Undercover Boss May Make Good TV, But It’s a Lousy Way to Keep in Touch With Your Front Line Team

On Undercover Boss, the brilliant CEO goes undercover on the front lines of his company to learn just what’s going on, and how he is going to make it better.


In the shows that I’ve seen, it’s more like a Three Stooges comedy from my childhood, only this time there’s only one stooge – the Boss.

Without fail, the Boss learns that he lacks the skills, intelligence, and experience required to keep up with his tasks. His coworkers and supervisors, though clearly frustrated with him, try and try again to train him.

The end result? Big Boss CEO, now humbled by his front line, vows to make changes to the policies and procedures which will improve his team’s working conditions, performance, personal lives, and, by the way, maybe even his bottom line.

I’m not too cynical of Undercover Boss – just thinking there has to be a better way for the CEO or senior leadership team of any organization to find out just what’s happening on the front lines.

If CEOS and senior leaders don’t create routines for understanding customer needs through the eyes of frontline workers, they run the risk of creating strategies that can’t be put into operational practice. Building a business model that is aligned with customer needs is only the beginning – once these needs are identified, the leadership team must work backward from the moment of truth when their team is face to face with the customer.

Chris DeRose and Noel Tichy, writing in Judgment on the Front Line, show just how to make that happen. They don’t advocate that CEOs try to do the jobs of their front line workers (like Undercover Boss). Instead, DeRose and Tichy think that leadership teams must design and build a front-line focused organization. They begin at the top:

Five Responsibilities of Leaders in a Front Line Focused Organization

  • Define a Customer-Based Vision – set the vision and define the strategy based in part on observations, feedback, and learnings from the field
  • Develop a Front Line Focused Culture – create a culture of front line focus with a deep respect for the needs and experience of the front line
  • Obsess over Talent – while deeply respecting their entire organization, leaders know they will win only by having the best talent and right kind of leadership at the front line
  • Define the Judgment Playing Field – leaders ensure that front line teams are equipped with the right resources to make good judgments on behalf of the organization and in the interest of the customer
  • Live on the Line – leaders need to go where the action is, a reality check at a deeper level than just an annual fly by appearance

Now isn’t that better than any episode of Undercover Boss?

My name is Herve Humler and I am the president of Ritz-Carlton… and I am a very important person. But you are more important than I am. You are the heart and soul of this building.

Herve Humler, addressing hotel staff shortly before the grand opening of Ritz-Carlton’s Hong Kong property

ChurchWorld Frontline Facts

Strong leadership is required to unleash the front line

  • Senior leaders use their authority to create the architecture and support systems
  • The organization’s top team must stay directly connected to those in the field
  • Information from the front line should be used to define and refines strategy

Building a front line-focused organization is a process

  • An integrative framework is needed to replace a collage of initiatives
  • The process helps whether starting from scratch or rebuilding a decades-old institution

Part of an occasional series translating the best of Customer Experience in the Corporate World into Guest Experiences for ChurchWorld

Adapted from Judgment on the Front Line, Chris DeRose and Noel Tichy


The Frontline Innovation Factory

If you’ve spent anytime on Amazon, you are probably familiar with their recommendation feature – you know, the bar of products across your screen with the title “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought”…

It has been very successful to say the least – many shoppers, having found what they are looking for, are delighted to look at other items that compliment their find. (Especially me, when it comes to books!)

When the engineer who developed the idea, Greg Linden, developed a prototype and took it to his boss, he was expressly prohibited from proceeding further with the project.

Wow – Talk about a missed opportunity!

In the vast majority of other, larger, older organizations, the idea would have been killed right then and there. But, as we all know, Amazon was (and is) different.

Customer centricity has been deeply ingrained in Amazon’s culture from the outset. Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos has been known to leave an empty seat open at a conference table to remind all attendees that they should consider the seat occupied by their customer, “the most important person in the room.”

Amazon’s overriding respect for the customer gave Linden the freedom to proceed with his trial – even over the objections of his senior vice president. The results were so clear and irrefutable that the feature was fast-tracked, and shopping cart recommendations, as we know them, were born.

That’s the power of the Front Line.

In my experience innovation can only come from the bottom. Those closest to the problem are in the best position to solve it. I believe any organization that depends on innovation must embrace chaos. Loyalty and obedience are not your tools; you must use measurement and objective debate to separate the good from the bad.

– Greg Linden, former developer and engineer, Amazon.com


ChurchWorld Frontline Facts

The front line is the richest untapped source of ideas and innovation

  • Those closest to the Guests most often understand their needs best
  • Frontline leaders have the know-how to solve operational problems

Winning organizations embrace the paradox of creativity and control

  • Leaders control by setting context and boundaries
  • Leaders creatively unleash their front line by teaching them to make judgments


Part of an occasional series translating the best of Customer Experience in the Corporate World into Guest Experiences for ChurchWorld

Adapted from Judgment on the Front Line, Chris DeRose and Noel Tichy