The one big lesson from Undercover Boss

As I am still recovering from my fall nearly two months ago, I have to spend more time at home. For 10$ per month I got Netflix, and I can watch as many movies and TV-series I want. Zapping through Netflix I stumbled upon the US version of ‘Undercover Boss’. Undercover Boss is a reality TV series, where the CEO/President/COO goes undercover in his/her own company, to learn more about what really goes on.
Every episode has more or less the same format.

  1. The CEO calls his (most of the undercover bosses are male) management team together. Most of the executives wear over-sized suits. During this scene we also learn a lot about the average US Board room (very boring design, big table, big chairs and brown is the color).
    He starts the meeting saying: “I have decided to step down as CEO……….[long pause, his colleagues are looking startled into to camera] ….. for one week. I will go undercover in our own company”.
  2. The CEO at home. Most of them have a happy family and a big house (Walt Disney style). The CEO kisses his family farewell before he rolls his suitcase to the car to go on his one-week undercover mission. Shot of his wife: “I am sure Jack/John/Tom will learn a lot, and I admire him a lot that he dares to do this”.
  3. The CEO enters a mid-class motel, as he wants to resemble the normal people as much as possible.
  4. The CEO transforms from CEO to worker. The most necessary ingredient is the beard. Most of the CEO’s grow their beard to be unrecognizable. Those with a beard or mustache go the other way around. Glasses are added, a cap or a helmet, non-suit like clothes and the CEO is ready to report to work.
  5. What follows is a series of four or so different sessions where the disguised boss works in his own company. At the conveyor belt. As a cleaner. In the call center. As a chamber maid. We see him perform the work (generally not very good, sometime the boss is fired), and taking brakes with co-workers. The co-workers turn out to be normal people. Although: normal? In the US series they have a preference for people with one or more of the following characteristics:
    – Divorced with small children at home
    – Lived on the street
    – History with alcohol and/or drugs
    – Something terrible happened to them
    – Big believe in God.
  6. In the evening the CEO has to return to his motel. We see him sitting in the hotel, alone, eating a meal out of the microwave.
  7. On the last day the CEO returns home. We see him at a locker, where his too big suit has been stored during the week. He shaves of his beard, puts on his suit and walks to the Board room.
  8. The CEO reports back to the management team. “We have a fantastic company, but……”.  The cleaning time for the planes is far too short, the waiting lines in the hotel are too long and the facilities for single mothers are too poor.  The action points are delegated and the CEO moves to scene 9.
  9. Now the CEO has one-on-one meetings with his former co-workers, to whom he reveals his true identity. “I am not Jack, but Richard, the CEO of this company”. Most of the workers who had to train the undercover CEO are lucky. Some are promoted. Others get a holiday or US$ 10,000 for their charity. The mother who never sees her child can stay home six months and the company will pay. Often the meeting ends with a hug. “Can I hug you?”
  10. A town hall meeting. The CEO addresses a big group of employees and tells them about his undercover experience. They are able to see some scenes (the CEO has to remove poop out of the swimming pool after a ‘poop alert’).
  11. We have reached the end of this episode. While the camera is zooming out, we can read what happened after the undercover week. Cecilia was promoted. Jules was invited to join the leadership program. The one worker who screwed up got additional training, but is no longer with the company.

For me there was one big lesson after watching several episodes of Undercover Boss. CEO’s, COO’s, Presidents and all other executives do not spend enough time on the work floor. Spending time with the people who do the real work pays off. They know what the real issues are. They have great ideas for innovation and process improvement. They know what the customers want. So, get out of your meeting rooms and go to the front where it really happens. Not undercover, if you do this often enough, you do not need any cover.

P.S. (Townhall) meetings in the field do NOT count!


No more articles