You probably know the premise of the show, Undercover Boss: the owner or senior executive of a company goes to work, incognito, for a few days in an entry-level position within the organization. Their mission is to get candid feedback from the frontline employees about what is working and not working within the company.

While this makes for interesting television, a real leader should never have to do this. Why? Because Undercover Boss is based on two disturbing concepts:

1.    Employees don’t know the top leaders of the organization and

2.    Those leaders are so out of touch with what is really going on in their organization they need to disguise themselves and pretend to be a frontline employee just to get the true picture of the company’s issues.

A company leader, properly doing their job, should never be successful in infiltrating their organization unrecognized or have to rely on this deceptive tactic to find out what is really happening in their company.

Truly effective leaders don’t have to resort to subterfuge and disguises because they already know what is going on in the company – the good, the bad and the ugly – because they have established a routine of getting real time accurate feedback  by talking and LISTENING to employees at every level of the organization all the time. And because they are communicating all the time, they are easily recognizable in the boardroom, the office, the mailroom and on the factory or warehouse floor.

The leader’s primary job should involve managing the business’ processes: making sure the finances are in order, ensuring the products or services delivered are high quality, looking for growth opportunities, anticipating problems, finding problems, addressing them quickly, and, most important, developing people. While some of these responsibilities necessarily must take place within the leader’s office, the majority should take place outside of those four walls, on the manufacturing floor, in the customer service call center, on a customer sales call, or in the employee cafeteria.

By being highly visible, escaping their echo chamber and being accessible to those employees in all areas of the business, the leader accumulates a wealth of real time knowledge about the business (which employees are productive, and which ones are just self-promoting? What policy or procedure is outdated and needs to be revised? What is the real company culture?).  Based on this information, leaders can determine what needs to start happening, continue to happen and stop happening to maintain, profitability, productivity and growth.  Being present allows the leader to avoid the inevitable filters in place, distorting the real situation, when their direct reports tell them what they want them to hear is happening throughout the organization.

Being a visible and accessible leader also provides the attention needed to engage employees in their work.  One of the primary issues faced by all organizations is the ongoing disengagement of the workforce (according to Gallup, only 30% of the workforce is actively engaged, while 20% is actively disengaged, and the remaining 50% are the Quiet Quitters, doing just enough to not get fired).  In the hypercompetitive post-pandemic need for talent to face the challenges of growing the organization, leaders cannot be satisfied with employees who simply do the job. They need people who care enough about the job to give the discretionary effort necessary to be a member of a high performing work team, whether the employee is a maintenance worker or a senior vice president.

Two of the most effective ways to engage employees is for their leader to pay attention to them and show appreciation and gratitude for their work efforts. When a leader takes the time, on a regular basis, to demonstrate to employees that they are valued, it energizes, engages them and retains them. When a leader personally tells an employee, their specific effort is appreciated, that employee feels the value of their work and is motivated to increase their discretionary efforts for that leader.

With so much upside and no downside, why don’t more leaders make the effort to regularly interact with employees throughout the company? As expressed to me in coaching sessions, it’s because leaders think it takes too much time and effort to engage in this type of personalized communication!  And yet, as I tell these leaders, isn’t the opportunity to increase employee engagement and retention throughout the organization, exactly how they should be spending their time and expending their effort?

The Bottom Line: Although the benefits to employee morale, engagement, and culture are obvious, too many leaders assume that those benefits don’t affect the bottom line. That is, until a company finds itself with high employee turnover, lackluster sales, and mediocre productivity. When that happens, no doubt the Leader of this failing organization will be looking on the CBS website for the application to Undercover Boss.

I could be wrong…but I’m not.