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Great Bosses Don’t Go Undercover

If you need a disguise to learn the truth about your company, you're doing something wrong. Here's how to do it right.
Bernt Bodal, CEO of American Seafoods, donned a disguise to learn more about his own company on CBS's reality show "Undercover Boss."

Remember how exciting it was watching Batman or Zorro when you were a kid? Those dashing characters would swoop in to save the day—always fashionably cloaking their identities with a cape, mask, and extreme bravado.

Although I'd never downplay your childhood aspirations (heck, I wanted to be a magician), I think there's something wrong with this picture of heroism. And it became particularly clear to me when I saw the hit reality show "Undercover Boss" and realized the parallels.

When you have to don a fake name and disguise to fully gauge where your business is failing, how your people are feeling, and how to swoop in to save everything, you know you've got a problem.

That's not to say it's all bad. These leaders are very publicly and demonstratively trying to understand what makes their companies tick and change their own unproductive behaviors. It's brave and important, but avoidable.

Here's how to do it yourself—away from the cameras and without the disguise:

Be humble.

Ask your employees direct questions about your leadership as a CEO and your business processes. If you're sincere, you're going to hear about areas that need improvement. It will hurt. And it will feel personal. But it's a gift and an opportunity. Some companies call them 360s, but whatever you call it, all you need to do is ask.

Connect with your people.

One of the most touching parts of the show is watching the CEO hear the personal stories of his or her employees: struggling single parents, chronically ill children, personal hardships. Although people's personal lives aren't something you can control or discover in the hiring process, they are part of your company.

  • Keep your business flexible and available to help people when they need it.  Who doesn't love hearing about a group of employees who pool their vacation time to donate to a sick colleague?
  • Train your management and HR to be empathetic problem solvers who aren't afraid to come to you with an employee's problem that you can help solve.

Don't wait until it's too late.

For some situations, having the boss swoop in at the 11th hour might be too little, too late. Instead, lay a foundation of appreciation all year long. Don't wait for annual reviews or holiday bonus time. Just as your business finds success in "surprising and delighting" your customers, you'll be a happy CEO if you make it a point to regularly show your appreciation for employees in ways that resonate with them: a pizza lunch party on a busy day, movie tickets and early dismissal for a high-performing team, a signed anniversary card.

Walk a mile in their shoes, literally.

I think it's tragic that it takes a television program to show CEOs how great or terrible a work environment they've created. Be the leader who hops in the delivery truck, grabs lunch with warehouse workers and knows, firsthand, how disjointed communication can work its way down the ladder. (Oh, and by the way, you should take a walk in your customers' shoes too.)

I guess what I mean is, you don't have to go undercover when your heart, and your actions, are in the right place.

Last updated: May 9, 2012


JAY STEINFELD is the founder and CEO of, the industry leader in online window covering sales that was recently acquired by The Home Depot. Jay is a passionate advocate for amazing (and profitable) company culture.

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