In the television show, Undercover Boss, executives disguise themselves and go undercover within their companies or organizations. The “boss” poses as a trainee in different positions and at different locations within the company, speaks with employees who are on the front lines performing the daily work of the company, and gets to experience what they experience on a daily basis.
At the end of each episode, the executive reveals him or herself to the employees, often providing bonuses or other perks to outstanding workers or those who have been involved in personal struggles, and also revealing changes made or planned in the company as a result of the experience.
In each of the episodes, the executive learns valuable lessons about the daily obstacles encountered by employees and the ways the company could better support them. Many of the employees the executive encounters during this journey have valuable ideas and suggestions to make things better at the company, whether it is improving infrastructure, procedures, equipment, working conditions, etc. Other times, the boss encounters unhelpful or difficult employees who make the work harder for those around them, compromise the company’s culture or reputation, or cause other problems. Either way, the boss gains valuable insights from their experience and found that getting to know their employees better reaped rewards for the company.
While it might not be possible or practical for law firm leaders to undertake an undercover mission within their firms, there are ways law firms can use the concept and lessons of Undercover Boss to improve their law firms.
Your Front-Line Employees are Your Firm’s Brand Ambassadors
Getting to know front-line employees and putting themselves in the shoes of their employees on the show fostered a greater understanding of their employees’ lives and their experience working for the company. As one undercover boss put it, “This experience taught me to slow down a little and spend more time getting to know my employees. Everyone has a story to tell, if you take the time to hear it…”
Some bosses learn that the “lowest” employee can make the biggest impact on their customers and clients. One said, “I left Undercover Boss with a greater appreciation for the people on the front lines of our business. The overwhelming majority of them do a fantastic job.”
Another commented, “Something I have always known, but [the show] reaffirmed for me how important our front-line associate is to the success of our brand, and how much our training program plays a role in delivering that club level experience we aim to achieve.”
In law firms, front-line employees like receptionists, clerks, and assistants often have the first contact with the client, whether greeting clients when they enter the office, answering the phone when clients call, or contacting clients to confirm an appointment or court date. These employees are your brand ambassadors, and they can make a huge difference on the client’s experience with your firm. Treat them well and they will treat your clients well. Treat them poorly and you risk them taking it out on your clients or other valued employees.
See my related post, Why Your Receptionist Might Be The Most Important Person in Your Office
The Importance of Staying Connected
It’s nearly impossible to discover what improvements could be made or what challenges are faced by law firm employees if firm leaders remain disconnected. This is a theme repeated over and over on Undercover Boss. As one of the show’s participants explained, “…this experience has opened my eyes to see how very important it is to stay connected. We're putting a program in place to conduct roundtable discussions with our frontline employees, so it will be great to hear from them and any changes they would like to see going forward. Being too busy to stay connected with your team is no excuse.”
Another noted, “To become a really good leader you have to understand the importance of a team. It's not a one man show, you need a really solid team in order to be successful.”
Yet another says, “I believe it’s a CEO’s obligation to truly understand the interworking of their company and regularly communicate with associates. The value of ongoing, open communication cannot be overstated. As a CEO, we each make a commitment to guide the company towards the best possible future, which we can only do if we take the time to ask questions, listen and learn from those who support our company at every turn.”
Offering Opportunities and Identifying Leaders
Getting to know the employees and their personal stories also revealed ways that the company could help their teams to improve and grow. The experience showed these company leaders ways to provide perks or rewards that were much more meaningful to the employee (and often, to the company as well) than a raise. Offering opportunities to mentor or supervise others, to share their knowledge, to participate in focus groups or roundtable discussion not only engaged employees and provided an opportunity to contribute to the company, but these perks fostered loyalty to the company, increasing the chances that valued employees will stay, while also allowing others to learn from their experience, perceptions and observations.
Law firms can offer opportunities for improvement, whether is training, CLE programs, or in-house seminars. Look for the employees who take advantage of these opportunities, or who are seeking their own continuous improvement. Many an undercover boss has identified future leaders in the company just by working alongside them and identifying those with a good attitude who are looking for ways to learn and grow.
Learning about their employees’ daily tasks and struggles also revealed ways the company could improve productivity. One boss said, “I learned that when it comes to employees, the details matter most. The smallest upgrades in equipment or installation hardware can shave off significant amounts of time and stress for employees.”
Law firm leaders sometimes don’t take the time to ask their front-line employees – the ones who are scheduling the appointments, doing the paperwork, filing court documents, typing reports, maintaining the firm’s website and social media accounts about the obstacles they encounter in accomplishing their daily tasks, and how the firm might help them to overcome those obstacles. What improvements could the lawyers make in the manner or method of their communication that would help their front-line employees and make their jobs easier? What technology could be implemented to improve productivity? What training could be provided that might help their employees improve their performance?
Bosses who went undercover on the show got ideas from employees at all levels of the company by putting themselves in their shoes and seeing what those employees see on a daily basis. They were willing to go outside of their comfort zone to learn and to help their companies grow and change.
Law firm leaders can do more to get to know their employees on a personal level by speaking to them one on one and taking the time to listen. For example, hold regular meetings with employees at all levels, and provide a mechanism for employees to give suggestions (and then take them seriously).
Invite staff members to attend occasional partnership or leadership meetings, or to contribute in practice group discussions. Take a legal assistant, secretary, or even a receptionist to court, to a deposition or to a closing so that they have a better perspective on what the attorneys do every day. And perhaps even get outside of your comfort zone and step into the shoes of your employees by shadowing them or trying to do their jobs for a day. You might be surprised at what you learn.
You can see comments from some of the bosses who have participated in the show here.