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The Last Word Divorced From Reality

March 9, 2010

Sometimes, you find management and leadership wisdom in the most unexpected places—even on a TV “reality” show.

I don’t know if you have seen the new show Undercover Boss, but I was intrigued by the premise. The show’s point, as the Los Angeles Times puts it, is to send “CEOs and über-bosses into the belly of their own companies to experience ‘real work’ and improve the lives of their underlings.”

That’s how the network touts the show, and after watching the first three episodes, I’d say it’s accurate, sort of. But Undercover Boss does fall into this predicable pattern:

• Out-of-touch executive goes undercover at his company to see how life is for the average low-level worker.

• Out-of-touch executive secretly gets to work down in the trenches and is shocked—shocked! —by how demanding these jobs are.

• Out-of-touch executive is floored—floored! —by how hard people at his company work, and by how many of them have toil and troubles in their lives, sometimes caused by corporate policies coming from his office.

• Out-of-touch executive has a revelation: He must learn from his experience and do something to help improve the lives of the good people in his company whom he worked alongside of.

The first three executives featured on Undercover Boss—Larry O’Donnell, president and COO of Waste Management Inc.; Coby Brooks, president and CEO of Hooters; and Joe DePinto, CEO of 7-Eleven—seem to be caring individuals, but they also seem to be woefully ignorant of how their organizations work.

And that’s the great management wisdom to be gleaned from this show: If top-level leaders are going to be effective, they really need to understand their organizations from the bottom up.

Of course, none of the executives featured on Undercover Boss really know how tough their workers’ jobs are, nor do they have any sense of the struggles workers go through to make ends meet. If they did understand all that, there would be no show to broadcast. But these executives also seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of their organization’s business model, be it waste disposal or using scantily clad waitresses to sell chicken wings and beer.

Hooters CEO Brooks goes out on a guerrilla marketing mission with two Hooter girls and seems stunned when some of the people he talks to tell him that Hooters is degrading to women. In another episode, Waste Management’s O’Donnell is surprised to find that many of his 45,000 employees have physically demanding jobs that are also pretty dirty. They pump out portable toilets and work at landfills. Imagine.

No one expects high-level executives to know the minutiae of every job in the company, but they should have some insight into the basics of their business. For example, at UPS everyone in the company, from the top down, is expected to work as a driver or package sorter when they start to learn just what makes the operation tick.

Undercover Boss takes great pains to show how each executive has been transformed by his experience washing down a kitchen or cleaning out a portable toilet. At the end of each show, the top boss reveals himself to the lower-level people he has been working with. In most cases, the executive uses his power to help improve the workers’ lot in life, either personally or professionally.

That’s all well and good, but it makes me wonder: Why does it take a TV reality show to get the honchos to show appreciation for people deep down in their organizations who are living, as Henry David Thoreau put it, “lives of quiet desperation”?

You won’t find that point addressed anywhere on Undercover Boss. It’s just as well, because you can make a great case that executives who are this clueless about their workforce shouldn’t be leading any organization. But that’s addressed in another reality show you may be familiar with. It stars a guy named Donald Trump.

Workforce Management, March 2010, p. 34 -- Subscribe Now!