Down the Up Staircase

A British TV series invites CEOs to leave their offices, head to the front lines, and find out what's going on at their companies. The results are eye-opening -- and millions are watching.

Thanks to Robert Thirkell, customers at British supermarket giant Sainsbury's push smaller shopping carts, train drivers at England's and Wales's public-transit operator Prism Rail enjoy better pay, and couples getting hitched at Antigua's Sandals resort hear the "Bridal March" through new remote-controled speakers rather than through a boombox.

Thirkell isn't a consultant or a noted business-school professor. As the creative director at the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), he has figured out how to turn business into good TV -- and how to use TV to make business better.

Thirkell's secret? Most executives are worried about climbing to the top of the ladder. But with his hit series Back to the Floor, he persuades CEOs to do just the opposite, dispatching them to the bottom rung of their organizations to spend a week as trash collectors, paramedics, baggage handlers, or waiters. The goal: to find out what's really going on at their companies and make them better. In the process, Thirkell has made traditional business-on-television fare (all talking heads and market quotes) look bankrupt. And by portraying bosses as human, he has persuaded his own bosses at the BBC to take business more seriously.

When Thirkell joined the public-broadcasting company 20 years ago, business was peripheral there. "I was told that you couldn't make business interesting," he says, "that it was intrinsically dreary." But Thirkell soon scored an unexpected victory with TroubleShooter, a business-makeover program that cast Sir John Harvey-Jones, the legendary former chairman of chemicals giant ICI, as company doctor. A BAFTA award (the British Emmy) for originality gave Thirkell license to experiment further, which he used to launch Blood on the Carpet and Trouble at the Top, shows that reveled in the drama of failure.

With Back to the Floor, Thirkell tested a more purposeful fly-on-the-boardroom-wall format by inviting CEOs to see and confront grassroots problems in their organizations -- while the cameras rolled. "To make good TV, you need strong characters, high stakes, and testing circumstances," says Thirkell. "Back to the Floor works because we are putting the boss under pressure."

Once a willing CEO has been identified (and many say no), Thirkell's researchers are then sent in as "miniconsultants" to diagnose the company's strengths and weaknesses, its challenges and potential. However, Thirkell's producers are not schooled in business. Instead, he encourages them to enroll in the courses of Robert McKee, the man who has taught half of Hollywood how to write a screenplay. There, they can learn the skills of introducing tension, suspense, and climax into a narrative.

"We're in the business of telling stories," says Thirkell, "dramas that unfold over days. We tell those stories through the customers and workers we choose. We introduce the hero, identify the problem, follow him through the ups and downs and dead ends. And just before the end, when it all seems to be going wrong ... whoosh! Our hero is victorious."

Not every story has a happy ending. Some suspect that Dino Adriano's departure from the top job at Sainsbury's owed something to his poor showing on Back to the Floor. Millionaire restaurateur Luke Johnson, head of the popular British chain Belgo, decided that he'd peeled one onion too many for a moody chef, ripped off his microphone, told producers to "Shove your program!" and refused to allow the camera to keep filming.

Bosses, though, often return to the boardroom ready to right wrongs. Take the Radisson Edwardian managing director who nearly halved the prices of his smallest rooms or the head of Wedgwood, who sued the supplier of the robots that were dropping his cups. Even Johnson agreed to hire six more chefs.

Almost without exception, CEOs learn a lesson in communication. "We find people at the heart of every organization who know exactly what's right and what's wrong with it," says Thirkell. "But between them and the bosses is a layer of people -- those whose careers depend on sanitizing that information. Bosses are always surprised at how much knowledge exists further down the ladder."

Now into its fifth season, Back to the Floor commands prime-time slots and audiences of about 2 million. Thirkell is taking lessons learned from the series online with a Web-based business portal, and the show gets its first U.S. airing on PBS in the spring, with programs on Carnival Cruise Lines and the Central Park Conservancy.

Finally, in a rather delicious case of life imitating art, Thirkell now finds himself leading a team of 60 people. It may be time, he thinks, for a trip back to the floor. "It's easy to lose touch," he says. "To forget what it's like being crapped on all the time and having little control over your destiny."

Contact Robert Thirkell by email (robert.thirkell@bbc.co.uk), or visit Back to the Floor on the Web (www.bbc.co.uk/education/work).

Sidebar: Lessons From the Line

More than 50 CEOs and other execs have gone back to the floor with Robert Thirkell. What did they learn?

"It taught me humility," says Gillian duCharme, who was head of exclusive boarding school Benenden when Thirkell sent her to teach unruly children at Forest Gate Community School in East London. "I thought I could teach anyone, but I couldn't control those kids. I had to learn a new set of methods." In 2000, duCharme quit to become an education consultant but still keeps in touch with those she met at Forest Gate.

Tom Riall, who previously served as managing director of waste-disposal company Onyx UK, spent a week collecting garbage and learned the power of seeing problems with his own eyes. "You can be briefed about an issue by your managers for years," he says. "But until you experience it for yourself, you don't really understand it. I found that there were constant mistakes with our overtime payments and that our fleet of vehicles was unreliable." Riall continued to go back to the floor after the cameras disappeared. Currently a managing director at security firm Reliance, he is itching for Thirkell to give him another go.

During his week as a paramedic in Glasgow, Adrian Lucas, CEO of the Scottish Ambulance Service, learned that small issues are as important as big ones are: "The smaller issues can become major bones of contention -- such as being slow to award paramedics their badges after they've gone through training. It reminded me that I'm here to serve those who serve others."

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