Going Undercover – Working the Ground or Lack of Trust?

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With its premiere episode receiving 38.6 million viewers, “Undercover Boss” underlined that Management by Walking Around (MBWA) is probably one of the most effective ways of feeling the ground. By spending a week on the shop floor, C-Level officers from Subway to 7-eleven, and even Hooters, invariably spent time getting to know the people who work in their company, learning about their professional and personal aspirations and challenges. Nicholas Goh, CEO of Verztec Consulting Pte Ltd, takes some time to discuss MBWA.

With its premiere episode receiving 38.6 million viewers, “Undercover Boss” underlined that Management by Walking Around (MBWA) is probably one of the most effective ways of feeling the ground. By spending a week on the shop floor, C-Level officers from Subway to 7-eleven, and even Hooters, invariably spent time getting to know the people who work in their company, learning about their professional and personal aspirations and challenges. Nicholas Goh, CEO of Verztec Consulting Pte Ltd, takes some time to discuss MBWA.

”Do you know how to make the perfect Subway Sandwich?”

When posed with this question, Don Fretman, Chief Development officer of Subway International, had no idea at all. He decided to go undercover to different stores throughout the United States to find out what it took to make one. In the hugely-popular television series “Undercover Boss”, top management is exposed to a series of tasks within their own organisation where they sometimes falter and even get fired, but nonetheless, they walk away with unforgettable insights.

It is observed that the television series has opened a discussion on the reality of having top management go “undercover” to know more about their employees. “It is about trying to understand what makes the company tick at the ground level, and to figure out what more can be done to make it an even better company.”

Why Go Undercover?

When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon to commit treason and create western civilisation as we know it today, he was also going against his fellow consulate and son-in-law, Pompey Magnus. Caesar brought only his famous 13th Legion with him, against the might of four of Pompey’s legions well-fortified in the city. Against such odds and the Roman law, most men would have trembled in fear and deserted Caesar. Yet the 13th Legion was still willing to go the ultimate mile with Caesar. How was he able to inspire such bravery and loyalty?

Perhaps, the soldiers were willing to go all the way because they knew the person leading them was someone who once did what they themselves were now doing. Their leader was able to relate to them. Their leader was once amongst them. Their leader was someone that they could trust with their lives.

Yet, in the corporate environment, the hierarchy created does not inspire such trust. Usually, personnel without the necessary groundwork initiation are slipped into managerial roles, and their inability to relate to what is really happening on the ground often creates policies and outlines which disempower those below.

In 2010, Adecco did a HR poll of 1000 Americans, and the findings reveal that 88% of those surveyed agree that “A good boss rolls up their sleeves to help the team get the job done”. When we have bosses coming in to work the ground, it can humble them to the challenges that their employees face and start to garner the loyalty of the employees. More importantly, it allows the top to know what the bottom is doing.

Popularised by “The HP Way”, MBWA pioneered by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, the two founders of the company, become an integral reason for the success of the company. As top management consistently conversed with employees of all levels and often went down to the ground, to see them at their workplace, many potential issues were resolved early. Most importantly, the communication and, eventually, the camaraderie developed ensured that the company got to where it is today.

A Lack of Trust?

Naysayers derail going undercover as a show of total lack of trust in employees. It proves that a lack of trust exists between and within the management ranks and employees at all levels. They believe that it will create a legacy of suspicion where people will start to doubt whether the new guy they are hiring is actually their big boss or not. It might lead to a downward spiral of increased mistrust and suspicion; and that, as we all know, is highly detrimental to any organisation.

Even if one was to go out in the open, the difficulty (certainly at first) is that employees suspect it is an excuse for managers to spy on them and to interfere unnecessarily. Even junior managers can get threatened by their senior bosses snooping around and perceive them as auditing their every move. However, this suspicion usually falls away if the walkabouts occur regularly, and if everyone can see their benefits, such as acting on the feedback provided.

Things to Watch Out For

Whether you have your mind set on going undercover or on openly working alongside your employees, you can take steps to avoid manifesting what the naysayers foretell. Consider the following options.

1. Dig deep within you

Question your intentions. Are you there to do a spot check on the team and pick out the non-performers? Are you there to understand work processes and identify the kinks which, if solved, could raise productivity and bottom line? Or are you there to connect and empathise with individual team members at their level, to raise team morale? Know what information you want to emerge from the experience with. Better still, tie that to a follow-up action plan.

2. Prepare yourself

Do whatever is necessary. If you are to go “undercover”, prepare yourself for the groundwork. More often than not, it involves much physical work. It will be mundane, repetitive and irritating. Yet, these are the actions that keep your organisation going and running. Dig deep inside yourself to begin arming yourself with what it takes to execute these tasks.

3. LISTEN!

They don’t care how much you know, till they know how much you care. The first step, as per any decent networking book mentions, is to LISTEN. Listen to your employees, listen to their ideas, and listen to their thoughts. The feedback they give, and the ideas they generate to solve any workplace challenges, beat any dandy report you have, or will ever, receive on your desk. After all, which employee isn’t tired of filling up another feedback or work process review form?

4. Do it often

Imagine if connecting with your frontline staff is done only once a year? It will not make a significant difference to understanding what is happening on the ground. Yes, the rapidly-evolving business environment requires your constant attention, but so do staff who need consistent communication. Don’t do it for the sake of doing; do it because you care for them, and do it on a regular basis.

5. Announce, Award, Appreciate

It’s not always about the money. Sometimes, a personal thank you letter, or even a quick personal visit to the employee who has made the difference to your organisation, is worth more. No doubt, financial rewards will still go a long way, but what will adhere yourself to the people who matter are those words of appreciation you spiel out of your mouth to them. There are some things that money can’t buy, and genuine appreciation is one of them.

If you want a legion as ferocious and loyal as Caesar’s 13th fighting for you, working the ground is essential and working it consistently will be one of the keys to your success.

About the Author:

Nicholas Goh is the CEO of Verztec Consulting Pte Ltd, an ISO 9001:2008 Certified company specializing in a range of Multilingual Communication services which includes Multilingual Brand Management, Translation & Localization, On-Site Interpretation, Multilingual Voice-overs and Desktop Publishing, E-Learning and Web Localization. For more information, please visit http://www.verztec.com.

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