Would You Swap Your Boss?

Would You Swap Your Boss?

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I don't get to watch much television these days (a combination of a young family, work and church), but I happened to come across an interesting programme on Channel 4 last night called Boss Swap. The programme takes an interesting premise of transposing two company directors into each others' firms for a fortnight spell and giving them both free rein to run the company how they like. Each of the companies is then followed in a fly-on-the wall documentary to see how they respond to the different approach of their guest director. In last night's programme, Bryan (ex-Army, rather wooden) from a plastic bag manufacturing company swapped with Lee (ladies charmer, down-to-earth), co-director of a public relations agency. 

What made the programme so compelling was the way it stripped down the essentials of good management to the bare bones. The editing of "reality TV" programmes like this inevitably distorts and caricatures people, showing their excesses rather than their genuine personality. Yet you could learn far more about how to run a business in an hour from watching their differing approaches than you could from many management training manuals.

Lee took a hands-on approach to the carrier bag company, heading straight down to the shop floor to meet the company employees and finding out their gripes and ideas for improving the company. By winning the others in the company over with his enthusiasm and empowering them by giving them a stronger sense of ownership in the company's future, he seemed to be able to both build a stronger team culture and improve the company's effectiveness.

Bryan on the other hand demonstrated a more traditional top-down approach to management, expecting his higher rank to automatically engender respect but instead alienating himself from his temporary employees. I felt somewhat sympathetic to Bryan; he undoubtedly had the harder side of the assignment in entering a young dynamic company already full of people employed for their creative talents. Not only did he struggle with his half of a swap but he returned to find his own company invigorated by the very person whose shoes he couldn't fill.

A few characteristics of great management I think the programme hinted at:

  • Excellent managers don't drive change simply by setting a direction - they share a vision with their employees so that it becomes a joint goal.
  • Excellent managers make their staff stakeholders in the company rather than simply employees.
  • Excellent managers are less interested in personal success than the success of those around them; paradoxically the result is their own advancement.
  • Excellent managers don't see themselves as superior than their employees, just as differently skilled.

One of the most interesting things was how the companies followed up their televisual fame. If you go to Lee's PR agency you get redirected to a special site that picks up on the Boss Swap publicity. On the other hand, Bryan's firm looks like any other site. If you saw the programme, you might also be interested in the interviews they conducted with the chief protagonists, which give further insights into their reactions to the programme. I look forward to seeing future episodes at some point...

  • I wonder when (if ever) we'll see this program(me) on US television. It sounds interesting. I just hope fox doesn't co-opt it and turn it into some kind of weird boss-dating hoax show.
  • I believe it's coming on 4 Broadband (available with a RealPlayer subscription); details here:
    http://uk.real.com/partners/channel4/?src=R1E.ch4

    I can't endorse this service (rather the opposite in fact given that it's Real :-)

  • # Tim Sneath wrote about the performance of a PR executive in Boss Swap, a British reality TV show featuring two managing directors with very different styles who are
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