By Maria Anton
The new CBS documentary show Undercover Boss hasn’t hit the air yet (it premieres February 7), but it sounds pretty interesting. The 10-episodes show will follow CEOs at huge corporations going incognito at their own companies and being trained for various jobs. (One CEO of a waste management company, apparently, was so bad at picking up garbage that his supervisor fired him.)
Companies that participated in the show include big names like 7-Eleven, White Castle and Hooters; one requirement was that the top executive who participated be someone the worker bees weren’t likely to recognize.
Of course, as a small-business owner, you can’t really go undercover at your own business–but there’s still a lot you could learn from Undercover Boss. Even at a small company, it’s easy to become very removed from the day-to-day tasks your employees are doing on the “front lines.” The bigger your company gets, the easier it is to lose touch.
How can you keep in touch with what’s going on at your business? There are a variety of ways, from weekly meetings where you ask for people’s input (and truly listen) to an open-door policy so employees know they can talk to you about anything. Have employees e-mail you quick notes on problems they’re running into, then figure out how to deal with the issues. Management by walking around—simply taking time every day to walk through your business and chat with each employee about what they’re doing—is a tactic that works for many entrepreneurs.
Whatever method you use, the means is not as important as the goal: to facilitate open communication with your staff so they feel as if they can bring up problems, ideas and possible solutions to you without getting shot down. That requires that you not only listen, but actually act on some of your staff’s suggestions so they don’t feel like their ideas are going into the infamous “suggestion box” (does any suggestion put in a suggestion box ever actually get implemented?)
Last, but not least, it really wouldn’t hurt to walk in some of your employees’ shoes for a few days. You won’t be able to go incognito, but you may learn a lot about systems, procedures and tools that aren’t working the way they should.