We’re flooded with horrible “reality television” shows full of fake drama, scripted spontaneity and ludicrous premises. Yet one show allows its weekly stars to declare their ineptitude publicly simply by their participation: “Undercover Boss.”
If you haven’t seen this show
count yourself lucky, the hook is that a senior executive (usually a CEO) gets himself hired under an assumed identity in some low-level job in his own company. There, he’s followed around by cameras as he struggles to do work his lowest-paid employees accomplish effortlessly. The CEO wears a thin disguise akin to the suit and glasses that apparently blinded Clark Kent’s coworkers and girlfriend from recognizing him as Superman.
Once undercover, the “boss” learns valuable lessons about just how hard it is to do the work that makes up the company’s core value proposition. He also learns to appreciate some unsung hero, who usually gets showered with various gifts upon the CEO’s reveal, such as a scholarship, a promotion, a much-needed car, etc.
Occasionally, the CEO uses his anonymity to identify some awful person who’s been in a position of authority in his company. Viewers get the pleasure of watching the evildoer’s comeuppance in the form of humiliation, termination or demotion.
What Kind of CEO is Anonymous in His Own Company?
How is it possible that these CEOs can be anonymous with their awful disguises? And what about that TV production team that’s supposedly making a “training film?”
There are a few possibilities to this conundrum:
- It’s all a scam. The company tells the employees that the CEO is coming in “undercover,” and they play along. The CEO does it to bring publicity to the company and is willing to sacrifice his dignity and any appearance of competence to get it.
- The employees know but don’t tell. In this scenario, the employees figure it out (the camera crew is what we shrewd detective-types call a “tell”) but they play along so they don’t get in trouble. Plus, the employees usually come out looking great, so they can send clips of the show along with their resumes when they look for better jobs. Pro tip: In this scenario the CEOs still look incompetent.
- The CEOs are incompetent. If you have run a company of nearly any type or size for more than a year and you can successfully go “undercover” in your own firm, you are an absolutely terrible communicator. This is not 1975 when it was hard to put your face in front of employees. If your employees don’t recognize you, it’s your own fault.
I’ve worked for some fantastic distribution CEOs in my career and not one of them could have been on Undercover Boss. That’s because they were constantly communicating with the customer-facing people in the business. The best of them spent so much time on the front lines that they couldn’t have remained anonymous if we’d dressed them like Storm Trooper ballerinas: Everyone knew them – what they looked like, what they sounded like, even their favorite expressions.
What About Full-Time Undercover Bosses?
You may know of a leader who hides away so effectively that he acts like he’s on Undercover Boss just about every day. But instead of putting on a disguise and working with the troops, he just goes into the office and hides there. That person is a perfect candidate for the show – if he’s going to be an invisible, ineffective CEO, his company might as well get some free publicity out of it.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “leader” is derived from the Old English word, lædere, meaning “one who leads, one first or most prominent.” If you hide so well – in your office or among your own employees – that your employees can’t recognize you, then you are certainly not prominent in your own company and, by logical extension, you aren’t a leader.
Bottom to Top or Front to Back
I was at a company meeting once at which Alec, a senior corporate strategy executive referred to customer-facing employees as “the people at the bottom of the organization.” Having started my career as a truck unloader for Grainger back in 1918 or so, I was highly offended even though no one else seemed to react.
The next day I brought it up with my boss who was the CEO of one of the company’s divisions. I said, “Zed, you always refer to customer service personnel, sales reps, drivers and other branch employees as ‘front-line’ workers, implying those of us at the corporate office are at the back of the company.”
“Yes,” he said. “I do that because it’s true.”
“I agree,” I answered. “Yesterday, Alec referred to front-line employees as ‘the bottom of the company.’”
He had noticed, of course, and had already talked to the strategy executive, who did not report to him. It will not surprise you that, years later, my boss is still thriving in his role and that strategy executive is long gone.
I didn’t hear anything about him for a few years. However, I read recently that he duped some company into hiring him as its CEO.
I expect to see him on Undercover Boss any day now.
 All names have been changed to protect the innocent, the guilty and the incompetent.
Ian Heller is the Founder and Chief Strategist for Distribution Strategy Group. He has more than 30 years of experience executing marketing and e-business strategy in the wholesale distribution industry, starting as a truck unloader at a Grainger branch while in college. He’s since held executive roles at GE Capital, Corporate Express, Newark Electronics and HD Supply. Ian has written and spoken extensively on the impact of digital disruption on distributors, and would love to start that conversation with you, your team or group. Reach out today at firstname.lastname@example.org.