The Truth About Company Culture: One Super-Power Every Leader Needs

If you could have a super power, what would it be? How would you use it?

I ask clients this question to elicit clues for overcoming limitations. But recently, I’ve been thinking about the ONE super power I would give every leader if I could.

This is a magic power every CEO needs. If they had it, they would discover essential truths about their company’s culture and how it really operates in their workplace. They would gain inside information about the reasons they can’t get their plans implemented. They would learn valuable secrets for getting people to be more accountable, creative, and passionate.

What IS the super power?

Being invisible.

The ability to walk unseen and unnoticed among your people and watch what they really do and say, while doing their job in your company.

The great news is you can have it.

You may know about the reality TV show Undercover Boss, where CEO’s of companies disguise themselves as possible trainees and go undercover inside their own company. (The video camera is explained as a “reality TV competition to pick a winning trainee”).  They work side-by-side with front-line employees, interacting with and serving customers. They gain an up-close view of the hard work, challenges, frustrations, and realities their people are facing. They get a real view into their culture and what has meaning at the most important level of their company.

Choice Hotels’ CEO Steve ___ was featured on the show this week (franchisor of Quality Inn, Comfort Inn, and a handful of other brands).  He discovered major flaws in his flagship property … he worked with a maintenance man who covered acres of property every day but was not given the courtesy of a golf cart … he was stuck in an elevator on one of his sites … he spent time scrubbing toilets and changing sheets while listening to passionate advice from his housekeeping manager on how to treat guests who are families of the neighboring cancer facility … he was guided on a night shift by a single mother who wanted a promotion but “this company doesn’t provide training” (the CEO had invested millions in “Choice University” which she didn’t even know about).

Every time I have watched this show, the CEO has been moved to tears and transformed. Not by despair, but by inspiration, empathy, and gratitude for the job his people are trying to perform, often in unbelievable circumstances.  Every CEO has said “This has changed my life and my perspective completely.” When the true identity is revealed at the end, he hands out gifts to people who need help – clearly one of the most gratifying moments each of these CEO’s has had in a long time.

Being a CEO is lonely. You are shielded from the truths inside your corporate culture, to the detriment of your ability to lead. I can’t think of a single leader who wouldn’t benefit from the power to be invisible, to witness what his culture is really like. To increase her sense of inspiration, empathy and gratitude for people’s efforts. Employees want to succeed in their job – that’s what these CEO’s learn. They just don’t think they can be truthful with their leaders. They fear “He won’t want to hear it.” “I’ll be fired if I say that.” “Who am I to complain? She won’t listen anyway.” Yet, you need this perspective to help set crucial strategies to compete better in today’s challenging times.

Here are 9 tips for practicing the super-power of being invisible:

1)      Manifest an appearance on Undercover Boss. If that doesn’t work …

2)      Fly Solo – Pose as a customer – or ask your wife or brother to.

3)      X-Ray Vision – Call or visit your top 3 accounts once or twice a month without your sales force … You could be “Joe Brown” hired by (Your Name) to answer a few questions about the service they’re experiencing by (Your Company). Even better, introduce yourself as YOU and ask “How are we doing?”

4)      Blast Obstacles. Create a separate email address and send provocative email questions asking employees to submit top obstacles to serving customers. Don’t have it come from Customer Service or HR – it will lower the response. Connect it to the line of business.

5)      Give them a super-power. Walk around your company a few minutes each week (with naked authenticity but fully clothed) and thank people for the great job they’re doing. (Do NOT have them come to your office). Ask “If I gave you a magic wand with the power to change anything here … what would you do with it? Give me your honest answer please!” Keep a notebook and jot their comments. Send a candy bar or $5 iTunes card for the top 5 ideas every week. Watch ideas come like fairy dust.

6)      Reward honesty and candor often and visibly.  Say publicly “That will never work here” is forbidden language in your company.  Send thank you notes to anyone who took a risk, spoke up, and performed a miracle.

7)      Wave your wand. Make changes every month based on an employee suggestion.

8)      Be patient. Keep working the magic. Even super-heroes know it takes time for people to feel safe to speak up.

9)      Reap the rewards – A culture where people tell the truth moves faster than the Bat-Mobile.  People stop wasting energy playing politics, hiding mistakes, or trying to please their boss – and redirect energy to winning more business and serving customers better.

Put your cape on … and Go Superman!

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