Undercover Boss Gets Noticed

Discussion
Mar 22, 2010
Tom Ryan

By Tom Ryan

The latest breakout reality show, Undercover
Boss
on CBS, shows a CEO covertly taking a job alongside lower-rung
employees. Mimicking a common literary device used in Mark Twain’s Prince
and the Pauper
and Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America, the CEO
in each episode undergoes an epiphany after ‘walking in the shoes’ of
everyday workers.

Employees are told that that a film crew
is documenting an unemployed worker looking for a job. After the CEO’s
career journey and successes are detailed, the exec goes undercover and
inevitably gets embarrassed tackling the daily routines of employees. The
president of Waste Management is fired for poor performance at picking
up litter with a pointy stick. 7-Eleven’s CEO accidentally mixes two flavors
of coffee together and overflows another pot. White Castle’s owner accidentally
ruins thousands of hamburger buns in one of its bakeries.

But the major focus is on employees’ stories.
Although some offenses are uncovered (a sexist manager at Hooters for one),
the heart of each episode centers around the overworked and underappreciated
“unsung heroes.” In the 7-Eleven episode, a deliveryman works so hard he
only sees his wife on weekends and a woman who knows every customer’s name
needs a kidney donor.

The big payoff is the shock when the exec
is revealed to workers for the first time. In the warm-and-fuzzy ending,
the top executive is celebrated for undergoing a transformation, promising
to make changes at the company, and personally making arrangements to improve
the working conditions or lives of featured employees. At the same time,
the workers’ efforts are celebrated and rewarded. On the Oprah Winfrey
Show
, 7-Eleven CEO Joe DePinto handed the keys to a 7-Eleven franchise
to a truck driver.

Speaking to USA Today, Mr. DePinto
said he had often surreptitiously strolled his company’s stores, since
workers “tell
you what you want to hear rather than what is really happening” when they
know they’re talking to an executive.

“I typically try to find things that are
positive,” said Mr. DePinto. “But I will always see things that can be
improved.”

Following his time on the show in which he
was fired in a distribution center, Michal Rubin, CEO at GSI Commerce,
said his company is piloting a program entitled ‘A Day in the Life,’ where
key corporate employees will spend about a week in its customer contact
centers learning and observing.

“If the pilot achieves the goals then it will
be rolled out company-wide,” Mr. Rubin told The Times Herald in
Pennsylvania.

Nonetheless, some critics are calling Undercover
Boss
an hour-long corporate infomercial. Some believe the show is
too scripted to work in reality.

“Is it real?” said Jennifer
Bresnan, CBS’s executive in charge of reality programming, to The New
York Times
. “The experience is real; that’s all you can say. The
conceit of the boss going undercover is of course set up. But the first
time they meet these people is in front of the camera. Their experience
is real.

Discussion Questions:
How much of a retail CEO’s job should be spent in stores? In what other
ways can retail CEOs get a ground-level view of their companies? Are
covert methods effective in improving retail performance?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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30 Comments on "Undercover Boss Gets Noticed"


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Cathy Hotka
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

What’s remarkable about the show is the near-complete lack of awareness that CEOs seem to have about the daily lives of their workers. It must be quite a shock to step off the corporate jet and discover that their valued store associates face a fairly grinding existence, but do it with great heart and dignity. This show should be must-see TV for every retail top executive.

Dick Seesel
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

If a retail company’s culture and “best practices” are running on all cylinders, it shouldn’t take a CEO visit to uncover and fix problems. Especially at a chain operation with hundreds or thousands of stores coast-to-coast, senior management must rely on its field leaders to address issues. Nevertheless, CEOs are well-advised to hit the road and see whether their vision is being executed properly. Announced tours often end up like “state visits,” whereas surprise/incognito observations are more likely to reveal the same things that customers see every day…good or bad.

Joel Warady
Guest
Joel Warady
11 years 1 month ago

The fact is, most CEOs never understand the customer experience first-hand. Because their face is known by most of the employees, it is difficult for a retailer CEO to walk into a store, shop as a customer, and see what the experience is really like. But this is so necessary, and so lacking in a retail environment.

The great retail CEOs spend every week in at least one of their stores. And if it is truly going to be effective, these visits need to be unannounced. There is no better way for a CEO to obtain first-hand experience than to drop in on a store, and see what the customers see. For most CEOs, this would be a rude awakening.

Staged that it might be, I have to say that I have a secret obsession to watching Undercover Boss. Each Sunday I say that it will be the last time I watch, and yet I find myself fixated on the show every Sunday evening.

Susan Rider
Guest
Susan Rider
11 years 1 month ago
I have been a big proponent of this type of leadership for many years. Executives that “feel the pain” by getting their hands dirty are much more effective. There’s no better way to get a true feeling about what’s going on behind the scenes than experiencing it yourself. It doesn’t have to be much, just 5% will give you a good picture. As I speak across the country on supply chain issues and how to excel in the supply chain, I ask the VPs when the last time was that they walked the floor of a warehouse. Most say it’s been awhile. I discovered this as a huge opportunity years ago in designing a new warehouse. The VP told me the way things were done, but when I actually walked the floor and observed the processes, they weren’t doing anything close to what he had shared with me. Therefore, my time and effort, not to mention the new design, would have been all wrong if I hadn’t thought I should see the process with my… Read more »
Kevin Graff
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

I can count on one hand the number of CEOs I know who spend as little as 2 days a month in their stores. Somehow the rest seem to think that the answers they seek are on a spreadsheet or in a board room. Ridiculous! We always say that ‘you make money in the stores … you spend it at head office!’. So, go to where you’re making the money. Your customers, staff and products are in the store. Get out there and stay there more often.

Now, doesn’t it make sense that every buyer and every other head office person should spend time in the stores too each month?

Bob Phibbs
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

This is show business, make no mistake. Who couldn’t agree with any C-level executive working in their own stores? But that would be for gaining market share, not putting on a show.

J. Peter Deeb
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

Managing by walking around has long been an effective way to understand your business issues both good and bad. Retail CEOs must be in the stores in order to see and hear for themselves not only what their employees are doing but also, most importantly, what their customers are responding to. Secondhand information, no matter how good, almost always has a bias and seeing for themselves the the retail environment keeps managers fresh and involved. This also applies to Distribution Centers, Customer Service call centers, etc.

Paula Rosenblum
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

I must really be getting old. There was a time when you wouldn’t even ASK this question. It was just done. Everyone worked in the stores and visited them, and in fact, department store headquarters were often located in the same building (Macy’s in Newark…they had a GREAT executive dining room)..

If retail CEOs spent some time in stores, we wouldn’t have endless conversations about the lack of customer service or the “shopability” of stores. One wonders if today’s CEOs only conduct scripted visits so they can deny the obvious.

In a product-centric retail world, CEOs just look at the product and pronounce it good, or rely on their wives to talk about their store experience. In a customer-centric world, CEOs MUST do both. In fact, they should go with shopping lists in hand, just to see how well they can get what’s on the list.

Nikki Baird
Guest
Nikki Baird
11 years 1 month ago
I haven’t seen the show, but as someone who at one time was responsible for improving processes that I had never had any experience with, I can say that the experience of “a week in the life” was invaluable. Even a week is worth it, because it gives you enough of a common frame of reference that you can understand where the people who live those processes are coming from. And you can see the collision between requests from front-line people for help for things that are huge barriers to their jobs and the people above them who don’t understand why they need these things. It comes down to something that I saw from Trendwatching. They interviewed consumers about their favorite brands. And then they asked, “Which brands CARE about you?” What a jolting question! And universally, people responded “No brand cares about me. They just want my money.” (You can see the video here.) Replace “brand” with “employer”–how would the people in your company respond? The front line and the top should never be… Read more »
Ryan Mathews
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

If retail CEOs don’t spend a good deal of time in their stores they need to be replaced.

Too many retail offices are so far removed from reality that it’s hard to remember that the real action is in the streets.

I’m with Paula. Maybe I’m getting too old as well but it seems this ought to be retail 101 not fodder for some silly television program.

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
11 years 1 month ago

The structure of the show makes it ridiculous. So four people’s lives were changed at 7-Eleven? Wow. What are the chances, I as a customer, would encounter those particular employees? C-Levels should spend way more time in the field than they do. But retail does require strong leadership and someone in the wheelhouse at all times.

Lee Peterson
Guest
11 years 1 month ago
I had one of my most memorable new-store experiences ever when Wild Oats (now Whole Foods) opened their first store on Lane Ave. in Columbus. As I checked out, the bagger asked me if there was anything I thought was needed at their new store. After a brief discussion, I had to ask, “are you the manager?” His reply was, “No, I’m the CEO,” Perry Odak. We continued to talk for only a few minutes after that as he was very busy putting merchandise in people’s bags. How awesome is that? Physically putting merchandise in bags–talk about a lesson! That story summarizes my beliefs about retail leadership and the need to be in stores; and not just the store in your neighborhood, but everywhere. There is NO better information about your customers, your layout, your staff, your product and your operations than the information that is readily apparent in your stores. 1 – 2 days a week, a few hours each day and a whole new world of information will open up to you. Also,… Read more »
Mel Kleiman
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

Yes, time in the stores is important but more important is realizing that you can’t be everywhere all the time. And, doing some of the following:
1. Hire great people, pay them fairly, and get out of the way and let them do their job.
2. Give them the tools they need to do the job.
3. Spend time training your managers. They are the ones that affect the lives of your employees.
4. If you have a turnover problem company wide or in a location, you have a moral problem related either by policies or manager.
5. To hire and retain great employees, you need to Respect them, Reward them, Recognize them, Give them Responsibly, Develop Relationships with them, Revelry (Make it a fun place to work), and Communicate, Communicate, Communicate.

If you do all of those things, you will never be out of touch.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

It’s amazing that it takes a reality TV show to make it popular for executives to go undercover in their own stores!!! How can any top exec assume that a decision made by the top execs is rolling out as planned in over 2,000 stores, or even hundreds of stores? Or even 5 stores? Translation, training, motivation, and control issues always arise.

Mark Johnson
Guest
Mark Johnson
11 years 1 month ago

The actual feedback is invaluable to a comprehensive understanding of your organization’s effectiveness.

Ian Percy
Guest
11 years 1 month ago
Yes to all of the above. But has anyone ever thought about going the other way; having store level employees understand what it’s like to be a ‘C’ level executive? And wouldn’t the best idea be to have everyone understand how the whole system needs to flow together and how interdependent the whole process is? I’ve had great success with “brain trust” kinds of meetings where people from various levels and functions come together for an offline exploration of how to make the company function more effectively and profitably. 10 to 20 people come together for a day of no-holds-barred discussion. Participants (managers and other employees) apply for the privilege and membership rotates. The group meets for a day twice a year and has a strong external facilitator. CEOs should not lead these discussions! The exploration is triggered by prompts like: “One thing we never seem to talk about in this company is ______.” “If we had the courage and the will there is no reason why we couldn’t ________.” “One dumb thing we seem… Read more »
Samantha Brindley
Guest
Samantha Brindley
11 years 1 month ago

…and they must be unannounced visits if you want to get a true picture of what is happening day in and day out.

Dennis Serbu
Guest
Dennis Serbu
11 years 1 month ago

I know I am showing my age, but I have been a follower of Tom Peters ever since I have been in Management. Some simple principles such as “MBWA” (Management by Wandering around”), and “Catching People Doing Things Right” which I think came from the One Minute Manager. More often than not, senior managers have not a clue in terms of grass roots operations. Good managers get in and mix it up with the troops. I always showed disdain for Milk Runs and rewarded honesty. I can’t fix what I don’t know about. Sycophants stand warned.

In an age of mid-level managers doing what they think the Boss wants rather than what is the right thing, they ultimately write their own termination notice. In terms of “Undercover Boss,” I think most of this is staged, but what a fantastic idea if it’s true.

Gene Detroyer
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

This is how business evolves, retail or otherwise.

An entrepreneur starts a company. The entrepreneur is involved in every detail of the business including working with customers. Over time and as the company grows, the entrepreneur moves on to other things, new ventures, retirement, etc.

The entrepreneur then might be replaced by a next in command. Perhaps someone who was there at the beginning as well. But, then they move on. The successful company is now huge, public, and those founders have little or no influence. The new leader, whether internal or external, comes from a functional background. He/she has not likely spent much time at the lowest levels of the company. The connection is lost. It will be difficult or impossible to get it back. The leaders no longer see the company as an operation of people but as income statements and balance sheets.

E Allen
Guest
E Allen
11 years 1 month ago

I feel that any CEO should be able to perform any job within their organization. They also should be easily available to any employee.

David Biernbaum
Guest
11 years 1 month ago
Granted, the Undercover Boss show on CBS is a made-for-TV event with lots of holes but overall, I think this is an outstanding reality show because it does show what can be learned by executives going out to the field in a more practical and “real world” manner. Retail executives need to find a way to understand not only what it’s like to be an employee of their company but also what it’s like to be a consumer. Here are some examples in this post-SKU rationalization era: – Can consumers find what they really want to buy in my stores even if their item of choice isn’t an IRI top-selling SKU? – Can consumers get meaningful help in the store when they need it? – Can consumers find someone inside the store to make suggestions? – Do consumers believe that these suggestions will be passed along in an objective and accurate way to top management? – What is the actual shopping experience like for real consumers that shop stores far away from the company’s headquarters?… Read more »
Kai Clarke
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

Who are we kidding? These experiences are not real. No one acts like themselves, except in their own true interests, when they are in front of a camera. We cannot expect these reality bites to get or reflect what is really going on. From the choice of employees to the reactions of the people being taped, we must always remember that this is on-camera. However, the flexibility of CEOs to go out and work with their lowest common denominator (employees) is always good, since it exposes the CEO to what is really going on with their companies.

Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
11 years 1 month ago

I used to say that Head Office should have meetings in their stores and store staff should meet at Head Office. I think the understanding of the challenges faced works both ways.

The fact is, you can learn more about your retail business by spending an hour in a store than you can spending weeks in a boardroom.

Mike Romano
Guest
Mike Romano
11 years 1 month ago

It was great show the first couple of times, but it’s getting predictable now. Sweat on the floor, cry for a sob story, gain great insight, etc. All good, but it’s a 1 season show.

Anyway, traditionally, most retail CEOs came up through the ranks and LIVED the life of the grinding, blue collar employee. They had an understanding and sense for how to run the business. Now, with so much pressure from Wall Street and the Board for immediate results, the feeling is they must turn to Harvard-type CEOs to run the ship.

Again, that’s OK as long as the Harvard CEO has a pulse on the people that run the company. The show is proving that many CEOs don’t have any idea what goes on day-to-day. It may shock viewers how disconnected some CEOs may be, but this is no great shock to those of us who make a living in the industry and deal with a wide range of CEOs on a consistent basis.

Richard Wakeham
Guest
Richard Wakeham
11 years 1 month ago

I have watched three of the shows. Although no one has yet touched on it, there were some obvious issues with lower management not being trained or supervised properly.

W. Frank Dell II
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

The industry’s merchant princes all have one thing in common: time they spend in the store. Most spent one or more days a week in stores. Many associates tell them everything is great and don’t really help, being yes people. What is different with these merchant princes is the time they spend talking with customers. It’s from these conversations that they find out how they are really doing, all the while getting new ideas.

Another difference is these leaders spend time in the stores of their competition, as well. I know of one CEO who with his wife would take the corporate plane and shop stores all over the country just looking for good ideas. Some retailers required all headquarters staff to spend a week in a store. This is a great way to get headquarters staff feet back on the ground. I have recommended for years that everyone in the buying/merchandising department spend one day a week in stores. I mean a different store every week.