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Managers: "Undercover" Success?

Managers: "Undercover" Success?

Renee Weisman

April 15, 2010

Undercover Boss has become one of the newer hit shows, as the CEO or owner of a company goes incognito to learn about what’s really going on his company. While I never practiced pretending to be someone I wasn’t, this show reminds me of a basic management principle, first proposed by Peters and Waterman, the value of managing by walking around.

The higher you get in your company, the more likely the information you receive is filtered, untimely, or “netted” to the point where key principles are eliminated. Even if you have a small company where you know everyone, getting out of the office and walking around is a key management technique.

When I first became a manager nearly 30 years ago, I was determined to get out of my office and go where the people were. As I grew in management level and responsibility, I would schedule meetings not in my conference room, but closer to where the people worked. I also resisted moving my office to be nearer my bosses- I preferred having easy access to my employees and giving them the same. I had a particular path I walked each morning to get a cup of coffee in the cafeteria. Many of my employees and coworkers knew this and would be “along the route” to inform me of little things they might not have shared in a larger meeting. I also would stop along the way in the labs, offices or break areas periodically. Doing this “unscheduled and alone” allowed me unfiltered information. When I was a manufacturing superintendent, I would go “on line” when no one knew I was coming. In clean room garb, they rarely knew who I was and I could get “straight talk”. Once, when engineering and manufacturing were arguing over how to properly run a process, I asked them to “certify” me (at the time I was a third line manager) so I could really learn what operators were expected to do.

Yes, all this took time, but then again, it saved time. I learned about issues more quickly, eliminated meetings, and really understood issues because I saw them with my own eyes.

The higher you go or the larger your company grows, the less you know about what is really going on. Get out there and see if for yourself whenever possible. Do it often and do it with different people. Ask questions but keep the discussions about the business. (If someone asked to discuss something personal, I always suggested they get on my calendar.) Compliment people when you see something right. Act when you see something wrong, but don’t judge and don’t embarrass the employees. You want them to remain comfortable sharing information.

While you are there, share news that they’d be interested in as well as your values and objectives. People like to hear it from the “horse’s mouth” and you know your message is getting out unfiltered.

You don’t need to go undercover to be a good leader but you need to use every opportunity to get the information that can make your business more effective. Getting out of your office and touching the people who make your business happen will make you more successful. Take every opportunity to do this with your customers and clients as well.