeves and became a full-fledged member of the Nano design team. Ratan Tata is also a leader, who could never go under cover; he too, is highly exposed!

In our business, we’ve been deeply influenced by some of the most admired leaders in the world. In getting to know them, we’ve noticed they have something in common. They’re all incredibly confident people but they show no signs of ego. If anything, they’re far more self-effacing and interested in others than they are braggadocios and egotistical. We find that impressive and refreshing. When leaders check their ego, get more exposed, committed, and involved; they create a culture that is contagious—a culture that attracts the right people with similar values who also become engaged in serving each other.

When leaders like Ratan Tata, Colleen Barrett, and Larry O’Donnell get involved, people feel like they have a voice. To have a voice, to know that your ideas count, to know that someone is listening and cares is empowering and rewarding. And it is usually one of the main reasons why leaders like Kelleher, Barrett, Kelly and Tata are leaders people want to follow. These are leaders that people love to work for, leaders who have earned the right to have a team of people striving to accomplish the impossible, their own Everest.

The way you spend your time says a lot about what you value. Many leaders are too busy setting policy, crafting strategy and negotiating deals to get out in the trenches. The great leaders we know make the time because it matters to their people; it’s critical to the business, bottom line, it’s just that important to them.

Do you know what’s really going on in your organization?

Do you have your thumb on the pulse of the brutal facts of reality? Do you have the guts to be vulnerable and take the heat, to try and work the frontline, even if it is awkward and uncomfortable? Perhaps you being awkward and out of your comfort zone is exactly what your people need to see. You can’t fix problems you don’t know exist. And here’s the deal, the more you get out and about, the more approachable you become and the less fear people have about speaking up. You’ll gain more freedom to speak the truth and people will as well. The more you get out and aggressively listen, the more trust and respect you will gain.

In over 25 years of consulting to executives around the world, one of the most common concerns we hear is: “How do I get our people to tell us what’s really going on?” Well, it starts with a relationship and that means, “getting out there,” expose yourself.

We suggest you make time and watch Undercover Boss, it’ an inexpensive way to learn what other leaders and cultures are like. As reality TV viewers, perhaps we should watch to learn rather than crticize and judge. Whether the leaders at Waste Management or any other leaders that dare to participate in a show like this, change or not, they have been exposed and their people will require and expect more from them! Building trust takes time, one project or one “walk a mile in the shoes of” at a time.

Why not watch with an eye for what you should stop doing, start doing and continue doing. You and your company may gain some valuable ideas.

Bravo to Larry for having the Guts to get out there and expose himself and the business to such scrutiny.