It was one of this year’s reality show standouts, beloved by viewers for the dose of schadenfreude they’d get by seeing executives fail at attempting the basics that make their companies tick. Undercover Boss took CEOs (such as 7-Eleven's Joe DePinto, above) out of their corner offices and planted them as entry-level grunts in their own business. What ensued needn’t just be couch-potato fuel, though: We’ve compiled some notes so you can avoid these CEOs’ mistakes.
Joe DePinto, a West Point graduate who’s now the CEO of 7-Eleven, knows how to run a $13 billion company. But brewing coffee without overflowing the dispenser? Not so much. In investigating exactly how the 7-Eleven in Shirley, New York, manages to sell 2,500 cups of coffee a day, DePinto managed to mix up flavor batches and make a mess. But he took a lesson from middle-aged coffee-maker Dolores, whose precise brewing combined with impeccable customer service (she seemed to know the name of every person who entered the door) kept caffeine fiends coming back day after day.
Lesson: Pay attention to detail – and to your regular customers – and you will be rewarded with repeat business.
It seems obvious: a CEO should intimately know – and ostensibly enjoy – the product or service they sell. On the episode about Churchill Downs, the racing park that’s part of the largest horse-racing business in the world, that wasn’t quite so for COO Bill Carstanjen. When he went out dressed as a new hire to work with a horse trainer, it was readily apparent he was afraid of feeding the horses. And though he learned how to play the "Call to Post" on the bugle, he discovered he was terrified of playing in front of a crowd.
Lesson: Inspiring confidence takes confidence especially in a highly-competitive environment.
Rick Arquilla, president and COO of Roto-Rooter, got his hands dirty in an episode of Undercover Boss. After cleaning some drains like a pro, he was tasked with working the phones at a dispatch call center. He struggled, in part because the call system is color-coded and Arquilla is colorblind. That's no fault of his, but his phone skills also leave a lot to be desired – he sounded pushy and impatient when he talked to a customer.
Lesson: Your interactions with customers over the phone are deceptively difficult to get right, and require patience and foolproof systems.
Coby Brooks was not ready to meet Jimbo. He was the manager of a Hooters restaurant to which CEO Brooks was assigned, and he liked to "inspect" female employees in a leering fashion. Brooks, who spoke with pride about his company’s donations to breast cancer research, was not amused. "The things I saw today," he said on the show, "were inappropriate. They were wrong and I don’t want any part of it."
Lesson: Even if your company image thrives on being a bit racy, employees must abide by clear standards set by human resources regarding harassment.
When Chris McCann, president of 1-800-Flowers and the younger brother of CEO Jim McCann, went undercover in his own company, it was with the aim of testing how well he understood the business. He suspected that the company needed to do better at connecting with its workers. And he was correct. For instance, when he struggled to keep up with his task at the chocolate bonbon conveyer belt, he struggled and lagged behind. An employee remained calm, telling him that the hefty goals are set by men who never visit the factory.
Lesson: Seek input from – and get to know – your front-line workers.