The CBS show Undercover Boss, now in its sixth season, is an entertaining look at how different businesses operate and offers some insights for business owners.
Each episode focuses on an executive of a different company who goes, you guessed it, undercover to take a lower-level job within the company or assume some other fly-on-the-wall vantage point. The purpose of the disguise is to allow the executives to observe the uninfluenced efficiency and productivity, or lack thereof, of their employees. But they often emerge with opened eyes for other reasons.
One episode from season six follows Armando Montelongo, a real estate mogul based in San Antonio. Montelongo is the largest house flipper in the country, flipping nearly 400 homes each year. His company also leads educational seminars and brings in $75 million annually.
Don’t Get Too Out of Touch with Employees
First, Montelongo assumes the role of an electrician in one of the houses his company is flipping. He’s supervised by a contractor named Angel, and, though he’s given firm, clear instructions, he ends up doing a pretty shoddy job. Montelongo learns Angel is a hard-working person who has overcome adversity.
Business lesson: Executives are often so far removed from lower level employees that they might as well be working for different companies. It’s hard to remember your employees are people, not numbers, if you have no contact with them. If you put yourself amongst them, you will likely emerge with increased empathy. You will also likely realize what they do is harder than you think. This will allow you to see and understand their value firsthand and will help ground you at the same time.
Remember Your Stakeholders
Montelongo then goes undercover as a student at one of his educational seminars. This allows him to talk to other students and get feedback anonymously. He meets one student, Shannon, who speaks candidly about how she has invested a lot of money to attend the seminar and has a lot of family expenses to worry about.
Business lessons: It’s easy to forget how much stakeholders of all kinds have invested in your company if you don’t talk to them. You may also not have an accurate picture of who your stakeholders are at all. If they’re out of sight, they’re often out of mind. Put yourself in their shoes. If you remind them you bleed red too, they will be a lot more likely to open up to you, because it can often be hard for executives to have a candid dialogue with stakeholders. Let them know you care.
Keep Your Employees Happy
After the education seminar, Montelongo assumes the role of a room director for one of his free preview events, which gives prospective students a glimpse at what his seminars are like. He is supervised by Sarah and is responsible for engaging with attendees and trying to sell real estate packages. Sarah, who is unimpressed with his performance, reveals a lot of the employees are stressed because they aren’t scheduled to work very far in advance, so they worry they won’t be scheduled at all.
Business lessons: People don’t like to live in fear. You, as a manager, should do what you can to put employees at ease, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because people work better when they’re happier. Low employee morale also reflects poorly on you and your business. It usually doesn’t take too much effort to improve morale, so why not try?
Pay Attention to All Problems
Lastly, Montelongo goes undercover in his company’s call center, which is responsible for recruiting students to attend the educational seminars. He is supervised by Amanda. As he’s working, the system goes down, temporarily shutting down the call center. He learns this is a recurring problem, sees no one doing anything about it, gets angry and reveals his identity. Amanda tells him she thinks the call center doesn’t get the necessary attention.
Business lessons: Executives sometimes don’t know about significant problems if they don’t discover them for themselves. Some problems simply don’t get reported for whatever reason.
It’s critical to make sure each department has the necessary resources to operate at maximum efficiency and that each department is made to feel part of the family. It’s also important to not lose sight of the values that were important to the company from the beginning.
In addition, employees often want to hear straight from the horse’s mouth. When that happens, it’s often a win-win. Executives can learn what kinks need to be worked out, and employees can feel valued. It’s important to remember that you can learn as much from your employees, even those lowest on the totem pole, as they can from you.