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Bill Kalmar

Quality Insider

Undercover Boss? How About Undercover Hermit?

Get out of your offices and go meet your employees.

Published: Tuesday, April 6, 2010 - 06:00

In the last several months, a new reality TV program entitled “Undercover Boss” has surfaced. The premise is that a CEO or top executive of a company travels to a store or factory of the company where the senior manager pretends to be an entry-level employee. To explain the presence of cameras, the undercover CEO tells the people in the company that he is newly unemployed and a local TV station is filming a documentary to discover how he adapts to a new position.

While at the new position, the CEO attempts to discover what the employees think about the company, and how each of them interacts with each other and the management. To date, the program has featured bosses from Hooters, White Castle, 7-11 convenience stores, Waste Management, and Churchill Downs. In many instances, the boss finds employees that are dedicated and others who need additional training.

What struck me about this series is what kind of a company has a CEO who’s not known by its employees? Aren’t there annual reports with pictures, or how about periodic internal newsletters, or regular site visits? Haven’t these companies ever telecast a message from the CEO? Aren’t new hires exposed to the management hierarchy by providing them with an organizational chart, which often contains pictures?

In my mind an exceptional company could never have its CEO wander around without someone recognizing him or her. Management should be practicing MWA or “management by walking around.” 

I don’t feel that the companies featured on this program are exemplary companies, because if they were, the employees would immediately recognize the CEO. Obviously, those companies have rarely had their CEO travel to the various sites.

I’m confident that there are numerous CEOs who could not portray themselves to be undercover bosses because of their commitment to presenting a “face” to their staff. While I was director of the Michigan Quality Council, with responsibility for quality and customer service, I interacted with hundreds of companies at the state and national level. What struck me was the commitment of senior management to be present at staff meetings and even travel to the various company sites for feedback meetings. Two CEO’s that immediately come to mind are Simon Cooper of the Ritz-Carlton and Bill Marriott of Marriott Hotels. Both have a reputation for being people-oriented and, as such, it would be impossible for either of them to wander into a hotel and portray themselves as an employee.

So as we view the upcoming episodes of “Undercover Boss,” keep in mind that some of these bosses are more like hermits than CEOs. And if you are working for a company where the boss has barricaded himself in his office, how about mailing a Herman’s Hermits album to the office with a note such as, “Unless you are in a witness protection program how about coming out of your cushy lair and meeting with the staff?” It may not endear you to the boss, but it will give you an indication of how this hibernator values the staff; and depending on the response, you may want to refresh your resume. There are lots of companies out there that aren’t managed by hermits. Look for one and move on.

Back in January, I wrote a column “This Is No Time to Hibernate or Vegetate,” where I stated my commitment to lose 10 pounds by the time my 67th birthday rolled around on March 30.  At the time of my column I weighed in at 185 pounds, the most I have ever weighed—I looked like Smokey Bear (minus the dapper hat) lying in my hammock. Well, my birthday has come and I am prepared to make my report.

First of all, let me say that I really didn’t start to bear down (no pun intended) until around the first of March. There were just too many parties, too many lunches, and too many snacks in our pantry. Frankly, as a retiree, what else is there to do but go out to lunch with friends? So here’s what happened:

I continued my daily routine of running five miles everyday. In addition, I cleaned up my road bike and embarked on daily seven-mile rides on the safety paths in our community.

Out went the potato chips, although they are my favorite snack. I also eliminated sodas in favor of iced tea with no sugar. This was difficult because Pepsi just introduced a product called “Throw Back,” which contains real sugar, no additives, and a full flavored taste—just like in the old days.

For the last two weeks, I have been eating salads and no bread. This was difficult because who doesn’t like a juicy hamburger with a tomato and a huge onion slice? And of course, I refrained from another favorite—Coney dogs with chili and onions. Talk about suffering. But since it was Lent maybe I should have some pain.

For inspiration I started to watch the TV program “The Biggest Loser.” If you ever need a reason to lose weight, just watch an episode of these dedicated, rather large people hell-bent on losing more than a 100 pounds in about three months. The exercise program and healthy eating obviously work as all have had significant weight losses. As a further aid, we purchased the Biggest Loser Scale, which not only measures your weight, but registers body fat and indicates your ideal weight based on data you enter into the system. It even highlights the number of calories to consume daily to maintain your ideal weight. 

So there you have it. It’s been a tough month and I’m always hungry so I supplement my meals with some fruit and lots of water. The result? I’m at 175 pounds. My cholesterol is down as is my blood pressure, and I can fit into all my summer clothes from last year. But on my birthday, look out. Because (obligatory quality buzz words on their way because my editor tells me I stray off point) I’m going out for a total quality munchable (TQM) Buddy’s Pizza, an ISO certified Pepsi Throw Back, and a piece of Six Sigma (maybe even Seven Sigma) coconut cream pie from Achatz Pie Co. in Oxford, Michigan. And to keep my doctor happy, I might just be riding my statistically process controlled bike to all those places.


About The Author

Bill Kalmar’s picture

Bill Kalmar

William J. Kalmar has extensive business experience, including service with a Fortune 500 bank and the Michigan Quality Council, of which he served as director from 1993 through 2003. He served on the Board of Overseers of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program and has been a Baldrige examiner. He was also named quality professional of the year by the ASQ Detroit chapter. Now semiretired, Kalmar does freelance writing for several publications. He is a member of the USA Today Vacation Panel, a mystery shopper for several companies, and a frequent presenter and lecturer.


Undercover Boss Article

Strange article. Half about a TV show, half about a diet.

I agree that companies should be run so that CEO's are recognized, but even a well-known CEO could disguise her- or himself. TV makeup artists could render virtually anybody unrecognizable.

What's enlightening to those of us not "in the choir" is that the show reaffirms that the people doing the real work have vastly more knowledge than the top brass possess. I wonder what would have happened if some of my prior general managers had to work on the factory floors, rather than berate the people stuck fixing their ghastly design flaws.

Undercover Hermit

Love the column, Bill. It's an interesting, and accurate take on the show. I've enjoyed watching a few episodes and you point out what is now really obvious after reading your column. How in the world are leaders able to go undercover in their own organizations? Great observation. Barb Fischer from the Baldrige Program did a post about this topic on BLOGRIGE and took the view that organizational leadership shouldn't have to go undercover to gain more insight on the different perspectives within the organization.

Thanks for sharing the link. It was a great read.

Only seen a few episodes

I think your article subtitle is the main point. The shopw makes for an interesting contrasting point.

However, when you say how hard you think it would be for some of the CEOs you mentioned to appear at a location and not be recognized, I began to think of the shows I have seen. Since I have somewhat limited experience with the show perhaps what I am going to say doesn't carry a lot of weight, therefore.

What I have seen suggests the people who do this aren't used to doing it. So, by definition, those who are used to doing so would be more likely to be recognized. I also doubt those latter folks started out by trying to be "undercover."

I also noted that the work locations I've seen tended to be places with just a few employees. In a plant with hundreds of employees, the odds of any single person recognizing a CEO (especially one in "disguise") would likely go up. I do recall a preview of a show where an employee does seem to feel they've seen the CEO somewhere and the CEO seems to eventually reveals himself to that person to maintain the undercover nature of the experience.

The real question is, when highly visible CEOs travel about work locations, do they hear/see the same things as the "undercover" ones on the show seem to. The point of the show does not seem to be whether the CEO can easily hide from the employees, but what they learn because they are not being seen/treated as a CEO.

So, if we agree CEOs should be more out and about, do we focus on just them being visible and recognizable? I would think we'd want them to be able to learn the kinds of things the show's CEOs do and that seems to require less immediate recognition and visibility.

Undercover boss

I think you overestimate the visibility of the CEO at many large companies, possibly even the ones you have worked with. CEO staff meetings are generally with upper level staff, not with all line employees. in 20 years as a salaried engineer or a technical supervisor at large corporations, I never once met or attended a meeting with the CEO at any of my 5 previous employers. My current employer is different, mainly because the total company consists of less than 50 people at 2 locations.

Secondly, even if people did see the CEO in a photo, on a video, or in person from the back of a crowded meeting, much of human memory is contextual. People often fail to recall someone outside their 'normal' encounters. You may not recognize that accountant who gets your expense report when you pass him in the grocery wearing his jogging suit, or your chiropractor's assistant when you're both at the Home Depot in garden clothes. The clothing and location is all wrong to trigger the memory.

Also, memory is also about motivation and impact. The company CEO might seem important, but he doesn't generally have a direct impact on most people's daily life. Recognizing him has no 'survival' value. The guy next door who shares your shubbery is more essential to recognize, to ensure your daily safety.

The rarity of the CEO who knows the first line employees is sad. I like Undercover Boss because maybe it will encourage more CEOs to get out of the corner office and know their company and front-line employees and their work a little better. I agree this should be a lot harder to do. Some CEOs could never do it - but I think most could.

Quality Digest article

Carla - thanks for your comments. Bill Ford is recognized at any location or plant he frequents because he makes his presence known everywhere! Simon Cooper and Bill Marriott are the same. Frankly, what else should a CEO be doing but taking the pulse of the company instead of listening all the time to the senior management who have his ear. A good CEO is known in the company regardless the size. And feel pretty adamant about this as I have been exposed over the years to many CEOs who do just that and these are companies that are emulated and admired.

Thanks for reading my column and thanks for taking the time to write.

Bill Kalmar
Lake Orion MI

Undercover Boss

I have watched the show and have enjoyed some of the revelations that the CEO has made. It appears that everyone involved gains positively from the experience. It does seem possible that many employees have no idea as to the looks of the CEO or owner of the company. I also wonder that perhaps with companies that are franchises that perhaps the local employee may only know the franchise owner and have little or no contact with the parent company's management. I have yet to personally meet the CEO of the company that I work for yet with video presentations and other company presentations, I do know what he looks like.