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Undercover Boss

Is strategy just for the chosen few in the executive circle? Executives typically live and breathe the strategy; they have internalized it so much they certainly get-it, though the staff might not. Dropping lower down the organizational chart, the middle managers don’t seem to understand strategy as much as know the measures. Delivering on the numbers has to occur, but these managers become so obsessed that they can make the numbers and miss the goals.

A great example of why middle managers need to better understand strategy came in an unlikely place – a reality TV show. No, it wasn’t Survivor; it was another program on the same network called Undercover Boss. The premise of this series is that each week an executive goes undercover to work for a day in an entry-level role at different locations of their company.

In this episode, the COO of Waste Management Incorporated, one of the biggest trash disposal companies in America, posed as an unemployed construction worker that a film crew followed as he started a new career with this entry-level job. This gave that COO the chance to spend a day working a route on a garbage truck and cleaning out portable toilets at a carnival, to name just two of the different jobs he took.

He was interested to see how the targets and goals he set at the corporate level were being executed in the field. He heard unvarnished opinions of some of these targets from his co-workers and he saw how these measures affected those people on the front line. In one case, a woman was working three jobs because of budget cuts. At a different facility the workers were being docked 2 minutes of pay for every minute late returning from their 1/2 hour lunch “hour”.

To be a successful COO in the trash disposal business means working those operating margins – cutting costs and improving productivity. He discovered some unintended consequences – the way his middle managers intrepeted these measures.  In one case, a garbage truck driver described supervisor’s monitoring her activity as “spying”. Then there is that manager interpreting productivity by enforcing punctuality. These supervisors focused on enforcing measurements without being able provide a sense of mission, thereby missing an opportunity to leverage and align with the passion and dedication these workers already had toward their jobs with the company’s need for operational efficiency. 

At the end of this episode, the show reported when dropping the rule docking people extra after returning late from lunch, the facility’s productivity increased.

There is a heavily manufactured “reality” on reality TV shows, I don’t want to push this example too far. Television needs a bad guy to make a compelling story and they found them in these middle managers.

One of the greatest challenges of executing on strategy is knowing what measurements will drive correct behavior and avoid unintended consequences. It is so easy to get tangled up by concentrating only on the measure that you can lose sight of the goal. If the goal is productivity, docking time from tardy employees only guarantees attendance, not productivity.

As David Mesicek said in my last The Strategic Value of Social Responsibility, if your people understand the strategy and buy-in with the priorities they don’t need to be told what to do – they already know what needs to be done. Strategy is not just for the chosen few in the executive circle, everyone needs to understand the goals of the organization and empowered to use their own skills and abilities to help realize those goals.

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  • Hi Bob,

    Thanks for sharing the infomration. I agree with your statement of “creation of reality on reality show”. But, the message is clear.

    I hope your message will help people to be focussed on the goals and not the measures.


  • Hi Bob,

    The message conveyed is really concise & clear as focus always needs to be on the ultimate goal than the measures.

    Execution of good strategy requires leadership at various levels, to convey the strategy and develop passion among the people for its execution.

    Statement ‘Interpreting productivity by enforcing punctuality’ is common mistake found at the workplace as  both are different as also proved by the results in the Episode.




  • Arundeep,
    As for the ‘creation of reality’, it’s easy for that to happen at companies as well. A company that is good at communicating those ideals, those goals, and that vision the company is trying to reach creates that reality in the company.
    When that message gets lost as it moves through the organizational structure, a different ‘reality’ takes its place and creates a huge disconnect. That is why it is so important to have everyone from top to bottom and side to side really understand the goals.