Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Leadership “Lessons” from Undercover Boss: Episode 2

OK, I admit it, I fell for it. After watching the first episode of the new CBS reality show Undercover Boss, I thought the show was going to provide some entertaining yet valuble lessons in leadership.

The first episode delivered. Larry O'Donnell, president and COO of Waste Management, was so darn likeable and believable. There were rich, transferable leadership lessons worth writing about. I even defended the show – well, I mostly defended O’Donnell – against critics Wally Bock, Bret Simmons, and others.

As it turns out, according to this follow-up interview with BNET, the show actually did drive lasting, positive changes at WM. So I had high hopes for the next installment.

Well, in case you missed it, the second episode was a complete train wreck. To all of you that watched that show as a result of my recommendation, please accept my humble apologies. Sorry, Steve - I owe you an hour of your life back. Leadership lessons? Sure, I can still come up with a few, but I doubt they’re anything CBS or Hooters would be too happy with.

I’m going to give it one more chance – next week features the CEO of 7-Eleven. But if it’s anything close to as bad as the last one, I’m through with it.

Here’s my recap and leadership “lessons” from episode 2:

Coby Brooks, President and CEO of "Hooters", went undercover in his own company. After watching the show and reading about it afterwards, I’m still not sure why.

According to the show, Coby reluctantly inherited the company from his late father. He was show riding a motorcycle, aboard the corporate jet (“working hard”), and showing up at some Hooters promotions.

By going undercover at a few of his stores, he was shocked to discover that:

1. Employees in the kitchen work REALLY hard.

2. Some people find Hooters to be degrading to woman. “I’d be OK with my daughters working here”, he said.

3. One of his store managers, "Jimbo,", held leering "inspections" of the staff and forced the girls to eat a plate of beans without using their hands to determine who could go home first. Brooks thought those actions were "inappropriate" and made Jimbo say he was sorry.

4. One of his single Mom store managers worked REALLY hard, multi-taked, with little time off. Coby had to clean up a spill on the floor,

5. He went to the Naturally Fresh factory in Atlanta (for the first time since he was a teenager), where his dad, who founded the enterprise, used to have an office. There, he learned morale was poor and that employees who had never met him, and referred to him only as "the son," couldn’t stand him.

Coby was so shaken by the whole experience that he:
1. Donated $50,000 to one of the manager’s favorite charities
2. Paid for a vacation for the single Mom
3. Started a PR campaign to convince the public that Hooters really does a lot of nice things and “empowers” woman.

So there you have it. I'm sure you've been moved to tears just reading about it. All is now well in Hooter nation.

And what could we possibly learn about leadership as a result of this probably mostly staged, superficial fairy tale about a clueless, spoiled CEO? Not much, but fortunately, we all too often end up learning some of our most memorable leadership lessons from some of the worst examples. So for that, we thank you CBS.

Leadership Lessons from Hooter’s Coby Brooks:

The Value of Good Succession Planning:

1. When it comes to succession planning, you need to groom and prepare your successor for the job. That means working in the kitchen, running a restaurant, and earning your scars. You also need to verify that your potential successor even wants the job. Dropping a title, or business, on an unprepared reluctant successor is a recipe for disaster for your business. You’re also not doing your successor any favors. Preparation to run a business should involve a series of planned, structured passages. Each passage builds skills and perspective and helps prepare your for the next level.

2. Successors should not be hand-picked and handled a job just because they are family. CEOs should be selected from a slate of highly qualified candidates. It should be a compitition, not a coronation.

The Importance of Company Values

3. Company “values” are nothing but useless words on a plaque unless they are backed up with action. Even if the bean eating contest was staged by the producers of CBS, the manager and Brooks should have never allowed it. It made their employees and manager look like idiots. If it wasn’t staged, then Jimbo should have been fired on the spot. If that’s what they’re willing to film, I can only imagine how employees are really treated.

4. You can’t buy respect from your employees or customers. You don’t just leave a big, fat tip or put up a billboard and be done with it. Respect needs to be earned through substantial actions and authentic commitment (see Larry O’Donnell).

I welcome your comments. Unless you claim to be a Hooter girl and want to stick up for Coby or Jimbo.


Anonymous said...

Well said Dan. I couldn't believe that Jimbo wasn't fired, on the spot or when brought to the corporate office. I also agree that many times we can learn as much about management from the bad manager as we do the good one. That certainly was true early in my career.

Bob McCarthy said...

I did not get the chance to see the Hooters episode but I intend to sit and watch with my two boys, 18 and 13. Day to day people act and conduct themselves in what the "culture" says is normal. I want my boys to see while it is one thing to have a "theme" restaurant, but to treat any one with less dignity that you would treat your mother, sister, or daughter is something that should not be tolerated.

The bean eating contest was probably an ill-attempt at creating "fun" in the workplace. If this was staged by CBS there should be an uproar. Yes, reality shows are film with some direction but I'd film a lot and edit into a good show. Especially in a show like this, - the viewers are led to believe these folks go undercover to see how the company would "naturally" conduct themselves. If they film nothing that is over the top or good for ratings then archive it and move on.

This show should continue to reveal a few main points about leadership:
1. Leaders actions often have untended consequences that diminish the value of the intended effect. Leaders ought to occasionally measure and analyze this relationship and make adjustments to maximize value and minimize negative consequences.
2. The intent and implementation of corporate guidance is often misunderstand and carried out incorrectly or inappropriately. The spirit of leader’s actions must be completely understood. If there one thing that a leader can do to achieve success, it is to be CLEAR.
And 3.) Business is a business and therefore must have rules and guidelines that keep employees aligned with the corporate business model; provide a product or service, pay the bills, make a profit, be efficient and grow. As it is said in the military: Mission First-People Always. Point here: ALL levels of leadership is equally important, not only to the success of a company, but also in the care and support for its employees.

Bob Mc.

Bret Simmons said...

I liked this episode better than the first one, maybe because I have worked in restaurants. The single mom was portrayed as everything you want in a manager. No idea if she was making a profit in her store, though. Jimbo was portrayed as everything you don't want. I wonder if he is still with the company. For PR purposes, they probably did not want to fire him on camera, but I bet he is on his way out.

In all situations, training sucked. No wonder you have problems when you don't appear to have a solid training system. People appear to be thrown in and asked to sink or swim. A first day should never result in termination.

And to think he does not know the extent of how offensive his brand is to some - please, give me a break.

Rod Johnson said...

Dan, I have to give you credit for at least following through on your commitment - congrats on think. I agree, this one was really weak, while I at this same time thought the WM edition held some redeeming values. And I agree with byhill, Jimbo should have been fired. Excuse me, but I highly doubt that jimbo has the capacity to change. If Coby Brooks had done this, he would have had the chance of being viewed as a leader.

After seeing this installment, its obvious why Hooters is now For Sale.

Dan McCarthy said...

byhill -
Thanks. Same here, lot's of lessons from observing poor managers.

Bob -
Great lessons! Thanks. And what a moto: Mission First-People Always.

Bret -
I've worked in restaurants too. I forgot to mention the lousy training program - being followed around my your manager yelling at you.

Rod -
Right, no surprise.

davidburkus said...

I too was upset by this episode. I wanted to see Coby take more drastic action with Jimbo. Also, i thought his response to seeing a hardworking single mom was drastically different then O'Donnell's.

Noel Rozny said...


Thanks for the heads up about Episode 2. Like you, I watched the first episode of “Undercover Boss” and was pleased (and surprised) to see how this show seemed to affect tangible, positive changes in corporate America (something I think we are all desperately seeking during this recession). Larry O’Donnell’s openness, introspection, and subsequent actions appeared a sign of good things to come.

I did not, however, watch Episode 2, for the fear of the very missteps you mentioned in this post. I’m glad you were able to glean some positive leadership lessons from this episode so that the rest of us could benefit without suffering through waitresses and other staff members being degraded.

I guess we’ll just have to watch and see if the 7-Eleven episode is strike three.

Thanks for the insights!

Dan McCarthy said...

David -
Thanks, me too.

Noel -
Thanks. Yes, we'll see.