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Undercover Boss

By Patrick Lencioni - June 2010

As we move into the season of television re-runs, I thought I might share a thought I had about a TV show that I’ve watched recently.

The truth is, I don’t watch a lot of television. That’s probably due in equal parts to my busy schedule these days and my distaste for most of what I see coming out of Hollywood. I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a grumpy old man. In any case, when it comes to knowing what is happening on Lost or 24 or American Idol, I will admit that I’m woefully uninformed.

However, enough people encouraged me to watch the relatively new show Undercover Boss that I finally took the time to view a few episodes. And while I realize that it is designed for entertainment purposes and not as a training tool for leaders, I must admit that I was still disappointed in what I saw.

Before I get into my reasons for that, I should probably explain the basic premise of the show, especially for those who haven’t seen it. Essentially, in each episode a CEO or senior executive anonymously takes a front line position within his or her organization, usually in some sort of blue collar job. Of the episodes I’ve seen, those jobs included riding in a garbage truck, working as a clerk at a convenience store, driving a delivery van and working on the assembly line in a bakery.

Now, this is a terrific concept. In theory, the show would seem to be a great way to give viewers a glimpse of the realities of corporate America, and more importantly, to encourage leaders to rethink how well they know what’s happening in their organizations. In reality, the show is painful. Here’s why.

First, the way the show is produced and edited is overwrought and misleading. Beyond the cheesy opening that sounds more like the intro to a professional wrestling match than a documentary, I find it maddening how the producers insert dramatic music and suggestive camera shots to add artificial tension to meetings and other situations that are otherwise fairly undramatic. I suppose what really bugs me is the possibility that viewers who have never worked in corporate America might come to believe that business really does resemble a Donald Trump reality TV show. It doesn’t.

But more than the editing, I don’t like the way the ‘bosses’ have to act when they are on camera. It’s clear to me that they are not saying what they’re really thinking, but instead are trying to manage the perceptions of a television audience. And though I can’t blame them for doing so given the potential for positive or negative PR, the impact is nonetheless shmarmy.

You see, in all the episodes I saw, the undercover executive, who was woefully undertrained for the lower level job he was taking on, came to an emotional realization that he was out of touch with what was really going on in the organization. As a result, he gained a profound new appreciation for the challenges and travails of the employees down in the trenches. And while that in itself would seem like a good thing, the behavior of the executives featured-lots of hugs and apologies-made me feel like I was watching an episode of Celebrity Rehab instead of a documentary on organizational life. Again, I realize that’s the nature of TV, but it was painful nonetheless.

What I’d prefer to see is someone with real business experience interviewing the executives after each episode and really probing them about how they spend their time and why they don’t understand what is happening in the organizations they lead. And I’d want to hear the executives give us their unfiltered comments about their own challenges and why solutions can’t quite be captured in a one-hour made-for-TV program. Finally, I’d love to see someone do follow-up interviews three months later to see how the executives made changes based on what they learned.

But I suppose that wouldn’t make for great television, so producers wouldn’t go for it. Unless, of course, the CEOs then sang show tunes or danced the samba and then let their employees harshly grade their performances. Now that would be must-see TV.

Having said all that, there is a valuable lesson to be learned from Undercover Boss. I think all leaders should spend time on the front lines of their companies, on a regular basis and without TV cameras and background music, reminding themselves what the world looks like from the vantage point of employees and customers. In addition to the obvious benefits of staying informed, it is a wonderful way to keep executives humble and remind them about the ultimate purpose of leadership, which is service.