5 leadership lessons I learned from doing my own 'undercover boss'

This Fortune 500 executive gained a clearer understanding of success from spending time in his company's call centre. Image: Shopify

Earl Valencia
Founding Adviser, QBO, the National Innovation Center of the Philippines
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When was the last time you saw your CEO or vice president shadow the call centre or the factory floor? When was the last time your managing director came up to talk to employees about their needs and pain points in the workplace?

The answer for most employees is never. There are employees who never see their executives over an entire career, save on the internal website or the latest organisational chart. The corporate hierarchy today creates executives who focus upwards rather than leaders who focus on building the foundations of their business.

In the new digital age, where speed, client focus, employee retention, humility and empathy are key leadership qualities, one of the most important activities an executive an carry out is to ‘shadow’ his or her staff.

One of my favourite TV shows in the US is called Undercover Boss, in which senior executives, typically CEOs or presidents, don a disguise and join the lower ranks of the company they lead. It typically ends with a big reveal, in which the boss loses the costume and shares the lessons they learned during the experience.

When I was studying for an MBA, one of the key lessons was to always keep your ears to the ground as a company founder or executive. When I went on to run a small company, I knew every employee, oversaw every hire myself and even knew the security guards' names by heart. But when I moved on to larger Fortune 500 companies, it no longer felt practical to be that close to the ground; after all, it was a job that could be delegated.

At least, that's what I thought.

In my first month at a Fortune 500 company, where I'd taken a job as managing director of digital transformation, I asked a senior colleague what might be the best way to learn the business, the people and the culture. His advice was to shadow our operations and call centres. So I spent the best part of a week going to different teams and sitting side by side with staff. There, I learned some of the most important leadership lessons of my career.

Here are my top five.

1. The power of ideas. Staff have a lot of suggestions for improvement, since they are closest to the customer. They often understand where the business’s real pressure points lie and can help you make their own work more efficient.

2. Keeping your ear close to the customers. Listening to calls, queries and feedback from customers gives you a useful perspective on the needs of your market, whether simple or complicated, and it uncovers opportunities for improvement.

3. You reputation is only as good as your customer service. You will learn to appreciate the unsung heroics of your staff, as they make sure that your clients are taken care of no matter what. In the world of artificial intelligence and automation, care and empathy is what will differentiate your company's reputation.

4. Translate executive speak. Students of MBAs learn to speak in a different language, using words that sound smart but are meaningless to most. If you want to create massive change, people have to understand your message.

5. Being a leader means taking care of people. The most valuable asset of any business is its employees, and the first priority of a leader is to make sure that the future of your staff and their families are taken care of, so that they can focus on taking care of the clients for you.

Have you read?

Since then, I have gone "undercover" twice more. Each time, I learn an increasing amount about the people and the culture of our business and its digital transformation.

My question to you right now, as a leader in your own company, is this. When was the last time you stepped out of your comfort zone and went among the people who work for you? Are you ready to listen and watch with empathy as jobs and workplaces are transformed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution - or will you be left behind with old-world hierarchical thinking? The choice is yours.

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