March 05, 2002
Down the up staircase

I happened across a copy of Fast Company magazine today, and inside found this interesting article about a British TV show in which corporate CEOs are invited to spend time doing a low-level job within their company and are filmed while doing so.

You might not think this would be a hit, but the show Back to the Floor is in its fifth season and is a prime-time ratings success. As with all so-called "reality" television, I suspect its anything-can-happen potential contributes to its winning formula:

Not every story has a happy ending. Some suspect that Dino Adriano's departure from the top job at Sainsbury's owed something to his poor showing on Back to the Floor. Millionaire restaurateur Luke Johnson, head of the popular British chain Belgo, decided that he'd peeled one onion too many for a moody chef, ripped off his microphone, told producers to "Shove your program!" and refused to allow the camera to keep filming.

Not surprising at all is the revelation that many bosses find the time spent in the trenches to be time well spent:

Bosses, though, often return to the boardroom ready to right wrongs. Take the Radisson Edwardian managing director who nearly halved the prices of his smallest rooms or the head of Wedgwood, who sued the supplier of the robots that were dropping his cups. Even Johnson agreed to hire six more chefs.

Almost without exception, CEOs learn a lesson in communication. "We find people at the heart of every organization who know exactly what's right and what's wrong with it," says [producer Robert] Thirkell. "But between them and the bosses is a layer of people -- those whose careers depend on sanitizing that information. Bosses are always surprised at how much knowledge exists further down the ladder."

I spent several years on the help desk here at my large multinational employer. The help desk here has evolved over time to be larger in scope but more specific in its mission - in the Old Days, we also functioned as an operations group, often putting customers on hold to head off into the server room and reboot a troublemaking machine. I think one reason why we were successful early on in the transition is that our boss was fairly involved in what we did. He'd go so far as to log in and pick up a phone when we were really backed up. He almost never did anything more than take messages, as he had very little technical knowledge - we eventually taught him how to reset passwords, but he still always hoped for a question about the one thing he did know well, the expense account system. The fact that he'd pitch in meant a lot to us, and meant that he really understood what we were doing. I've been very fortunate to have all good bosses here, but this one still stands out as the best.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 05, 2002 to Bidness