Yes, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m late to the party. Very, very late. It was only this week that I sat down with Netflix and happened to stumble upon Undercover Boss. And I think I can safely say that this show is the stuff of genius and should be required viewing for all business school and marketing students.
Here’s the premise of the show: A boss, typically a CEO or other ultra-important figure, goes undercover and has to do the job of approximately five employees who work under him (or her), often at the very lowest levels of the business.
Webster’s dictionary defines empathy as “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.” Unfortunately, most CEOs don’t have such feelings. Why would they? They’re typically dealing with “top-level” assignments and they have neither the time nor the inclination to wonder what’s going on at the lowest levels of their organization. Enter Undercover Boss.
I watched three episodes that each struck me for different reasons:
1. Hooters. Yes, Hooters, the restaurant/bar known for its wings and the beautiful women who typically serve its customers. Though Coby G. Brooks is no longer the president and CEO of the company, he was during this episode of Undercover Boss. In the show, we learn that Brooks never aspired to work for the company that his father co-founded and led, but upon his brother’s and father’s deaths, he was named their successor. To watch Brooks fail at working as a busboy, to watch him learn that women view the company as sexist, and to watch him be utterly embarrassed as a manager mistreats his employees makes for excellent viewing and learning. It is clear that Brooks empathized with his employees and at the end he sets out to make real changes within this company based on his experiences.
2. Kevin Sheehan is a New Yorker turned CEO of Norwegian Cruise Lines. On this show, it is clear that Sheehan is trying to learn about the ins and outs of his company. He becomes frustrated when a Brooklynite who’s spent his whole life at sea tells him that his paint job needs lots of work. It’s also clear that Sheehan can’t dance nearly as well as one of his associate cruise directors directs him to. And most certainly, Kevin lacks the coordination to work as a cruise-ship waiter. But Kevin takes all of these things that he is unable to do in stride. His greatest lesson comes from watching his employees assemble an ice rink on top of one of his ships. When nobody uses this skating rink, Sheehan wonders why his ships are even equipped with these silly things that waste lots of manpower and resources, with very little upside. He learns from these experiences and takes action.
3. Finally, one of the most interesting episodes of this show features Mark Mallory, the mayor of Cincinnati. It takes a whole lot of cojones for the mayor of a major American city to be willing to go undercover on national television. Mallory (equipped with some dreadlocks and a goatee) first rides around with the one man in his city whose job is to collect all of the dead animals that have been killed on the city’s streets. Then, he works as a repairman at a shop that repairs all of the city’s vehicles. He also walks around with a parking meter attendant and observes how tough it is for a community recreation center employee who has way too many kids under her watch due to budget cuts. Mallory asserts that he will make simple changes that benefit everyone. He adds GPS to the vehicle that the pest-control officer rides in. He links the parking-meter attendant’s device with those of the police department to better monitor stolen vehicles. He makes sure that the city’s repairmen are recognized at a city event. And he ensures that the recreation center won’t be cut from the budget and expands a program that teaches adolescents how to work at real jobs.
This is the first television show that I have ever watched that has made a real-world difference in people’s lives. I realized while watching Undercover Boss that sometimes it may take a camera and a look under the microscope to make this happen. So to
any CEOs reading this: If you decide to go on Undercover Boss, your company will come out stronger, and the general public will have a far greater respect for your brand. It is worth any risks to go on this show, because you will learn so much. I know I did, just by watching.