Insight article

Going undercover

I enjoyed a recent presentation by Steve Martin, CEO of the steel manufacturing Clugstone Group.  He is one of the few, gutsy CEO’s prepared to be filmed ‘going undercover’ by Channel 4, in order to mix and work with employees on the front line of his steel construction company.

This kind of publicity is risky, very risky.  It takes a brave CEO to want to expose in such a public way the faults in his organisation and quite possibly in his leadership style, especially in an industry where health and safety rules and a non-conforming company can be destroyed.  Most CEO’s don’t want to appear vulnerable or lacking in knowledge.   But Steve Martin wanted to understand what employees have to go through themselves, even if it meant taking him completely out of his comfort zone from a cosy office to the blistering heat of a steel furnace or working through the night, so that he could address the weak areas and make decisions based on reality.

One of the first things that became clear through his talk was that people talked much more openly with those who weren’t dressed in suits and ties (even if they were a TV crew).  I must admire the man – they really did treat him as a true employee – not telling him where, how or when he was going each cold, dark morning which is indeed what the front line workers often have to put up with themselves.  Steve told a number of great stories to illustrate the dedication that people have on the job, such as Dick Sutton, who hadn’t had a day off sick in 30 years and had personally trained all of his team. Or Les, who cancelled his weekend plans without a bat of the eyelid in order to work through – and as a freelance contractor he wasn’t even employed by the company.

The upshot of Steve’s time out was a great deal of learning, as summarised below:

BE SEEN:  If you don’t go out and talk to the troops, the grapevine will react in a far worse way

COMMUNICATE more in a recession than you’d normally do, to give reassurance, fact and to avoid uncertainty and rumour.

INFORM WIDELY:  Get a mass of opinion and ideas.  Explain things to everybody properly.

SUITS AND TIES create barriers, especially in blue-collar environments.

REFRESH YOUR COMMUNICATIONS:  Change the way you do things to be seen and heard.  Involve people from every level in forums to discuss issues and raise action points and keep changing who these representatives are.  Explain what and why things are changing. One size does not fit all.

ASK AND CONSULT:  Act on your employee surveys and demonstrate that you have listened.

SKIP LEVEL MEETINGS:  Have meetings with your boss’s boss, to give people an opportunity to raise issues which may be held back from certain layers of management.

FIND THE RIGHT TIME to send out information and talk to people. Don’t send a letter explaining why a bonus isn’t forthcoming a week after they get their payslips!  Improving efficiency doesn’t always have the desired impact.

INVEST IN TRAINING front-line supervisors and managers.

Good for you, Steve.  I am sure your workforce has a far greater respect for you as a result of this TV programme.  This just goes to show the importance of visibility of senior leaders, and the need to hear what employees are saying from the bottom up.  Without this kind of insight every senior leadership team must be at a real disadvantage.  Come on you CEO’s, let’s see you out there!

Nailia Tasseel