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7 May, 2015

What Can “Undercover Boss” Teach Us About Frontline Leadership?

Recently, I tuned in to an episode of Undercover Boss. This is a TV show where bosses work, in disguise, alongside their employees.

My expertise is in leadership development, particularly frontline leadership, and while watching Undercover Boss, it occurred to me that businesses could learn a lot about frontline leadership from the show.

In this particular episode, Ray Schleibs, CEO of BIG4 Holiday parks, foregoes his power suit, grows a five-o’clock shadow and attempts several jobs — with varying degrees of success — at the Coconut Holiday Resort in Cairns, Australia.

Our most important asset…

We’ve all heard managers say: “My most important asset is my people.” It’s a bit of a cliché, but true none the less.

Take Coconut Holiday Resort, for example. What kind of business would they have if their cleaners didn’t clean the rooms properly and the reception staff drove people away by being rude? Of course, they wouldn’t have a business.

The power of frontline leadership

Your frontline leaders have the power to get the best from your “most important asset” — your people. In fact, up to 70% of employees performance are driven by them. This is simply because your frontline leaders are the people your employees interact with the most.

Considering the power they wield, it always surprises me just how many businesses place a low priority on the leadership development of their frontline leaders; instead they pour most of their money into the development of their top-level management. As a result, the productivity of frontline teams is too low — many frontline leaders just don’t have the tools to manage their staff to their full potential.

Two types of commitment

An employee has two types of commitment to their job — rational and emotional. Rational commitment is when they stay because they believe it’s in their best financial and career interests to do so; emotional commitment, though, is when they work above and beyond what is required because they feel valued and believe their work is important. This extra effort is called discretionary effort.

So, an effective frontline leader is one who boosts employees’ discretionary effort by fostering an emotional commitment.

But, how is this done?

Leading from the front

Frontline leaders should lead from the front. They must engage, talk with and listen to their employees — Undercover Boss illustrates this very well.

Ray Schleibs took the time to engage with the people he worked alongside: He learned that Rhonda, a cleaner, works long hours to support her two teenaged daughters and struggles to keep on top of things at home. Rarna, not long out of school and working on reception lost her mother when she was 14 years old and is studying to get a qualification in hospitality.

Of course, Rhonda and Rarna didn’t know who he was at the time. However, at the show’s climax, when all is revealed, a clear message is sent: Their efforts and opinions are valued.

When they learn they will be rewarded for their good work (Rhonda gets a cleaner for her house and Rarna a laptop for her studies) and some of their ideas will be implemented, their delight is palpable — you get the feeling that the pair would walk over broken glass for BIG4 Holiday parks after that!

Relationships matter

A leader’s ability to lead and influence is based on the relationships they have with their people. And the perception an employee has of their leader is determined by how they interact with them. So, a leader must have the awareness and skills to take action and build relationships. This means spending time with employees and taking an interest in them and their work.

The truth is, a leader’s power lies within their employees. You can’t force employees to work their best, so an effective leader gets people to work well because they want to. They foster emotional commitment, which results in happier and more productive employees — just like on Undercover Boss.


To get our report “The Secret to Leadership Effectiveness”, which shows how YOU can help your organisation improve leadership quality, employee engagement, and financial success, click here.


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