retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

It’s a fantasy long told in fiction and movies, yet rarely witnessed in real life. A worker far down the organization chart (maybe not even on the chart) meets the boss of his company and gets to channel his inner Donald Trump with the words: “You’re fired.”

Only this time it happened for real.

Well, sort of for real. The full story is this: Fred Davidson, the president of Ritchie’s Supa IGA in Australia is a fairly successful guy. His company has 70 stores and is growing.
Davidson is a good operator and like so many other retail executives, worked his way up through the company. He thought he could do any job in the store until he got the chance. And that’s when he got fired.

Davidson was selected for the Australian version of "Undercover Boss," a show that disguises top executives and dispatches them into their companies to work on the front lines. For his stint on camera, Davidson, an imposing man standing well over six-feet tall, was given glasses and a beard to conceal his appearance. Then he went to work at his own company.

I got to meet Davidson and hear the story at the just concluded IGA Global Rally in Chicago. It’s a shame more retailers (IGA and otherwise) didn’t have the chance to hear about his experience.

In a short video from the show, we watched Davidson badly move a handcart laden with product in the back room. (Well, actually he dropped some of the product.) We watched him interact with employees who didn’t know they were talking with their company’s boss. And we watched him mess up pretty badly in the bakery department, earning him a polite and calm discussion with the department manager who explained that things simply weren’t working out. Then we watched him get fired.

Davidson said he got many surprises from the experience. First, he came to understand - as other CEOs have surmised in recent times - that the front line jobs he once did have become increasingly complex due to new technologies. Tasks he might have handled with ease early in his career are now foreign to him. Most importantly he got a vivid reminder of just how important front-line staff are to the success of any company.

Davidson is a good operator and probably knew - intellectually, of course - that the front-line is so vital. But being on the line brought it home.

Obviously Davidson’s experience isn’t one any CEO or top executive can easily replicate. Most of us don’t have a television crew with make-up and wardrobe to conceal our identities. Certainly, most of us won’t be on a television show that will air nationally. (Davidson said the show somehow was seen in the US and UK in addition to Australia.)

But this may be one reality show with a really interesting lesson for executives and all team leaders: to try to understand the challenges and realities facing the members of our teams. Granted there are things we can’t possibly correct and no leader can or should know how to do every job inside a company. Yet a trip to the front lines may be stunningly educational, reminding us all of the little challenges that slow productivity, drain morale or, worst of all, chase people away.

Based on Davidson’s experience, it’s a trip worth making.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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