Undercover Boss – service design bitch-slapping for clueless CEOs

15.06.2011 | Author: Eric Reiss

Are CEOs out of touch with reality? I’d say a lot of you are. Although you CEOs don’t have to go to extremes to improve things, most of you do need to do something, so listen up. If you don’t want the long backstory, skip ahead to the last subhead. 

About the title of this blogpost

Undercover Boss is the title of an American reality series. The premise is simple: an out-of-touch CEO puts on a disguise, takes a low-level job within his organization, and hears the truth about the company problems. After a week of play-acting, he goes back to his office and makes everything right again.

(By the way, I write “he” as I have yet to see a female CEO profiled. But I digress…)

There’s a great review of this episode by Ken Tucker at ew.com here:
http://watching-tv.ew.com/2010/02/14/undercover-boss-hooters-episode-2/

Quick recap of the “Hooters” episode

For those of you who haven’t seen the episode or read Ken’s synopsis, the “star” of this particular show was CEO Coby Brooks of Hooters.

Hooters is a chain of restaurants featuring beer and chicken wings served by buxom young women in tight t-shirts and hot-pants. FYI: “Hooters” is a slang expression for breasts. In the United States, the cute Hooters owl-logo only misleads those who are certifiably clueless (you can see it on Coby’s shirt in the photo below).


Coby Brooks (at left - duh) with two typical Hooters employees.

During the show, Coby learned (among other things), that although men love Hooters, most women feel the concept is degrading. I would have thought this was kind of a WTF “no-brainer” observation, but it certainly surprised our friend Coby as he talked on camera to random folks on the streets of Dallas, TX. (Good we got him out of his posh office and cosy private jet).

Hey, the concept is demeaning. But let’s face it, Hooters knows tits, ass, and beer is a winning combination for roughly half the population. In the meantime, Coby is now promising to rethink the company’s image. “We’re gonna tell folks about all them Hooter gals who are now doctors and lawyers and rock stars and…”

Uh…and this proves what, Coby? Did you know that feminist Gloria Steinem was once a Playboy bunny?

Lesson #1

Coby’s advisors look more like his drinking buddies than business executives.

Dear CEO, don’t hire your buddies. Don’t hire ass-lickers. Hire folks who aren’t scared of you. Sycophants and spies will never tell you the truth. And don’t take personal offence when someone disagrees with you.

Lesson #2
Coby probably would have been a better CEO if his father hadn’t just plunked him down into his current position without either warning or training. Coby seems to have had a very strained relationship with his dad and it’s clearly been tough to fill daddy’s very large shoes.

Are you a CEO looking to turn over the reins of your business to the next generation? Think twice before giving the job to a family member. This has been the downfall of many a family-owned company. Put your idiot offspring in charge of a charitable fund or something else that’s fairly harmless, but keep him away from the executive suite.

Lesson #3
Poor Coby inherits a billion-dollar business and finds out to his incredible surprise that the folks making chicken-wing sauces at his dad’s old factory in Atlanta loved his dad, but hate the current owners (er…that’s you, Coby). Why? Because Dad walked the floor and knew all his employees by name. Coby is an “absentee landlord”. The employees feel abandoned and uncared for. Which was a theme throughout this show – also when Coby visited his restaurants. Good TV. Naïve management.

Dear CEO, go “walkabout” – an Australian expression for going into the wilderness. Get your ass out of your chair and walk the floor, greet the guests, answer the phones. Honestly, you don’t need a reality TV show to get you moving.

Lesson #4
Clients come to FatDUX precisely because we can uncover problems for them without bias – which is what all agencies should provide. The amazing thing is, the work is not always particularly difficult – although it often appears impossible to those inside the organization. That’s because it’s not enough to solve a specific problem; you have to deal with the generic cause of the problem. In service-design language, this means fixing the problem both ways. We can see patterns that are often invisible from inside an organization – the more siloed the departments and functions, the more invisible the patterns are to senior management.

Dear CEO, ask questions. Ask tough questions. Demand answers. Don’t accept “it depends” as an answer from highly paid consultants. Hell, everything “depends” so there’s no need to dwell on the obvious.

Lesson #5
Dear CEO, you don’t want to be on Undercover Boss. If you’re good, you’ll never be on Undercover Boss. You’re supposed to know what’s going on in your organization. That’s why you get the big bucks.

Folks, it’s easy to get folks to tell you the truth. Just ask. If you’re honest, open, and fair, people will tell you things. But you do need to go out and talk to people. Talk to your customers (alas, far too many companies don’t ask because they are scared of what they may find out). If you want to align your business goals with user needs, you’d better understand what these needs are. The magic word is “listen”.

Coby didn’t learn a thing he couldn’t have learned in much simpler ways.

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