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Undercover Boss - CEO of Tower Hamlets, Kevan Collins

22nd Jul 2010
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Tower Hamlets CEO Kevan Collins has only just got into his role - four months in the job - but he's already being sent out to see what people on the 'council floor' are doing and how the upcoming cuts are going to impact on front line services.

He knows there are problems in the borough, explaining that although some of the most successful business are contained within the district, when you go to the heart of the community there's a lot of poverty. Kevan explains there is a need to make sure the wealth that is created is shared. Kevan started his career as a teacher and has worked in public service all his life.

The cuts, says Kevan, may be £50 million over three years. He knows it will be painful but they have to try to prioritise services so the most vulnerable are least affected.

This wasn't, admittedly, the most enlightening Undercover Boss I've ever seen. I'm beginning to side with the Mirror slightly - it was, indeed, overwhemlingly positive. However, there was one thing to be taken from this week's experience: appreciation.

Up in the boardroom it is easy to forget what work those people who work for you actually do, and it seemed that meeting some of the amazing people who provide the council services made Kevan more appreciative and aware of the situation in the lower ranks.

Day 1 - Kevan picks up a box of meals while delivering hot lunches to locals. It's heavy, he exclaims. The 62 year-old grandmother Chris, who he is shadowing, agrees - but she does this every day.

Seeing the older people of the community treating Chris like an old friend moves Kevan who see the human side of cuts - Chris used to have half the deliveries she makes now each day and even had time to take a quick cup of tea with one - no longer.

Day 2 - Kevan joins 25 year old Mallachi on the reception of the homeless department. People who arrive at his desk are tired, frustrated and vulnerable. Mallachi deals with them and calms them with deference and respect. Kevan is impressed. Mallachi reminds him that anyone can become homeless. "You could be in that position yourself," he says.

Day 3 - The community enforcement officers Kevan shadows cover all sorts of misdeeds from loitering yoof to, err, littering yoof.

One young man who throws a cigarette [***] down a drain is given a fixed penalty notice, but one woman trying to sell balloons without a licence is let off. Kevan criticises the inconsistency.

Day 4 - Kevan joins pest control officer Tim. He takes amazing pride in his work and it's fascinating how much he clearly knows and delivers about pest control. He's sympathetic to the woman who is terified of rats and possibly a little graphic when describing his job to Kevan, but still. Tim says his job is "Bit like a detective really. At the scene of a crime..."

Day 5 - Shazz is inspecting the markets. Kevan joins in and Shazz says he's taken to it naturally. He shows Kevan some plans he has drawn up which would make the markets world-class.

Kevan develops huge respect for all the people he works with, which is incredibly valuable in itself, and he vows to take the inconsistency out of community enforcement. The levels of engagement and the commitment to the organisation by some workers are incredible, and there's clearly a lot other CEOs could learn from visiting their own 'shop floors'.

What did you get out of the programme? Did it inspire any tips or thoughts? If you have any, please let us know!


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Replies (4)

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By alisonrbcm
27th Jul 2010 11:55

I loved it but know it’s my filters that are seeing what I want to see just as I did last week.

For me it’s emphasising that the service organisations provide is all about the people. I loved seeing the human side of the CEO’s as they interacted with those they worked alongside in the week - as opposed to who they were with their management team and in CEO role. I loved seeing the passion many of those visited had for their jobs and how often they went the extra mile. I loved that many were recognised as a result.

I was expecting it to be a programme about all the things people were doing wrong – so perhaps positivity is the counter to those expectations. It depends who the programme is aimed at. I’d love it to be for the CEOs and management teams that feel their teams will do a bad job unless they’re micro managed and have procedures telling them what to do. I want it to encourage those in leadership positions to trust and have faith in their teams. I want it to encourage them to listen more and appreciate more. A programme showing teams doing things wrong might not do that. I‘d like to hope, from my positive corner of the world, that this viewpoint will :-). 

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By glynlumley
27th Jul 2010 14:49

 I agree that Kevan Collin's appreciation of his workforce was a significant part of this programme. However, the thing that stood out for me was the reservoir of talent and ideas for improvement that resided within those front-line staff. Until the 'undercover boss' arrived seemingly there had been no method by which those ideas could brought to the surface. This is a sad statement regarding the capability of the line management across the various services shown during the programme. 

I fear that it is not an issue that is peculiar to the public sector. Western management, wedded to Taylor's principles of scientific management, will continue to regard staff as something to be directed and controlled 

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By ianprice
27th Jul 2010 15:31

I have mixed feelings about The Undercover Boss. Employees are deceived into a fictional situation and then confronted with the reality for an entertainment show on a commercial TV channel. Even though everything was universally positive, I think it's ethically questionable to put your employees through this. Kevan justifies the deception by suggesting that to go in without the covert identity would not enable him to get at the truth - but these employees were inevitably screened as part of selecting who was accompanying the boss. This goes some way to explaining why the Council appeared a nirvana of employee satisfaction... It's the first one I've seen so maybe future programmes will unearth more controversy.

And was I alone in thinking that Kevan should have given Mallachi a permanent job outright?

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By Charlie Duff
29th Jul 2010 10:52

Yes I do see what you mean - there's a formula they try to stick to, and this episode felt like it had been quite closely sanitised or at least throughly scruitnised to make sure it would portray a positive light.

Mallachi indeed showed excellent skills, didn't you think? Maybe there's a recruitment freeze...

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