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Quick - Who watched "Undercover Boss" after the Superbowl?  Who thought it was entertaining?  Who thought it was lame?

More importantly, who thought it was real?  Or that meaningful improvement could be had from this approach?  Could "The Situation" from the Jersey Shore have actually assisted with the intellectual honesty of this series?Undercovevr

Let's imagine you're in the guts of an American business that has a workforce of 40K+ that's been built primarily through acquisition.  If you know anything about business, you know there are going to be plenty of things messed up operationally.  You don't build a business that size via M&A and not have some dysfunction across the board.

More dysfunction than can be solved in the finale of a pop culture reality show, where the outcome has to fit into a 20 minute wrap-up.  Walter Kirn of Business Week understands this:

"The sudden loss of lofty status that Undercover Boss relies on for its corny appeal is a perennially potent dramatic trick. Undercover Boss grants all our wishes, though, especially our envy-based ill wishes. In the season premiere, Larry O'Donnell, president of Waste Management (WMI) (the 46,000-strong trash hauler and recycler), is dumped into the mucky trenches where his hefty paychecks come from. Wearing a drab uniform, his millionaire's complexion concealed by a growth of graying stubble, Larry is given a series of yucky tasks meant to stir his conscience, steal his pride, and provoke huge grins of gratified resentment. He's forced to snatch recyclable bits of trash from a speeding conveyor belt. He's made—under the barking orders of a foreman whose chronic kidney ailments have hardened him toward able-bodied slackers—to fill bags with windblown scraps of litter. Finally, he's given a scrub brush and a pump and told to clean and empty a long row of portable toilets at a scabrous fairground.

Having learned many tough lessons about the ways his well-meaning company undervalues, overwhelms, and generally jerks around its "front-line" workforce (symbolized by a small group of cheerful stoics who give the company their utmost while enduring sometimes acute hard luck at home), Larry convenes his wary-looking lieutenants to issue corrective orders and share his testimony. As is sure to happen in some form on most every episode of the series (whose upcoming slate of masked corporate chieftains includes those of 7-Eleven and—can't wait—Hooters!), Larry presents himself as a changed man and implies that Waste Management must change as well. The episode ends with a Fortune 500 version of The Sermon on the Mount. Surrounded by admiring workers, including those whom he met during his journey, Larry heralds the coming of a new kingdom.

This finale (and many to come, no doubt) is emotionally irresistible and intellectually preposterous. The idea that the soul journeys of CEOs can redeem or restore American industry in an age of ruthless globalism makes for an enchanting bedtime story, but it's hard to conceive of a goofier approach to—or a more misleading account of—What's Actually Going On Out There."

The problem with "Undercover Boss"?  Transformation of dysfunctional businesses doesn't occur via a 60 minute reality series or, at the end of the day, even by a CEO giving his direct reports marching orders to fix things. 

True transformation takes time.  If the goal was true change, you'd never go on a TV show.  You know why?  Because by doing "Undercover Boss", you've actually guaranteed that you'll have LESS time.  As soon as the employees at your company see the show, they're measuring you from day one on the change they see.

And that's a standard of change and excellence that Waste Management can't possibly meet.



I couldn’t wait to watch this show and as a “reality” TV viewer I wasn’t disappointed.

As an HR guy I was shaking my head. The subtitle of this thing could be “7 Days to a New and improved CEO.”

Larry seemed fairly authentic and a genuinely human guy. But one has to wonder why the leadership team member recognized Larry in disguise immediately and none of the “rank and file” did. I know WM is a large and geographically dispersed organization, but he can still have a visible presence. I’ve served in large organizations where the CEO was visible to all (through varied mediums) and smaller organizations where the CEO seemed to be undercover on a daily basis – as in no one ever saw him. It’s all a matter of valuing familiarity.

What the HR guy in me wants to see is “Undercover Boss: The Follow-Up.” Give it 6 months and let’s send in an undercover reporter to see if there has been any lasting change – is Larry still walking the walk? Are his titled leaders? Follow-ups always make for compelling or at least entertaining episodes of Dr. Phil and Intervention – why not UB?

And was it just me, or just for TV, that the Leaders failing to live up to Larry’s expectations weren’t held all that accountable? Maybe accountability will be found next week when the Hooters Manger has the servers playing his “reindeer games.”

Either way I’ll be watching.

Kim Bailey

Ok, I admit it...I LOVE reality TV. But, I also get that the last thing Reality TV is is REAL!!! This show is no different. But, it was gratifying to see a leader find out 1)his employees were being docked double time for minutes missed 2) females were being required to "pee in a can". Look, if it took him going out into the field to find this out, if nothing else I would think that this should inspire him to start digging deeper (but NOT at the amusement park).

I enjoyed the show for its entertainment value (I laughed, I cried, I felt good in the end), but I know that it was just entertainment.

As for the upcoming Hooters one, I am amazed that the CEO seemes shocked that there could be sexual harassment going on....GEEZ, who'd a thunk it??!

Eve Stranz

I haven't seen UB, but your post has interested me enough to watch the next episode.

I agree with some of your main points Kris, but am compelled to add two to balance the picture:

1. While transformation doesn't occur in one episode or by a CEO giving marching orders alone, the beginning of a transformation often starts with a CEO having a profound experience - whether it be walking a day in the boots of his/her front line employees or otherwise. If going on the show can be the tipping point for a CEO to right side something that is cattywampus within his/her organization, it is probably worth the time invested in participating in the show.

2. By going on UB you guarantee you have less time, but you also guarantee the CEO is more committed and will be held more accountable to follow through on making a change than if they didn't declare their epiphany in front of the camera and millions of people. Does this guarantee success? No, but it knocks out a few of the major risks encountered in any change or transformation.

I agree with Andrew - a 6 month follow up show would be great. I hope someone in HR at CBS reads your blog and picks up the idea and runs straight to the UB production department with it.

Oh, and if that HR person at CBS is reading this - if production agrees with the 6 month follow up show, a cool twist would be to have some of the CEOs get the help of an OD/change management professional and some not, and see which make more progress. And if production likes that suggestion, please send me the name and address of central casting - I'd be happy to help one of the CEOs architect their transformation!

Marsha Keeffer

Anyone with an OB background will tell you that fixing systemic problems takes time. Glad you're pointing out that the fantasy of the 'quick fix' is just that - a fantasy.

Bill Churchill

I also find the camera thing amusing. Do you really want people working for you who aren’t at least just a little curious about why the “new guy” is being followed around by the paparazzi? If you’ve hired people who don’t notice anything different in their environment with regard to the camera thing, maybe—just maybe, you have stumbled on to the thing that’s really wrong with your business—the boss doesn’t know how to hire curious people. D’ya think?

I saw some of the first, (and last that I’ll ever watch), episode of “Undercover Boss” last night. It showed how one of the big cheeses at White Castle Hamburgers was going to get to know the front line troops. All the employees played along, and everyone seemed sacchariney happy. Maybe Tony’s Robbins’ employees are always that chipper—but White Castle Employees? I don’t think so.

Tsar Peter the Great had it right. He too went around masquerading as a “common man” in order to get a feel for how things were going in the “common” world. The biggest difference however, is that he left the “yes men” at the Kremlin palace, and donned peasant robes and mannerisms. He went out to study specific people, (shipwrights and the military), for a specific purpose that involved the sussing out of his power base and resources. He did not go out on a self aggrandizement tour aimed at proving to himself, and his “yes men” that he was a great “Enlightened Boss.”

I thought our society was over the Great White Hunter and White Man’s Burden. Evidently not.

I’m not a cynical person, but c’mon people. But how can any of these trust fund babies on this show be anything but Elmer Fudd?


Why don't they ask the GOOD questions? like How much are you making per hour??? They NEVER talk about the employes wages. If they really want to help them GIVE THEM A RAISE!!!!!! don't pick a couple of people to put on air, pick the ones that don't like thier job. Helping 3-4 people is OK bit what about all the others that work there?

Only so many make it to the TV, they are selected by somebody, i wonder who? it is a totall sham!!!!! They are showing us what we want to see!! not 100% of what actully happenes. It makes the CEO look perfect, stories of how helped teh commom man achive his goals.


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