In past years, we (Dave and Wendy) have happened on a TV show that features ambitious young apprentices vying for the attention and approval of a demanding, billionaire boss. The boss pits the competitors against each other in accomplishing unusual and provocative business tasks. Underperformers are summarily fired, while winners are rewarded with posh parties, extravagant gifts, or jet-setting playgrounds in which to live out their fantasies of what it means to be rich and famous.
More recently we have tuned in to a new TV show featuring a top executive of a large firm who goes “undercover” as a new hire for an entry level position in his own company. The boss is the lowest person on the totem pole, learning the ropes of such compelling jobs as selling coffee, cleaning toilets, picking up trash, or washing windows. The boss is subjected to the rigorous expectations of low-level managers trying to motivate and train minimum wage employees at unglamorous tasks. The boss is the one “on trial” so to speak, and sometimes he gets fired by his own employees who do not know who he really is. Only at the end of the show do the employees meet the CEO of the company they work for and find out he is the person they were training.
The bosses on this show always seem to learn a lot about the people who work for them. They learn that there are dedicated, hard-working, energetic people who manage to make toilet cleaning a challenge, window washing a matter of pride, or taking children on an amusement park ride a personal source of delight. They also learn that these same employees may be women who have to use a can for a toilet because their truck route schedule does not leave them time to stop at a restroom, or men who are take a full course load of college classes in addition to their full-time job. The bosses are moved and impressed by the dedication of their trainers and the passion they find in ordinary work, and these employees are often rewarded in turn with a modest raise, a word of admiration and appreciation, or access to corporate benefits like child-care or education funding. These bosses are not looking for who they can fire or who they can make into their clones, but they are often overwhelmed with emotion as they see the good work being done by ordinary people doing ordinary work with commitment and passion.
We hope leaders all over are learning something from the premise of this show: look deep into the organization for bright spots of enthusiasm and energy – and build on them; help people tap into their strengths and passions – and learn from them; give employees the resources they need to provide for their families and improve their lives – and support them. Doing so builds deep reserves of employees who in turn are not only competent and committed, but who have a deep sense of contribution – of using their skills and energies to make a difference for good.
We also hope employees watching this show see that making meaning is ultimately an individual prerogative. The employees on this show are excelling at their work, having good experiences, and making a difference whether or not the CEO knows them by name. They are employees who take it upon themselves to learn the names of their customers, warmly encourage new trainees, put in extra hours to learn their trade, or spread good will in their communities, and in so doing they are not only making their companies more profitable, they are also building work settings that meet their own needs for friendship, accomplishment, learning, and impact.