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Undercover Lessons

How much time do and should business leaders spend on the front-line? Stuart Crainer goes undercover.

Undercover Boss is a popular TV series throughout the world. The format is simple: a boss is disguised and sent to work at the frontline of the organization. The results are predictable and predictably entertaining.

In a recent UK show, the CEO of a chain of night clubs was dispatched to work at a selection of his clubs. He was surprised to find that young people drank themselves into a stupour or A&E. He was even more surprised to find that the toilets at the night clubs weren’t very pleasant at the end of a long evening. Along the way, as his eyes were opened to the reality of his business, the CEO met some of the exceptional people working for the company — cleaners, managers who do virtually everything, young marketers getting people through the doors.

Week after week, executives encounter the reality of their businesses and are surprised. This begs an obvious question: why don’t they know what goes on in their business?

Perhaps it is a lack of curiosity. Perhaps they are trapped in some sort of corporate comfort zone. Perhaps it is a lack of imagination, a failure to link the decision to sell shots in a night club for less than a pound each and rampant drunkenness.

Whatever the reasons, it is inexcusable for executives not to understand the day-to-day reality of their business.

Indeed, the most impressive and successful business leaders have an intimate understanding of the minutiae of their business. They also know that any organization relies on people doing fantastic things and going beyond the call of duty.

Before interviewing Vittorio Colao, CEO of Vodafone, I was in a Vodafone store and asked the sales assistant whether she knew anything abut him. “Oh yes, he comes in quite a lot,” she replied. Vodafone is a big company, but the CEO makes the time to visit stores. “One of the problems of CEOs is that we risk living in a bubble – only taking British Airways, living in airport lounges and corporate boardrooms and talking only to other CEOs. My challenge is to keep learning new things in both my personal life and my business life,” Colao told me.

Similarly, I talked with Ben Lewis, the CEO of the River Island retail chain. He had worked in the stores so knew how they worked. He reckoned that he could assess a store’s performance and problems in a 45 minute visit. This was something he did routinely every week. Lewis visits stores every week. When we spoke it was a Wednesday and he had already paid a visit to the Brent Cross store and was heading over to White City later in the afternoon. He managed to take in three stores in one day during the previous week. “I have to be able to look at product, walk into a shop and have a sense and a knowledge about whether it’s right or wrong and how to fix it,” he says. Then there is the trawling of retail sites to see alternative approaches, Facebook posts, online blogs, student chat rooms and more. “I am hungry for information all the time. I review customer service comments, I talk to store managers, I talk to friends and the children of friends, I talk to staff that work in the fitting room, I talk to the buying team about the information they’re gathering.”

These leaders are grounded. They understand how their business works and the issues facing the people who work for them on the front line.

But it is not only in retail businesses where this connectedness with reality is important. I asked a director of the Japanese company Fujitsu what he remembered about his first day with the company. It was over 30 years ago so it was a feat of memory. He paused and thought. “Yes, I remember. I was sent to work in a bank, a Fujitsu customer. It was unclear who worked for the bank and who worked for Fujitsu. That has always stuck with me — we work closely with our customers because we need to understand their needs and businesses.”

Some executives have no need to go undercover.

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