Great people, despite the management. Harry Ramsden’s on “Undercover Boss”

August 29, 2010

Photo Credit: philcampbell

The current fashion for business related shows on TV has fortunately proved recession-proof; and Undercover Boss on Channel 4 has become one of my favourites. There seems to be no shortage of struggling businesses willing to embrace their 15 minutes of fame on national TV. Hurray!

If you haven’t seen it, the premise is the Chief Executive goes undercover, with a story like they were long-term unemployed and are returning to work trying out different jobs for a week and are being filmed for a documentary. So, with an attempt at a disguise, which usually involves a dodgy haircut, hat or beard, the boss leaves their corporate suite and goes back to the floor and spends time with the front-line staff for a warts and all view of what it’s really like.

I find it fascinating and often inspiring. Why? The people at the bottom very often care deeply about the business, in a way that you wouldn’t expect from hourly paid workers, often without permanent contracts.

A recent episode featured Harry Ramsden’s – a British fish & chips institution – which appeared to have suffered after years of repeatedly being passed from one private equity owner to another. There was clear evidence of a lack of investment and attention from headquarters. But, despite tired and fading restaurants, broken down machinery, and a menu which seems to be increasingly dated and irrelevant, the front-line staff power on, believing in the brand, and proud to work for the company. There was evidence of a friendly and customer-focused culture, but it seemed to be solely within the restaurants and not within management.

The restaurant staff featured were dedicated, hard working and relentlessly optimistic in the face of many small but annoying problems. Repeat customers seemed to appreciate the staff more than the food; this makes sense. It doesn’t matter how great the food is in a restaurant, you’ll not go back if the service is lacking. But if the food is average, but you were made to feel special with a warm welcome from staff you’ll more than likely want to go back again and again.

Undercover Boss follows a formula:

– front-line staff are over-worked and under-paid, but they know exactly what the problems are in the company
– they have become used to being without a voice, and being ignored
– the CEO,  who usually appears to genuinely care about the company, is shocked and saddened it’s got to this stage
– in the “reveal” at the end the CEO promises to fix things, and provides some kind of reward to the “stars” he’s met

But to avoid getting to the stage where your CEO has to go on a real-life documentary to fix things, there’s a few simple steps:

– open and honest communication, from the bottom to the top of the organisation
– prove you listen to your staff and recognise when things have gone wrong
– develop their skills and support them
– acknowledge their hard work

Harry Ramsden’s may take a while to make itself relevant again in this day and age, but with the support of their troops on the ground, and a CEO that cares, I am sure they can get through these challenges, and become a success story once again.