Undercover Boss and Henry V

In the early days of business process re-engineering, many companies went through the exercise of following an order through its entire life cycle so that they could truly understand the costs and issues with fulfillment.  One of the exercises I will often ask a leader to undertake is to follow a decision through its life cycle inside their organization.  Looking at it from the viewpoint of all those it will impact can have a startling effect.  Larry O’Donnell, President and COO at Waste Management got that opportunity on national TV recently- and we can all learn from his experience.

I was pretty skeptical when I saw promos for Undercover Boss.  The concept is not new of course.  Shakespeare’s Henry V removed his crown and robes to walk among his troops on the eve of battle.  Of course, he did it without a camera crew.  Given how staged reality TV seems to be, the main question in my mind was, “Why would Larry O’Donnell, well respected President and COO of Waste Management even consider such a stunt?”  Turns out that the answer is more important than the TV show.

In Steve Tobak’s interview with O’Donnell on his BNet Blog the Corner Office, O’Donnell tells us why he did it and what he learned.  In essence, he did it not for the celebrity status or even ego- but for the same reason that Henry V did- and another just as important.  Yes, he did get a first hand experience of the front line operations and the impact of cost cutting decisions he had made.  And while the camera crew might have diluted the experience, there is nothing like getting out of the corner office and into the trenches to keep an executive connected to the business.

But the interview also shows O’Donnell’s canny use of internal communications and the event to support an employee engagement initiative that began long before the TV show aired or was even proposed.  Smart leaders use internal PR to keep employees informed and engaged, especially about change. O’Donnell values the opportunity not just for its external PR, but for the ways he could use it to continue to support employee engagement and internal culture change.

It is easy to be cynical about the experience and the staged rally afterward.  And of course those who O’Donnell worked with and for during his incognito adventure are not the only ones who were impacted by decisions that he has made, even if they are the ones who were publicly recognized and rewarded.  Aside from the PR and the internal rally, the real question is whether or not the executive who gets to walk among the troops can learn to make decisions differently.   The good news is that we will get to watch what happens at Waste Management to see.  O’Donnell talked a lot about cost cutting early on.  Part of his experience in the field was seeing the impact of some of the cost cutting on the front lines- and much of it was not pretty.

So, what decisions did you make this week?  What changes will you start to implement this month?  This quarter?  This year?  More importantly, what do you know about the the full impact of those decisions?  It is easy to see the impact on the P/L from the corner office.  But to see the full impact, you have to get out to the front lines.