SCORE

Every boss in the world would love to know what his employees really think of him.

You can try sending out surveys and decking your halls with suggestion boxes, but the best way to know what your employees are thinking is to put yourself in their shoes.

Literally.

That’s what I did, and it forever changed the way I run my company.

When my son showed me CBS’s “Undercover Boss” — a show on which executives don disguises and pretend to be just another worker on the line — I quickly saw a golden opportunity for personal and professional growth.

The idea made sense. I’m the CEO of BELFOR Property Restoration, a global disaster cleanup company. Although I’ve tried to stay in contact with all of our great people as we’ve grown to more than 7,000 employees in 31 countries, many of my employees had never actually seen me in person before. But I was nearly 50 years old and wondered whether I was really up for the physical and emotional challenge.

I decided that this was too great an opportunity to pass up, so I went for it.

Going Undercover

It didn’t take long to realize how truly immersive this process would be. The night before we filmed, I tried to check into my hotel using my real name. “Undercover Boss” doesn’t play around; the reservation was actually listed under the name of my alter ego. I was already living life as that person, and the cameras hadn’t even started rolling.

Once the cameras turned on, I got the full taste: demolition, pumping water, squeezing into crawlspaces, hanging drywall, and scrubbing soot.

At the time, my thoughts primarily revolved around damage and chaos. But once I had a chance to reflect, my biggest takeaway from this whole experience was clear: Leaders ask so much of their employees, and it’s easy to forget what it’s like out there in the field.

There should be a golden rule of sorts when it comes to running a business and delegating duties. The greatest leaders are willing to roll up their sleeves and complete whatever tasks they typically assign to frontline workers. They must be able and willing to do whatever it is they ask their team members to do.

This isn’t just an empty cliche. Companies with a top-to-bottom connection of trust and empathy are much stronger than their divided, disconnected peers. A great way to cultivate this culture is by promoting from within. Leaders who have risen through the ranks possess an unmatchable perspective.

While this was the biggest and broadest lesson I learned from my “Undercover Boss” experience, it certainly wasn’t the only one.

The New Me

Here are four big changes I’ve made to my leadership methods since going undercover:

  • I revised my dress code. Listening to the advice of an employee I met while filming the show, I made the decision to stop looking like a “suit” and start looking like a friendly, relatable human being. I now mostly wear jeans and button-ups to the office. Employees are much more eager to approach and converse with someone who isn’t stodgily dressed.
     
  • I started town hall meetings. I made this promise on the show and have kept it to this day. I now regularly travel the globe and speak face to face with my employees. I’ll kick off the meeting with a state of the company address and then spend hours conversing with individuals to hear their thoughts and concerns.
     
  • I make more personal connections. The new connections I make with employees go beyond work-related topics. I now invest more time in their personal lives and send handwritten birthday cards and notes of encouragement. Taking interest in their work lives is good, but if that’s the only thing you care about, you’ll come across as disingenuous.
     
  • I encourage managers to follow in my footsteps. I now take an active role in making sure my company’s managers get out from behind their desks and join the frontliners. Morale skyrockets when management works alongside staff rather than above it. We hung up a great photo of one of our general managers mopping a floor at a client’s house. It’s a great reminder that we're all working toward the same goal. And everyone got a huge kick out of seeing him in cleaning gear!

Being on “Undercover Boss” was a huge personal and professional triumph. The show actually aired on my 50th birthday. What a gift! But the biggest gift of all was when my son looked at me and said, “I’m proud of you, Dad.”

Apply these lessons to your own business, and start connecting with your employees on a human level. You’ll be amazed by what you can learn from them.