Special Report: Fire up Your Workers: How Smart Leaders Stimulate Their Staff

It’s amazing what you don’t know about your business even after years running it. Gary Muldoon has been in the pest-control industry for 20 years—the past seven as president of Orkin Canada. But his eyes opened wide when he donned a wig and a fake moustache and posed as an Orkin trainee technician for an episode of TV’s Undercover Boss Canada.

On the job, Muldoon learned that Orkin was booking so many service calls to rid residences of roaches and rodents that there was no leeway for unavoidable delays. “I realized we were so focused on the numbers that we were scheduling our people way too tight,” says Muldoon, whose Mississauga, Ont.-based company employs 750 staff across 30 locations. “Every time something went wrong, the technician I was working with said, ‘Well, here’s another night when I won’t be home until eight o’clock.’ That bothered me. So, we’ve now changed our schedules substantially and hired more people.”

Related: Canadian Boss Goes Undercover

Another revelation came when a technician inputting information about a service call on her handheld had to re-input it, then again when the signal kept cutting out. Orkin had spent about $2 million on this new handheld system, and Muldoon had thought that complaints about the system were coming from staff who disliked change: “But when you go out and work with them, you see, ‘You know what? We have more work to do on this thing.’”

Muldoon also had some pleasant surprises. He was wowed by one technician’s mastery of dealing empathetically with a client stressed out by seeing a rat run under her washer. He spotted an opening to ramp up Orkin’s customer service by focusing employee training far more on communicating compassionately with clients.

Orkin’s workforce is large and dispersed enough that no one Muldoon worked with realized the “trainee” was actually the big boss in disguise. It’s unlikely an entrepreneur could pull this off in a small business. Still, bosses at smaller firms are finding that working alongside employees—without a disguise—can be a powerful tool for finding out what’s really going on in the business. Just how powerful is up to you. If you can convince your people there’ll be no repercussions for negative feedback and you’re sincere in your wish to understand better how the firm runs, many of them will open up to you. After all, you have the power to improve their place of work.

Speaking directly to front-line employees avoids the distortions common when information reaches you through layers of management due to bias, transmission errors and CYA—that is, “covering your ass.” True, even hearing straight from staff is imperfect, because they’ll be torn between wanting to be candid and not wanting to be seen as complainers or to reveal problems they may have contributed to. Still, even if your people aren’t fully frank, if you seem like a decent sort, they’ll probably tell you plenty that you wouldn’t hear otherwise.

Leaders can lose touch due to staff bias, poor communication and CYA—‘Covering Your Ass’

That’s far from the only benefit of the exercise. Working next to employees gives you a first-hand view of your business processes in action and how well these are serving your clients. It’s the combination of what you hear and see that can deliver an unvarnished view of how things run and fresh insights into how to run them better. It’s amazing how much you can learn just by getting out of your office.

And there are other ways to learn how your business actually operates. You can ask employees to fill out a short, anonymous online survey every six months that asks pointed questions such as “What’s the biggest thing that needs fixing in each of departments A through E?” If you’re a retailer, you can hire a mystery shopper to report on how your front-line people treat customers. And in any sector, you can simply phone your company as if you were a client to find out what the experience is like from the other side.

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