Undercover Boss tells MT why he took the risk

Tonight's Undercover Boss, Clugston Group CEO Stephen Martin, on his lessons from the front-line.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Tonight’s episode of Channel 4’s Undercover Boss features Stephen Martin, the CEO of Clugston Group, a construction and logistics business. Martin (one of only two CEOs to agree to the show) spent two weeks working alongside his front-line staff incognito – and came back a real convert. Since his return, he’s already implemented a raft of changes to the company’s internal communication strategy and training systems – while encouraging other CEOs to get out from behind the boardroom table and get their hands dirty. But we couldn’t help wondering: isn’t this a big risk for a CEO to take?

Like most construction companies, Clugston has a tough couple of years; Martin himself has had to push through a big redundancy programme since his arrival two years ago. So it’s no wonder that most of his directors (and even his wife) thought it was a crazy idea. ‘They were worried it might show the company in a bad light, or even destroy our brand reputation,’ the genial Martin tells MT. With the economy in its current state, some thought the company would be better served keeping its head down.

Martin, however, felt that as a management experiment, it was a risk worth taking. ‘It was an opportunity to interact with our workforce on their terms. The fact that cameras were there was secondary, to be honest.’ So he spent two weeks on various sites within the group, posing at an office worker called Martin Walker on a fact-finding mission – although he didn’t actually lie. ‘I knew that if I blew this in terms of how I handled it, it could destroy internal trust. But in business you have to take risks, especially at times like this.’ Judging by the fact he got home in one piece (even after a night out on the tiles with his labourers) he seems to have got away with it.

And the great thing about being CEO is that Martin has been able to make immediate changes as a result. In particular, he discovered that his corporate message wasn’t filtering through properly – staff wanted to know more about things like people moves, local community relations, new business wins and the rationale behind management decisions. So he’s trying a range of new things: a shorter, more frequent company news-sheet; an intranet with a bulletin board, and a six-weekly round-up that will be emailed to those at HQ and attached to the wage slips of front-line staff. ‘One size doesn’t fit all,’ says Martin. ‘You’ve got to try a range of techniques, see what works and what doesn’t.’ Staff will also have worker engagement teams on site, so they can discuss issues with management.

Training is his other big new cause. Martin argues that a generation of baby boomers are about to retire from the industry, and there aren’t enough young people coming in to take their place. So unless something is done, all these skills will be lost. He’s putting together an industry-wide group called ‘Bridge the Gap’ to address the challenge: ‘The Government’s not going to do anything about it, so we need to get together and do it ourselves.’ This will involve working out ways to help older staff – many of whom have no wish to go back into a classroom – train and mentor junior people.

So Martin clearly got a lot out of it, and thinks other CEO should follow suit (if only so the Apprentice isn’t the only business role model for young people on TV). ‘It’s tough – physically draining and mentally exhausting. But if you have the right mindset, you’ll gain far more from those two weeks than you will from two years from sitting back in the office.’ Although you might decide it’s a lot safer without the cameras...


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