Grant Freeland, Forbes • Jan 22, 2019
Suggesting that many of today’s business leaders need to change is like suggesting that the Pope should be Catholic. It’s a given. And they know it.
But change can be personally painful. So the pace is usually slow; too slow. Many executives don’t know how to change, or they don’t have the necessary support they need to make it work. That doesn’t make it any less necessary.
In evidence I’ll avoid referencing the many articles and research papers on the topic and point you instead to one of the hokier shows on television: the CBS reality series Undercover Boss.
As described by CBS, the formulaic shows follow “high-level executives as they slip anonymously into the rank and file of their own organizations,” where they get an eye-opening “undercover view of the inner workings of their operation.” Among the dozens of companies that have been featured in the series since its 2010 U.S. debut have been ADT Security Services, Chiquita Brands International, Choice Hotels, Churchill Downs, Family Dollar, Mack Trucks, NASCAR, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Orkin, 7-Eleven and Waste Management. A U.K. version of the show, started a year earlier, featured Crown Worldwide Group, Isuzu Trucks UK, Jockey Club racecourses, Moss Bros menswear shops, Oxfam, and Stena Line, the world’s largest ferry operator, among others.
The undercover bosses frequently don’t like much of what they find when they examine their operations. And, to no one’s surprise, they’re frequently the architects of what they don’t like.
If there’s one consistent message from the hijinks it’s this: that companies could benefit significantly if senior leaders would get out more—get away from their offices, the unnecessary meetings and the power lunches and see what’s going on elsewhere in the organization and among its customers. It would seem like common sense, but other than occasional staged appearances and brief, stop-by visits at various facilities, many senior executives are rarely seen by their employees and customers. Instead, they’re hunkered down on the “top floor,” where the C Suite and Board Room are located, where important guests are entertained, where big decisions are made, and where most leadership failures occur, often cheered on by their dreary “yes” men.
This isolation from the guts of the company is one of the reasons senior leaders often find change so challenging. They’re familiar with charts; they listen to the presentations; they review the numbers; and they confidently embark on ambitious transformation programs , but they don’t fully realize that transformation means they also have to change. The old ways won’t do.
They don’t get it because a coveted corner office on the top floor doesn’t produce the kind of feedback they need. All they hear from the “yes” chorus is how great they are, what a good job they’re doing, how the numbers are moving in the right direction, and that this or that new plan will fix whatever needs to be fixed.
Not so fast. When you sweep a flight of stairs you don’t begin at the bottom, you begin at the top. The same holds true when a company needs a course correction. Change starts at the top.
The old way of leading is through “command-and-control.” All important decisions are made by the C Suite cabal and passed down to lower levels of management for implementation. These managers do what they’re told; they avoid unnecessary risks. If something doesn’t work as envisioned, they take the blame. It’s all very tidy.
Transformative leaders get out of their corner offices and join the team. [Those who really want to shake things up might even abandon that fancy office on the top floor—at least for a while—in favor of a cubicle, downstairs among the busy bees.]
Transformative leaders push decisions down. They empower lower-level managers, encouraging experimentation and risk taking. They promote diversity and surround themselves with colleagues who have more questions than answers, including nay-sayers: people who disagree. And they listen to them.
When something doesn’t work out as envisioned, which is often the case, they encourage the team to try something else—again, and again, without recrimination.
Before they know it, they have an agile team on their hands, something that is essential in a world of commerce and industry that’s changing at warp speed. Virtually every company today, whether it’s a bank or a manufacturer, is a tech company with digital relationships.
If a company doesn’t keep up it fails. If its senior leaders don’t change it’s unlikely to keep up.
Grant Freeland is a Forbes Contributor. Article initially published here