Undercover boss - Back to the shop floor for a month

August 3, 2016



Spending the summer working at a kid’s camp in the States has already given me invaluable insight into the way I run my business and work with my team back home.


Now the shoe is well and truly on the other foot, I am not in charge, I don’t know fully what is going on and my schedule and workload is determined by people who are too busy and caught up in what they’re doing to involve me.


My peers are the directors, veteran Wimbledon champ and Olympian gymnastic coaches but my colleagues in the office and around camp are all 18-25 year olds, talented and dedicated but lacking the management skills to keep teams motivated, recognize and exploit individual talents and utilize the man-power at their disposal. Ego and insecurity means there is little or no delegation, working as a team in its true sense is almost non-existent, it is them and us.


This has thrown a major spot-light on the way I manage people, how I behave in my office and the information I disseminate.


As I keep on top of my workload by email, I can see the gaps in knowledge from my team, not because they don’t know, but because I haven’t involved them, I haven’t shared everything, so they have no way of knowing the bigger picture, what else is going on. And I can see clearly now why frustrating things happening in my business and how that is my fault not theirs.


Why can’t they just work it out?

I think this all the time, because answers are obvious to me. When you know everything, when you have the bigger picture your brain can race 100 miles an hour to the answer. Every piece of knowledge is like an obstacle like in the game Mouse Trap and it enables to you navigate all the tricky questions, doubts and nuances to arrive at the right answer fast, with the confidence of being right. You know there is a file on this (it’s just not saved where it should be so everyone else can find it), you know what the client is planning (you just forgot to add that in an email or update anyone). You know you’ll be back in the office later to look at this or speak with such-and-such. YOU know, they don’t.

  • I need to make time for proper client updates, even if they seem a ‘waste of time’, at the time.

  • I need to have a clearer system of what I am working on, and when, so my team can easily find info if they need it.

  • I need to work out the tools for pricing, planning, proposals and pitching so it’s easy for them to share or even start those processes for me and become more involved.

  • I need to prioritize time for briefings and reviews on client work to empower my team to deliver exactly what is needed, listen to their frustrations and actually make the changes needed

Why isn’t this finished properly?

I was asked to type up a list of ‘Stars of the Week’ to be read out at a ritual of campfire for the kids. But that was it. I assumed name, bunk, activity and achievement were the important elements, but without proper instruction on how they would read this out I didn’t know how to present this list of 60+ children, by name? by activity? By age (bunk)? It got me thinking that whoever I handed this too would think this document wasn’t finished.


I often get ‘finished’ work back that isn’t finished as I need it, I now know why. It’s because they don’t know what finished looks like. If you’re cooking and you don’t know who is eating it, you can’t add the finishing touches, too much salt? Not enough? you don’t know. So you do the basics. Without the details of what a task or project will be used for, what are the important elements, how can you ‘finish’ something, you’re not going to be able to deliver it 100% ready.

  • I need to brief projects properly, and find out what that looks like to the person I am briefing, not in 2 minutes between meetings, so I will get back exactly, or close to, what is needed. Even let them present to the client, so they get the 360 view on it not just another disconnected task.

Why do they need to know everything that’s happening?

We joke about putting a tracking chip in me, but I realize that ultimately my team’s day is effected by what I am up to, am I available? Is there new client work? Is there an issue going on? Because it doesn’t affect them directly I have never considered that they might like to know; share in the successes and the challenges, understand the business beyond their roles. I am in the dark here on the details of how a day went, good or bad, even though it was me inputting data on activities and printing out schedules for 250 kids, and if there was a mistake or problem not getting to know how much of a problem it was and how it was fixed, information that would make my role more meaningful and fulfilling.

  • I have to be less insular and force myself to share more, it really is only a reinforcement of all the changes I have already identified briefing, planning etc.. and will benefit those changes too.

ABC should always happen to prevent XYZ

On my second day I was told everything that leaves this office has to be double checked, because we all make mistakes! On my second evening I was told to finish early, leaving my colleague to finish the job. On the third morning we were reprimanded for mistakes made because work had not been checked before it went out.


Countless times I have implemented policies and then ignored them, and worse still instructed others to ignore them. I know I value spontaneity and variety over routine and repetition but I must learn to implement and stick to policies and procedures to protect myself, team members and clients from mistakes, misunderstandings and avoidable frustrations.


Why are you worried? I will take the fall, that’s my job.

I quite often say, it’s my job to take the ‘shit’, feeling like I am protecting my teams, but when told this by a ‘superior’ here, it just added a level of concern and repression to the whole office.


I am still working on the answer to this one. As MD it is my job to take the blame and shoulder all responsibility, but I have been reminded here how a disconnection from the wider consequences is almost worse than having to face them in person. There shouldn’t be any finger pointing or blame games, ‘teams’ make mistakes, ‘leaders’ face the firing squad but somehow the two need to be brought together with only positive outcomes.


There are lots of other little practical and soft skill tips I am picking up here, and having the opportunity to change position, industry and role has been more educational than I imagined it would be, I recommend it. A change is as good as a rest they say.

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