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Penny de Valk



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Undercover boss: It’s worth investing in your people


In a new two-part series on Channel 4, Undercover Boss features a senior executive who goes undercover in their own company to find out what is happening at the coalface and what employees really think about the business. Penny de Valk shares her thoughts on last night’s episode.

Channel 4’s new series Undercover Boss, saw Andy Edge, marketing director of Park Resorts, one of the UK’s largest caravan holiday companies, trade in his suit and spreadsheets for a can of pledge and a deep fat fryer in two different caravan parks, to find out what life is really like for his employees.
"If I turned up in my suit and tie, I’d see a different side of the business," reasoned Andy – and he was right. By going incognito, Andy saw first hand the full impact of his company’s frugal approach to staff reward and development as he headed to Norfolk to muck in with the resort’s team of poorly-managed cleaners, unmotivated managers and an over-burdened and untrained cook who worked a 60-hour week.
Luckily for Andy, his next stop was the Isle of Wight resort, where – apart from the awful weather – things were looking up. In contrast, he saw motivated and self-managing teams, who loved their job, and the company.
So we suppose the question for the management community is, what lessons can be learned from Andy’s intriguing social experiment?
Firstly, businesses need to get the basics right. It’s important to control costs, but not at the expense of staff reward and development, as these are crucial to performance and customer satisfaction. Park Resorts’ lack of investment in staff welfare and training in the Norfolk resort was resulting in poor staff morale, even worse customer service and a woeful holiday experience for customers.
One member of staff in Norfolk complained that he was "invisible to the company". Managers must invest in training and development if they want staff to feel as though they are playing their part in their organisation’s future.

Taking the lead

In stark contrast, a shining example of good leadership and management came in the form of Isle of Wight accommodation manager Fiona Page. She had observed that a good rate of pay attracted experienced and motivated cleaners, and had taken it upon herself to alter the wage structure.
By reducing the number of cleaning supervisors, and diverting that money direct to the staff, Fiona had been able to recruit and retain a crack team of experienced workers. No surprises that this incentivised wage structure had led to improved quality and commitment, spotless caravans and satisfied customers.
Fiona’s efforts resulted in a complete shake-up of the cleaning system at Park Resorts. On his return to head office, Andy promptly promoted her and charged her with the roll out of her management and wage structure across the whole business. "Under her system, you get people who are really good, who get paid what they feel they’re worth, and they’re given trust and empowered to do a good job," he said.
"It made me realise that I very rarely see behind the scenes," said Andy. However, experiencing the reality of life on the coalface and finding out from employees what they really thought, no holds barred, meant that a number of major improvements were put in place and customer satisfaction undoubtedly improved as a result.
The show proved that though it is often difficult for managers to relate to employees at the bottom of their organisation, they should not be afraid to get feedback from their staff (preferably without having to resort to going undercover on national TV). Innovative ideas very often come from people working on the front-line.
While it made for great TV, Undercover Boss highlighted the need for managers to get the basics right, remember the value of developing their people and get to know their company from top to bottom. The way you act as a manager will ultimately impact on your team and motivated, well-trained staff ultimately mean happy customers – a lesson that Andy learned the hard way in Norfolk.

Oh, and if you ever fancy a Park Resorts holiday, we’d recommend the Isle of Wight over Norfolk – though evidently changes are afoot!      

Penny de Valk is chief executive of the Institute of Leadership and Management.