“Do you know how to make the perfect Subway sandwich?”

When posed this question, Mr Don Fertman, chief development officer of Subway International, had no idea at all.

He decided to go undercover to different stores throughout the United States to find out what it took to make one.

In the popular reality television series Undercover Boss, which has localised versions in multiple countries, C-level officers from Subway to 7-Eleven spend a week on the shop floor as “new hires”.

They meet people who make the company tick, are exposed to a series of tasks in which they sometimes falter and even get fired, but nonetheless, walk away with unforgettable insights.

The show’s premise is that “it is about trying to understand what makes the company tick at the ground level and to figure out what more can be done to make it an even better company”.

Why go undercover?

When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, a small river in Italy, he was not only making history — he was also committing an act of treason that plunged the Roman republic into civil war.

Caesar’s ambitions brought him into conflict with Pompey, the most powerful man in Rome, whose legions outnumbered Caesar’s own 13th Legion.

Against such odds, most men would have trembled in fear and deserted Caesar. Yet the soldiers of the 13th Legion remained loyal to him, willing to trust their leader — who lived and marched together with them — with their lives.

In today’s corporations, rarely do leaders inspire such loyalty and trust. This is often because personnel with the “right” attributes are parachuted into managerial roles and do not make it a priority to relate to the people on the ground.  

In 2010, Adecco did a poll of 1,000 Americans, and the findings revealed that 88 per cent of those surveyed agreed that “a good boss rolls up his sleeves to help the team get the job done”.

When bosses work on the ground, they garner their subordinates’ loyalty. More importantly, the top gets to know what the bottom is doing.

“Management by Walking Around” (MBWA) was pioneered by Mr Bill Hewlett and Mr Dave Packard, the two founders of Hewlett-Packard, and it became an integral reason for the computer company’s success.

As top management consistently conversed with employees of all levels and often went to see them at their workplace, many potential issues were resolved early, helped along with the growing camaraderie.

A lack of trust?

Naysayers of the series deride going undercover as a total lack of trust in employees. They believe that it creates a legacy of suspicion where people will start to doubt whether the new person they are hiring is actually their big boss or not.

If managers start hanging around the shop floor, the difficulty (certainly, at first) is that employees may think they are doing so to spy on them and to interfere unnecessarily.

However, this suspicion usually falls away once the walkabouts occur regularly and if everyone can see their benefits, such as management acting on the feedback provided.

Things to watch out for

Whether you have your mind set on going undercover or openly working alongside your employees, you can take steps to avoid upsetting them. Consider the following options:

Question your intentions

Are you there to do a spot check on the team and pick out the non-performers? Or are you there to connect and empathise with individual team members and to raise team morale?

Know what you want to get from the experience. Better still, tie that to a follow-up action plan.

Prepare yourself

If you are going “undercover”, prepare yourself for the groundwork.

More often than not, it involves much physical work. It will be mundane, repetitive and irritating. Yet, these are the actions that keep your organisation running.

Listen

Your employees don’t care how much you know, till they know how much you care.

The first step is to listen to your employees, their ideas and their thoughts. The feedback they give and the ideas they generate to solve workplace challenges will be invaluable. 

Do it often

If connecting with your frontline staff is just an annual activity, it will not make a significant difference to understanding what is happening on the ground.

Yes, the rapidly evolving business environment requires your constant attention, but so do staff who need consistent communication. 

Announce, award, appreciate

It’s not always about the money. Sometimes, a personal “thank you” letter, or even a quick personal visit to the employee who has made the difference to your organisation, is worth more to them than cash.

No doubt, financial rewards will still go a long way, but what will endear you to the people who matter are your words of appreciation.

There are some things that money can’t buy, and genuine appreciation is one of them.

If you want troops as ferocious and loyal as Caesar’s 13th Legion fighting for you, working on the ground consistently is essential and it will be one of the keys to your success.