Should Execs be Adept at Front-Line Jobs?

Last Updated Mar 4, 2010 6:58 PM EST

Should Execs be Adept at Front-Line Jobs?One of the striking aspects of the latest Undercover Boss episode was White Castle owner and executive Dave Rife's complete inability to do front-line tasks. Whether it was boxing buns, the night-shift drive-thru, or the frozen Slyder production line, he was a train-wreck. It was actually scary to watch.

Some readers were critical of this: "I have always thought a boss should be able to perform the job he/she is expecting their employees to do," wrote dukemd.

In an email, another reader wrote, "Dave Rife couldn't really do any functions working in his family business. How can you run or improve a business when you are unable to do any of the functions required to run a business. Most of us would be fired!!"

While I hate to disappoint so many of you, generally speaking, the expectation that good leaders must be good at front-line jobs is flat out wrong. Now, before you have an embolism and start typing nasty comments telling me I've missed the mark this time, let me explain.
It is one thing to "visit a site and work alongside the men and women who make up the company", as reader hbizdr wrote. That's a good thing. Executives should spend time in their operations, and good ones do. It's also imperative that executives have a visceral feel for the product or service their company offers. But it's another thing entirely to expect them to be instantly adept at front-line jobs. For example:

  • By any measure, John Chambers, long-time CEO of Cisco, has been one of the greatest CEOs in American history. His accolades are almost embarrassingly long. But his expertise is in business, sales, and operations. He couldn't design or build a multiprotocol router if his life depended on it, and that's what Cisco does.
  • On the less technical side, Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp - like his politics or not - has been one of the most successful media moguls in history. But how do you think he'd do on either side of a camera or an editorial desk?
  • More to the point, McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner did start out as a restaurant manager trainee almost 40 years ago. But if I'm an employee or a shareholder, I don't much know or care if the guy can flip burgers or take orders. All I know is he's doing one helluva job running the company.
I can go on and on.

Look, I'm not trying to make excuses for Dave Rife or any of the other Undercover Bosses. But I interviewed the guy, and I know he's driven, he cares, and he's good at what he does. One thing I can readily tell is whether an executive is a keeper or not. Dave's a keeper.

But the "physical" multitasking and the type of concentration required for the tasks he attempted on the show are a far cry from the competencies required of executives in this highly specialized world. Not to mention the rolling cameras. That had to be unnerving, especially knowing that his screw-ups were sure to make the cut.

Frankly, an executive's ability to do anything his employees do has absolutely nothing to do with his ability to be an effective executive. Okay, now you can go ahead and tell me I'm wrong. Go for it.

Dave Rife photo: Jeffrey R. Staab / Courtesy of CBS
Check out: 'Undercover Boss': What Execs Can Learn Flipping Burgers