As we move into the season of television reruns, I thought I
might share a thought I had about a TV show I've watched
The truth is, I don't watch a lot of television. That's
probably due in equal parts to my busy schedule these days and my
distaste for most of what I see coming out of Hollywood. I hope
that doesn't make me sound like a grumpy old man. In any case, when
it comes to knowing what happened on Lost or 24 or American Idol, I
will admit I'm woefully uninformed.
However, enough people encouraged me to watch the relatively
new show Undercover Boss that I finally took the time to view a few
episodes. And while I realize it is designed for entertainment
purposes and not as a training tool for leaders, I must admit I was
still disappointed in what I saw.
Before I get into my reasons for that, I should probably
explain the basic premise of the show, especially for those who
haven't seen it. Essentially, in each episode a chief executive
officer or senior executive anonymously takes a front-line position
within his or her organization, usually in some sort of blue-collar
job. Of the episodes I've seen, those jobs included riding in a
garbage truck, working as a clerk at a convenience store, driving a
delivery van, and working on the assembly line in a bakery.
Now, this is a terrific concept. In theory, the show would
seem to be a great way to give viewers a glimpse of the realities
of corporate America and, more important, to encourage leaders to
rethink how well they know what's happening in their organizations.
In reality, the show is painful. Here's why.
First, the way the show is produced and edited is overwrought
and misleading. Beyond the cheesy opening that sounds more like the
intro to a professional wrestling match than a documentary, I find
it maddening how the producers insert dramatic music and suggestive
camera shots to add artificial tension to meetings and other
situations that are otherwise fairly undramatic. I suppose what
really bugs me is the possibility that viewers who have never
worked in corporate America might come to believe that business
really does resemble a Donald Trump reality TV show. It
But more than the editing, I don't like the way the "bosses"
have to act when they are on camera. It's clear to me they are not
saying what they're really thinking, but instead are trying to
manage the perceptions of a television audience. And though I can't
blame them for doing so given the potential for positive or
negative PR, the impact is nonetheless smarmy.
You see, in all the episodes I saw, the undercover executive,
who was woefully undertrained for the lower-level job he was taking
on, came to an emotional realization that he was out of touch with
what was really going on in the organization. As a result, he
gained a profound new appreciation for the challenges and travails
of the employees down in the trenches. And while that in itself
would seem like a good thing, the behavior of the executives
featured lots of hugs and apologies made me feel like I was
watching an episode of Celebrity Rehab instead of a documentary on
organizational life. Again, I realize that's the nature of TV, but
it was painful nonetheless.
Executives Unfiltered, Please
What I'd prefer to see is someone with real business
experience interviewing the executives after each episode and
really questioning them about how they spend their time and why
they don't understand what is happening in the organizations they
lead. And I'd want to hear the executives give us their unfiltered
comments about their own challenges and why solutions can't quite
be captured in a one-hour, made-for-TV program. Finally, I'd love
to see someone do follow-up interviews three months later to see
how the executives made changes based on what they learned.
But I suppose that wouldn't make for great television, so
producers wouldn't go for it. Unless, of course, the chief
executive officers then sang show tunes or danced the samba and
then let their employees harshly grade their performances. Now that
would be must-see TV.
Having said all that, I think there is a valuable lesson to be
learned from Undercover Boss. All leaders should spend time on the
front lines of their companies, on a regular basis and without TV
cameras and background music, reminding themselves what the world
looks like from the vantage point of employees and customers. In
addition to the obvious benefits of staying informed, it is a
wonderful way to keep executives humble and remind them about the
ultimate purpose of leadership, which is service.