Can Indian CEOs Go 'Undercover' ?

Indian CEOs are unlikely to bite the bait of appearing in reality shows like Undercover Boss. But this show's big plus is to get you closer to your own people, particularly in difficult times. That's something every business leader should appreciate.

Govindraj Ethiraj
Updated: Mar 9, 2012 01:16:39 PM UTC

Govindraj Ethiraj is former Founder-Editor in Chief of Bloomberg UTV, a 24-hours business news service launched out of Mumbai in 2008. Prior that, he worked with Business Standard newspaper as Editor (New Media). Earlier, he spent five years with television channel CNBC-TV18 where he worked from near start-up point. Before CNBC-TV18, he worked with The Economic Times newspaper as Corporate Editor in Mumbai for five years, looking after the corporate and markets news bureau. He also worked with Business World for three years. He began his career with Business India magazine. He is a Fellow of The Aspen Institute, Colorado. He is presently co-authoring a book on India’s efforts to give over a billion residents a unique, biometric identity - after concluding a short, voluntary stint with the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) - before returning to full-time journalism shortly.

I remember visiting Intel’s India Country Head some years ago and was somewhat surprised to note that he sat in a not so large cubicle. His assistant who came out to greet me sat in an identical one. And so did everyone else at the chip making giant’s offices worldwide, I was told.

Around that time, I also happened to interview Vikram Kirloskar, Vice-Chairman of Toyota Kirloskar Motors at the Bidadi works near Bangalore. To my surprise (remember, he is also a family business owner) he sat on a desk similar to other senior personnel and colleagues in a large, open hall. The hall itself was fairly typical of offices attached to manufacturing facilities.

Open seating is one way of 'levelling’ with the workforce on a continuous basis. The other, exciting, way to do the same thing is to go a take a few more steps and become a 'Undercover Boss'. I’ve watched some episodes of this television reality show where CEOs of large enterprises switch identities to join their own workforces for short spans of time.

This  television show has got much acclaim but also drawn a fair bit of criticism and sharp  views. Yet, I’m convinced of the merits of the approach at large. The question I would ask is: how many Indian CEOs, whether managers or owners, will or can go undercover ?

Bosses going undercover is not a new phenomenon. Centuries ago, kings did it to get to better know their subjects’ problems before hammering out solutions back in the palace. Many a folk tale has been spun around encounters between kings and queens travelling incognito and commoners. Mughal emperor Akbar (1542-1605) moved in disguise among his people and took some pride in his ability to do so.

The merits of going undercover are many-fold. Michael White, CEO of Direc TV did time as one recently and concluded his stint a changed man. “Its humbling, how hard frontline jobs are in this economy,” he began. And..“It grounds you in the reality of how tough the economy, jobs and the people are to the business. It helped me better understand the importance of touching consumers and making problems right.”

Kim Schaefer, CEO of Great Wolf Resorts, the world’s largest chain of indoor water parks, didn’t realise how tough it would be. “Even though I had waitressed in college and I thought I would slip in to the role, it was not as easy as I thought.” Moreover, she says, as do many others, not only did they learn a lot about their own company but also met some incredible people along the way.

For all the fascinating insights of being on the floor, not all CEOs evidently sign up. It sounds (and perhaps is) somewhat unproductive to star in a multi-episode, prime-time reality show, whatever be the context. Most companies who do sign up seem to be in the hospitality and service business. Which means its important to know what folks in distant outposts are doing. Equally, chances of chaps from HQ being recognised are remote. Arguably, some CEOs and division heads may well do it discreetly.

The larger question of course is: Do Indian CEOs have it in them to take the plunge? Or should they? And, between entrepreneurs/owners and managers, who could lead the way?

Well, anecdotally I would think that owners could grab an opportunity faster than the non-owners. The obvious reason being that a manager-CEO even if keen is not sure how the whole thing could pan out. And what if something to go wrong?

On the flip side, excepting for younger entrepreneurial companies, most owners of older firms (young and old) are deified in their organisations. So the chances of their executing an undercover operation might be limited. Assuming they are willing to do something like this in the first place.

Which brings me to the final point. Its about the nature of industry and employment that’s changed in the organised sector. Many companies have designed out unions over the last decade and are in much greater control over staffing. Where there is a concern of flab, they outsource. From processes to temporary staffing solutions, several secondary and tertiary industries have sprung up.

In important businesses like banking, telecom and airlines, many core functions are now driven by distant call centres. When you dial customer service, let’s say of an airline like Jet Airways, the call goes to an outsourced call centre. As a customer, I may spend more time on the phone with a Jet Airways call centre executive than at check-in or inflight. Or for that matter with a telebanker at ICICI or HDFC Bank rather than a branch teller who I rarely see. So most of my frustrations, if any, are bound to occur at this point.

Would the CEO of the airline spend a few days answering phone calls and hear what customers are saying?  And in turn understand the strain that the frontline staff are facing in resolving complex ticketing issues. And perhaps fix a problem ‘system-wide’. As opposed to looking at filtered Management Information Systems (MIS) reports – am not saying he or she does so but posing questions.

Or at a mobile phone customer service centre, where each executive must be handling at least a few irate callers a day. As Direc TV’s White said, “our effectiveness is in how effective they (the frontline staff) are.”

Perhps no one will. Admitted, a 'Undercover Boss' format in India is unlikely to find too many takers for reasons ranging from practical to cultural. Nevertheless, whichever way they do it, bosses would do good to spend quality time understanding the working conditions and lives of their front line staff better, on the shop-floor. Understanding their real stories and backgrounds might help too.

In a highly competitive environment, it might just give you an edge.

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