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.