Seeing the world through the eyes of your employees

2014

You may have seen the hit TV show, Undercover Boss. Launched in the UK in 2009, it has now been rolled out in six countries. Even if you haven't seen it, you can probably figure out the storyline. The CEO goes "undercover" for two weeks in his own company. He sees problems that he had not been aware of and is (usually) astounded by the dedication and skills of his workforce. At the end, the CEO reveals his identity, the employees are shocked and he resolves to be more open and responsive in the future.

The TV show inevitably focuses on the human interest element – the wrongly dismissed worker, the single parent working a double shift, the choked-up CEO. But there are also some real management lessons here. By stepping into the shoes of a front-line worker – and moving out of their comfort zone – the CEO is potentially gaining experiences and insights they simply could not get any other way.

The notion that you need to see the world through the eyes of others is not a new one. Everyday expressions such as exhorting someone to 'walk a mile in another's shoes' or to employ someone as a 'poacher-turned-gamekeeper' tap into the same underlying sentiment.

The definition of marketing that has stuck in my mind from when I first studied the subject 20 years ago is 'seeing the world through the eyes of the customer'. If you think about it, the reason we need marketing and marketers is simply that many people fall into the trap of being product-centic; they focus narrowly on the product itself and the clever features it offers and they neglect the actual needs or concerns of their prospective customers.

My simple proposition here is that we can take 60 years-worth of marketing expertise, all focused on developing better ways of seeing the world through the eyes of the customer, and we can apply it systematically to the field of management, which is (or ought to be) about seeing the world through the eyes of the employee.

Mapping some of the fundamental concepts that underpin marketing to management gives us something like this.

Marketing

  • Ethnographic marketing: Marketers observe how customers behave in real life to tap into their unarticulated needs
  • One-to-one marketing: Marketers use technology to tailor their offerings around the specific needs of each individual customer
  • Customer experience marketing: Marketers seek to take care of the customer's entire experience with the product or firm
  • Net promoter score: Marketers seek to turn their customers into active promoters of their product or service

Management

  • Cut through the hierarchy: Find ways of developing unfiltered insights into how employees really view their work
  • Individualized management: Understand the specific strengths of individual employees and structure their work to play to these strengths
  • Focus on employment experience: Build understanding of how employees experience the company and how it could be improved
  • Turn employees into promoters: Improve the quality of management so that employees tell their friends and family about it.

So what can you as a manger to do see the world through your employees' eyes? You probably don't have any chance to go undercover, but there are plenty of ways of approximating the undercover experience. Here are some of the practical approaches that I have seen used.

Institutionalized "skip-level" meetings. Skip-level simply means meeting with people two levels above (or below) you in the hierarchy. Some companies have a strong informal norm that you don't break the chain of command. This norm helps to build accountability, but at the same time it restricts the flow of information.

Web-enabled chat and discussion forums. In large companies it is simply impossible for all employees to meet their top executives. But technology provides a mechanism to give people at least a virtual connection to the top. For example, the Indian IT services company HCL Technologies has a tool on its Intranet called You and I where the CRO gives direct answers to questions posed by employees.

Many companies have also been experimenting with micro-blogging tools such as Yammer, where employees can sign up to conversation threads about topics of interest to them, and this encourages informal, non-hierarchal discussions.

Putting executives on the front line or back to the floor is the simplest and best-known way of cutting through hierarchy. There are even some companies where this is part of an executive's job. Store managers at UK retail giant John Lewis, for example, spend an hour or two every day serving customers alongside staff and executives at Tesco, the UK's biggest retailer, spend a week every year working in the company's stores.

Reverse mentoring. A traditional mentoring relationship is a way for a seasoned professional to share wisdom with someone who is still learning the ropes. In reverse mentoring, a younger employee helps an older mangers. Unlike traditional mentoring this ends up as a two-way relationship and they end up discussing a wide range of issues on a much more informal basis than would normally be possible.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, and it doesn't include old favourites such as "management by walking around" or town hall meetings. But for you as a manager, the secret is to find something that works for you and fits your style of working so that employees recognise it as an authentic attempt to understand their jobs and their point of view.

About The Author

Julian Birkinshaw
Julian Birkinshaw

Julian Birkinshaw is Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School. He is the author of more than a dozen books, the most recent of which, Becoming A Better Boss: Why Good Management is So Difficult takes an employee's-eye view of what makes a great boss - and how to become one.