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Penny de Valk



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Undercover Boss: Paying lip service to the skills gap


In the final episode of Channel 4’s Undercover Boss, Steven Martin, CEO of construction giant Clugston goes incognito to find out how his employees really feel about their jobs – and the firm. Penny de Valk shares her views.

"Every boss needs to do something like this. Thing is I’m not convinced they want to hear everything. I’ve learnt more in two weeks than I would in four years in an office. In the end it’s all down to the people". These were the final comments from this week’s Undercover Boss, Steven Martin CEO of Clugston one of the UK’s largest construction companies. The sad thing is that he’s probably right. This is the second and last programme in the series, which forces the question were most of the companies approached too concerned about their reputation to take part?

Conspiracy theories aside, The Undercover Boss is one of those rare reality tv shows which succeeds in presenting reality (or at least a version) that people can relate to. It demonstrated in a very clear and sometimes unflattering light that management distance from front line staff, and a lack of focus on training and communication will lead to serious problems within a company’s workforce. Steven aged 42, relatively young for a CEO, has worked at Clugston for only two years. A major part of his role in his two years has been to make the tough decisions to cut costs and jobs in the face of the recession.

Steven’s two weeks undercover were spent posing as ‘Martin’, an office worker, shooting a documentary of his experience working in the construction industry. During this time he came face to face with the realities of his business decisions and their impact on the lives of his front line staff. While necessary decisions, he discovered the way job cuts and other cuts had been communicated across the business had seriously impacted the morale of staff.

For his first assignment Steve went to Scanthorpe, Lincolnshire to muck in at Clugston’s steel work site. He questioned two joiners, Paul and Sean about staff reaction to job cuts and was visibly surprised when he received the answers: "Morale is at an all time low. We’re just a number. Management think we’re just working class". Clearly the issue here was communication is king! It is vital in any business, particularly those with large parts of the work force non office based, for management at all levels to communicate clearly and regularly with staff.

Internal communications is integral to employee engagement and their understanding of business decisions, particularly when faced with a serious issue like staff cuts and the worst recession since the depression. Not surprisingly the recession played a reoccurring theme (or nightmare) in Stephen’s journey. Interestingly it was the long term impact of job cuts he realised presented not only a huge problem to Clugston but the entire construction industry.

His assignment in York introduced him to Dick, a veteran of the industry with 36 years under his belt. Dick quite simply told him: there are not enough young people coming through the industry and those who are there don’t get the training they need. Most of the people Dick works with have been in the industry over 20 years, when they retire they will take a lifetime of knowledge and experience. Dick was able to see what the decision makers couldn’t – he believed construction is a dying industry as there are no incentives for young people to join when they can take an easier job with more pay.

Stephen also met two younger workers, Leon and Les, both conscientious and passionate about a career in the industry, but who had never received the opportunities to progress. Again, Steven was struck by the realisation that the very people his company should develop were at worst being laid off, and at best left to stagnate through a lack of development opportunities, saying: "recession or no recession we need good people who can take the company forward".

So what did we learn from Stephen’s experience? Firstly from a management and HR perspective the issue of training and developing staff is absolutely integral to the survival and competitiveness of your business. Steven was quite right saying when the recession is over the entire industry will be in a weak position without skilled people. This problem of the ‘skills gap’ is not unique to construction but is an issue facing all of UK plc and is something all industries need to address in their own context.

Steven clearly benefitted a lot from this programme and when returning to CEO status started implementing changes. In the spirit of any good reality tv show, we got to see our frontline heroes promoted to new jobs and given the training they desired. For Steven’s sake – and that of his company – we were left hoping that these weren’t one offs and that talented staff across the business would enjoy the same opportunities to develop and grow.

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


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