The Undercover Boss Sees All

By David Mizne

Entrepreneurs and high-level executives are constantly seeking ways to gain visibility inside every detail of their companies. Managers at every level often encounter the same problem:  How do I encourage front-line employees (who interact directly with customers) to be vulnerable, trusting, and open enough to offer candid information about their work experience and the challenges they face?

As usual, Hollywood proposes all the answers. In 2010, CBS premiered the hit show Undercover Boss. Executives and leaders at multi-million dollar organizations from Waste Management to Hooters don a disguise and pose as an entry-level employee to see what’s really going on.

While this approach is entertaining, there is a far simpler and replicable method for discovering how employees feel — just ask them.

Art imitates life

The 5th season of Undercover Boss ended in March with CEO Jeff Platt going undercover at Sky Zone, a multi-million dollar trampoline park franchise that he helped to build from the ground up. Jeff inspects all aspects of his business by interacting with employees in maintenance, sales, support, construction, and on-site operations.

Not every company is sexy enough to be featured on a network television show viewed by millions, but every company can easily gain the insights discovered by undercover bosses (and you don’t even need to wear a wig).

Jeff Platt and other business owners have learned what their employees were thinking by simply asking direct and detailed questions. At 15Five, we have learned that employees will not always volunteer information to managers, but being asked allows them to feel safe enough to be honest. And when managers respond to employee feedback with gratitude and by acting on what they learn, employees are encouraged and empowered to keep providing that valuable information.

Tough feedback

You say that you want feedback, but are you prepared for it? What would you do if an employee said to you, “You are the problem. You made this decision and now we are all suffering for it.” Would you handle things as gracefully as Jeff Platt does when he is given some critical feedback?

In a tense moment during the Sky Zone episode, an employee named Miles discloses that he recognizes Jeff. The now exposed CEO immediately takes the opportunity to ask his employee about anything in the organization that needs to be addressed: “Just lay things on me right now.”

Something incredible happens here. A chief executive asks a low-level employee he barely knows for honest feedback. Instead of lying or hiding, Miles criticizes Jeff for the way that he requested him to perform his duties on the day that they first met.

Miles felt like Jeff was being condescending when he asked him to mop the floor on that day years ago.  Jeff learns a valuable lesson: “while focusing on my business growth is important, it’s just as important to treat my team well.”

Jeff continues by asking Miles for his opinion on details to improve the company. Miles responds “Our bullpen of experienced people is too shallow to support 50 parks opening up in one year.” Wow, a front-line employee is actually challenging a high-level business decision. Instead of firing Miles for insubordination, Jeff is grateful for his honesty.

There is clearly something very powerful about asking questions. When employees are invited to disclose their triumphs, challenges, and brilliant ideas, a natural desire to be fully expressed takes over.

Vulnerability is the gateway to feedback

Jeff gets vulnerable with all of the employees he engages on the show, sharing that he lost his mother to cancer 4 years prior and that Sky Zone was a big part of her life. That motivates him because he knows how happy it would make her to see the business continuing to grow.

Upon hearing that, each employee feels open enough to discuss their own challenges. Even Miles, who knows that he is talking to the CEO, discloses that he had lost his father to cancer seven years prior and subsequently developed a drug addiction. Miles disclosed that he slept in his car for months before he finally came to Minnesota for rehab.

Each company leader will have to decide how much personal and business information to share with employees. But if the show is any indication of real human responses, employees will respond by being open and honest, not by taking advantage of their managers.

A supported employee is a loyal employee

Miles met the Sky Zone franchise owner at a halfway house following rehab. He went to work for him at a sandwich shop before following him to Sky Zone. That person believed in Miles and saw his potential, so Miles admits that he will “follow him until he has no more use for me”.

When was the last time you experienced that kind of loyalty? People are motivated by support in their personal and professional endeavors. That can be as simple as recognizing a job well done, or as involved as teaching development courses to employees.

Check-in regularly and ask questions. Send the message that you care and that you want your people to succeed, and they will show-up for you and for themselves.

The importance of being seen

In the last segment of the show, the “Boss Reveal”, Jeff meets each employee face-to-face and discloses his true identity. He discusses the impact of each person’s candid comments and offers financial support to help them achieve their personal and professional goals.

Jeff offers to pay Miles’s $60,000 franchise fee to help fulfill his dream of becoming a Sky Zone franchisee. He comments on how Miles has grown within the business and that he respects his opinion. Jeff promotes the other employees he interacted with, and gives each one a financial benefit.

More impactful than the money, was the CEO’s message of pride and respect. Jeff shared that he wants to see them to continue to develop, that he needs more people like them, and that they deserve to live the lives that they desire.

These are extreme and poignant examples of the way that a boss can get employee feedback and show support to his talented workers. Even if all you do is genuinely ask an employee how it’s going, you’d be surprised by the way that simple question can seal a long and loyal bond.

That was Jeff’s greatest take-away: “It has definitely taught me how important communication is within our company, and the need to make sure we’re hearing the voices of those that are working down in the front lines.”

Photo Credit: Personeelsnet

David Mizne, Content Manager at 15Five, interviews some of the most brilliant minds in business and reports on topics ranging from entrepreneurship to employee engagement.15Five creates an internal communication process that allows the most important information to flow seamlessly throughout an organization, to surface issues before they become problems, to celebrate wins, discover great ideas and stay tuned in to the morale of the team.

How do you elicit honest feedback from your team? Ever had to go undercover? Leave a comment below.


Know the pulse of your team each week and improve employee engagement with 15Five.


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