One of the most painful unspoken realities of leading is to admit that leaders can be clueless about the challenges their people face. That’s why I have always felt that there are few opportunities better than stepping into the actual jobs of your people to see firsthand how these individuals are being supported or hindered by leadership--leadership meaning you.
The television show Undercover Boss, launched in the U.K. but since released in a number of countries around the world, features a senior-level executive, usually a CEO, who conceals his identity from subordinates while stepping into a front-line job within his own company. As the leader works alongside unsuspecting “coworkers,” he learns the challenges of the job and quickly identifies how most of those challenges exist because of shortcomings from management. Prior to this clandestine work experience, these managers assumed that the challenges at the front line were caused by employees, but their perspective changed as did the decisions they made after revealing their identities during an apologetic speech.
Try doing a subordinate’s job when they go on vacation. It’s a great way to learn how you can improve your organization. Be the receptionist, the purchasing agent, the shipping manager, or the order-entry clerk. See where repetitive tasks could be streamlined, notice where mistakes are consistently made, pay attention to where bottlenecks in processes exist, and take note of where people seem frustrated with their jobs. These are all opportunities for management to make better decisions and improve the organization.
Getting your hands dirty can reveal a lot more about the impact of your decisions than walk-around management can, and the changes you make in yourself as a result can bring long-lasting benefits to your organization.
When my staff members took their summer vacations, I would step into each role to get a sense of how their functions were connecting with and contributing to the organization as a whole. During one such experience, I discovered that a manager who was always complaining about her workload despite the tools and processes we implemented to make her work easier was actually never replacing old processes with new; instead, she was adding the new processes to the old, and in turn, lopping hours of redundant work onto her daily schedule. In one day, I was able to eliminate these redundancies that bogged her down, and when she returned from her vacation, I helped her ease into the improved routine. Had I not gotten my hands dirty, we would never have recouped an average of fifteen hours per week being lost through this manager. I’ve always wondered what would have happened if I had done this earlier.
Doing the jobs of others allows you to see how people are performing, and what they need from you to do their jobs better. Perhaps some teams aren’t following a new process as you thought they were, or that an idea you thought was working like a charm isn’t working at all. Note: I have known executives who have taken a similar tact and a few times regretted the experience. You have to judge for yourself whether you are staying long enough to have a positive impact or lingering for too long and causing others to feel undermined and hindered.
To truly understand your organization from 360 degrees, view it from as many different perspectives as possible. To broaden your awareness more, make sure everyone “sees” the same organizational structure.
Have you ever traveled along the highway and followed another driver in his or her vehicle for hours? They pass another car, so you pass another car. They speed up to get by a large truck, you do the same. A real traveling team you are, until one of you steers onto an exit ramp as the other continues its path down the highway. A lot of leaders, managers, and coworkers operate in much the same fashion. They all think they’re traveling toward the same destination, but when they’re asked to describe even where they fall within the organization’s landscape, most of them are nothing more than independent travelers.
Would you say that you and your staff are on the same page about your organization’s operations, functions, and structure? Sometimes leaders, managers, and coworkers can work side by side for years, pointed in the same direction, and be heading for entirely different desired outcomes. Test your answer by performing the exercise that a couple of my clients tried.
We were at an executive retreat for thirty executives and managers of a nonprofit with eight hundred employees. After some preliminary discussion, I placed two easels, back to back, and asked the CEO and the executive director each to go to an easel and sketch out the company’s corporate organizational chart while other members of the group drew their renditions on paper.
When we turned those two easels toward the audience, everyone saw two charts that were so different that they appeared to be describing two different organizations. Both the CEO and the executive director had forgotten several (but different) functional units. The executive director’s reporting lines were wrong, too. One contained the board of directors and the other did not. The paper versions drawn up by audience members were no more consistent. This exercise was a real eye-opener for everyone in the room, including myself.
By acquiring an accurate view of your organization’s structure, you can make better and unsiloed decisions for all of its departments, people, units, and other stakeholders by understanding how your decisions will impact every aspect of the organization.
So now you have some techniques you can easily use to gain a 360-degree awareness of your organization, and you can pass these techniques on to other decision makers by installing the mechanisms to keep them informed and by communicating directly with them the actions they need to take to gain the awareness they need to do their jobs optimally.
Rethink your leadership style with tips from the Fast Company newsletter 
Reprinted with permission of David and Lorrie Goldsmith. Excerpted from Paid to THINK: A Leaders Toolkit for Redefining Your Future.  Copyright MMXII David and Lorrie Goldsmith. All rights reserved.
--David Goldsmith is the president of the New York-based Goldsmith Organization , holds an MBA from Syracuse University, served on the faculty of New York University for 12 years, and over the past 20 years has founded or cofounded eight businesses ranging from distribution to manufacturing to advertising. Lorrie Goldsmith is cofounder of the Goldsmith Organization. You can download all the graphics associated with their book at paidtothink.com and they can be reached at email@example.com  and firstname.lastname@example.org .
[Image: Flickr user Chris Goldberg ]