I’ve watched the TV show Undercover Boss in Canada, the US and here. The show follows a format: a chief executive wears a clumsy disguise and tries different jobs within their business. We discover how inept they are. The shows build towards the epiphany: a light seems to shine from the heavens to open their mind to see the expertise and wisdom of those they employ. It ends with change, some tears and hugs (particularly in the US).
I find it sad that it takes a TV show to prompt these bosses to explore their own business.
Why do they ignore their staff?
The Australian Institute of Management released a study on middle-managers and found similar problems.
Eighty per cent of professional and technical people rated middle-managers’ skills in overseeing staff performance as average or below average. The survey revealed that middle-managers are poor leaders.
Fifty-eight per cent of senior managers and 63 per cent of middle- managers themselves described the leadership skills of middle- managers in their organisations as average or below.
Perhaps we can learn something from history.
In the 1940s, the US government realised it had to vastly improve industrial capacity to supply the war effort. This was complicated when skilled employees and managers enlisted for the war. To achieve this goal, a national consulting service was set up to work with industry.
It was soon abandoned as impractical.
This led to a train-the-trainer program to give managers new skills that would cascade across their companies.
Training Within Industries targeted supervisors and managers who were seen as the major inhibitors of productivity. It focused on three areas:
- Job-instruction training, to teach managers the importance of proper training for the workforce and how to provide the training
- Job-methods training, to teach how to generate and implement ideas for continuous improvement
- Job-relations training, or leadership and human relations.
An underlying theme was that every employee is capable of finding new and better ways to do their job. It emphasised that employees should never stop thinking about improvements. The research found that 86 per cent of companies reported an increase in productivity of 25 per cent or more.
Training Within Industries recognised that leaders in business must lead by maximising the contribution of employees. They must give people the skills they need, recognise the value of the ideas employees contribute, and provide the direction and understanding necessary to lead a diverse group of people.
I believe it may be time to revisit those ideas from the 1940s.
Ed Bernacki is the innovationalist at the Idea Factory