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Creative Career Path

Undercover Boss2010.03.03

    What would happen if the CEO of your company went undercover under an assumed name, and took a job in the company on the shop floor, in the kitchen, or out in the field? How would it feel to work with their hands, instead of their head? What would it be like to be on the receiving end? Might it not completely change the way they looked at people and ran the company?

    This is exactly what is happening in large corporations, and it is being documented in primetime on a new television series called "Undercover Boss", on CBS television, one of the primary networks in the United States. A preview episode of the program debuted in the golden time slot right after the Superbowl on February 7, 2010, attracting 38.6 million viewers, the largest audience to date for a post-Superbowl preview. The new program continues to draw massive audiences, rating second only to the Olympics in its time slot.

    It holds the banner spot on the website, and less than 3 weeks since the debut of the preview, "Undercover Boss" already has a Facebook Fan Page approaching 15,000 fans, and a Twitter following that promises geometric growth. Not to mention the attention that this program has been given by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Oprah Show, which has given these executives national celebrity status.

    The pilot episode featured Larry O’Donnell, the president and COO of Waste Management, who worked alongside employees cleaning portable toilets, picking up and sorting trash in one of the world’s most thankless jobs. Although he manages the company, in his incognito role he actually managed to get fired by his supervisor. He was followed by camera crews, but the employees were told that it was for a documentary about what it was like to work at their jobs. For that week, Larry was just a new hire.

    The drama of this is palpable, as you watch the top executive facing a new reality he thought he knew everything about, and employees doing grunt work with an amazing spirit of humor and a get-it-done attitude. It is all about leadership that listens, and unsung superstars. Posing as Randy Lawrence, a construction worker, the COO learns what it’s like to work for his own company. Watch an excellent video about the first episode at 

    As young as the program is, it has already started to spawn significant lessons for management that are not being lost on the attentive public. A subsequent episode featured Joe DePinto, the chief executive of 7-Eleven, the largest convenience store chain in the world, who went undercover as a guy named Danny, and emerged with insights and appreciation it would have been impossible to gain any other way. The bNet blog has captured 10 of these insights from DePinto’s experience, which take on the big questions that concern the C-level office. These are lessons we have heard before: synergy, kaizen, fresh eyes, learning from employees, best practices, but this time it comes from the executive’s experience on the shop floor. This is wisdom is earned, not borrowed. Read the blog and see: 

    It is exciting to see the transformation that "Undercover Boss" unveils in both the boss and the employees once the cover is exposed, and the boss reveals to his work mates who he actually is, and what they did for him. The story doesn’t end with the TV episode, as these companies are making changes that significantly improve the working conditions of their employees. To show how serious management is about listening, the supervisor at Waste Management who fired Larry O’Donnell, has been asked to give a speech to the companies top executives.

    Not every executive can or would want to go undercover or be featured on national television. And how many would be capable of learning and applying the lessons at that level? Yet there are lessons that we can all learn from "Undercover Boss", which reminds us that regardless of our role at work, most of us are trying to do our best, sometimes under very difficult conditions, and that we all gain when we are open to learn and eager to do a better job.


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    Article Writer

    William Reed

    William Reed is a renowned author-speaker who coaches physical finesse and flexible focus for a creative career path. A certified Master Trainer in Guerrilla Marketing and 7th-dan in Aikido, he combines practical wisdom of East and West to help you learn personal branding at the Entrepreneurs Creative Edge.

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