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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Leadership Lessons from an Undercover Boss

The first episode of CBS’s new reality show “Undercover Boss” was broadcast in the USA recently. Each week the show features a CEO who goes “undercover” to find out what everyday life is really like within their own company.

What a perfect opportunity for leadership lessons and advice!

The first episode didn’t disappoint. It featured Larry O'Donnell, president and COO of Waste Management. O'Donnell, who has 45,000 employees, took on five entry-level jobs, which included: sorting rubbish at a recycling facility, collecting rubbish in a truck and by hand, working at a landfill and cleaning portable toilets.

Larry set out looking for more ways to increase productivity. “That’s what it’s all about”, he said at the beginning of the show. He ended up learning more than he bargained for.

Here are the lessons:

1. Don’t let yourself get isolated from reality
This seems pretty obvious! Nonetheless, it’s a common trap for leaders to fall into, and gets worse the higher your position. While you may really be a well-meaning, competent, good-hearted leader, if you’re clueless, many people will assume you’re ruthless. In other words, they won’t give you the benefit of the doubt of just being ignorant – they’ll assume you actually enjoy making their lives miserable.

2. Don’t just mandate: explain the “why”
This is a lesson that just about every senior leader needs to understand and embrace. How many times have you issued a company-wide edict to cut costs or improve productivity, but didn’t take the time to explain the “why” to everyone involved? Yes, it takes extra time, but its well worth the time and effort. Don’t underestimate the loyalty of your workforce or their capacity to grasp the big picture and numbers. They’ll be more on board if you treat them like adults and with respect by explaining the rationale behind your decisions.

3. Engage your workforce
Explaining the why is a great start. It’s even better if you can get your team involved in deciding how to achieve your objectives. Once you’ve explained the importance, they’ll be fired up to contribute. Some leaders don’t even give a target, or number – and their teams come back with even more aggressive goals. In addition to the buy-in and commitment, you’ll also get realistic, workable solutions. You won’t hear anybody saying “Yeah, it’s another one of those corporate things we have to do that don’t make any sense”.

4. Give managers the tools they need to achieve your objectives
If left to their own devices, your managers will figure out ways to meet your objectives. However, they may come up with ways that you wouldn’t approve of.

5. Get to know your employees
The employees that Larry worked with for a day all had amazing stories. Don’t we all? As a leader, your actions impact the lives of your employees and the communities in which they live in. It’s your obligation to embrace that awesome responsibility, to take a personal interest in the lives of each and every one of your employees. 


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