The Undercover Boss and the Invisible Employee

A recent national television program has caught my attention.  The show is called, Undercover Boss which appears on CBS on Sunday nights.  Each week a CEO works undercover on the front line of his organization.  This week’s show featured Dave Rife, the CEO of White Castle. 

During his week on the front line he learned what it is like as an entry level employee, working the line serving hamburgers and the like.  I have to admit the show has a heartwarming element as it features several front line employees who strive valiantly to do their best despite the conditions.  

The only thing that bothers me about the show is it highlights the fact that many corporate leaders are clueless on how decisions made in the boardroom affect the motivation of individual employees and organizational productivity as a whole.  It emphasizes the huge divide between those that make decisions and those who have to follow those decisions.  How can organizations be responsive to change and consumer needs when executives are so far removed from reality? 

Southwest Airlines is one of my favorite organizations and has followed this concept from its inception.  All managers at Southwest work jobs other than their primary responsibility one day a quarter.  They may work as a luggage handler, gate agent, flight attendant or other positions, as long as it is a front line position.  This helps all managers learn more about the company.  In their early days, even Herb Kelleher, the co-founder of Southwest, was seen loading luggage onto his planes. 

Kelleher’s nonconformist philosophy served a purpose.  He wanted his executives and managers to be guiding examples and to be aware how their decisions impact the front line.  Herb felt everyone is a leader and pushed authority and decision-making down to the lowest possible level – on the front line where it has the greatest impact on customer satisfaction.  As Herb once said, “We tell our people that we value inconsistency.”


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