I’m not a big TV fan but every Sunday, I turn it on to watch Undercover Boss on CBS.  I like watching how executives who are so removed from the trenches get “aha” moments by experiencing corporate life through interaction with their employees.  By now, you know I’m a huge fan of Success Magazine and in the November issue, they showcased White Castle in Emma Johnson’s article titled “Chain Reaction: White Castle’s Davide Rife is intent on having happy employees…“.  ( Check back if the November edition is not yet online when you read this.)

If you watch Undercover Boss you know that David Rife appeared on a recent episode of the show.  What typically happens is that the boss that goes undercover will go back to Headquarters and make improvements or changes to the operations or corporate policies as a result of his in-the-trenches experience.  In David Rife’s case,  his 10 day stint visiting various White House facilities reminded him how removed he had become from the day-to-day.  In the article, he admitted that “some of those challenges our people face were not as fresh or as high a priority”  as they probably had been in the past.  Wow?  What a breakthrough!  As a result of his undercover experience, David went back and made some changes. 

One of the things I liked best that he did was to initiate a “Leaders of Tomorrow” program.  It’s a mentorship that identifies young employees & shows them how their first job at White Castle can translate into a career if they so desire.  As the title of the article says White Castle is committed to having happy employees because they know that it will in turn make for happy customers. I liked that they focused on a starting a mentoring program with their Gen Yers to help them plot a career path & explain the “whys” of how things got done. That is so important for Gen Yers to see & understand.

The Leaders of Tomorrow program would have never been created if David Rife didn’t challenge his leadership comfort zone & put himself in the trenches.  In my C.A.R.E. System of Leadership Program one of the key ingredients that I teach under the “C” for Connect segment is to initiate a Shadowing program.  This is where the team leader - whether it’s a manager, a VP or C-Suite executive – follows a process where he or she takes time out of their schedule to do what David Rife did:  work among the staff.  Although my Shadow program is done overtly and in plain sight, the results are often the same as in Undercover Boss.

Either undercover or in plain sight, the truth is there’s nothing that shows you more about the inner dynamics of your team than working along side them for a period of time.  That period of time doesn’t have to be extensive.  It can be just an hour a week.  What happens most of the time is that you wind up increasing the time you shadow because of what it uncovers.  It’s an eye opening  experience and often leads to change.  Positive and productive change.  If you did it correctly, it will also  increase your leadership “mojo” for lack of a better word.  By spending time with your team, especially the Millennials, you give them valuable access to you.  They observe you in their turf not yours.  They get priceless time with you, to ask you questions, to share their ideas, to show you how they work on a daily basis.

When you take the time to shadow, you will discover what David Rife did which is that you had lost touch with what it’s like to work in the front lines.  A lot has changed since many of us were in the front lines and in today’s hectic workplace you can’t ever assume you have a pulse on what is going on in your team without experiencing the challenges they face everyday.

Shadowing allows you to put in action what the Success Magazine article recommends which is: Focus on the front line, stay open to improvement and foster employee growth.  If we do that as leaders, we are on our way to making a dent in the corporate malaise that has enveloped many organization today.

So how about it?  Are you going to take a page from Undercover Boss and spend time in the trenches?  It may be the single most rewarding and enlightening decision you make this year.  It certainly can’t hurt…