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Undercover Boss

I admit it. I do not watch much television. In fact, I am embarrassed to say that I’ve never seen “The Office,” or “LOST,” and have only seen one episode of “24” (only because I was traveling with my sister, Jackie, who is a fanatic about that show). And, I have never used a DVR or TiVo.

This past weekend, however, I was at a Game Night with my family, and as my niece was flipping through saved shows on her DVR, the name “UNDERCOVER BOSS” came on the screen. Being the boss of a mid-sized company, the subject matter looked fascinating.

The premise of this show is that the producers convince the CEOs of large companies to go “undercover” for a week, inside their own companies, to find out what the rank and file employees were experiencing. So, we watched the show (instead of playing a game).

The show profiled Coby Brooks, the CEO of Hooters Restaurants (there are over 450 franchises across the U.S.). I will not comment on my personal impressions of this restaurant chain, but I was pleasantly surprised to watch Brooks realize first-hand, how his female servers and managers were treated and to see him make promises to change things to be a more female-empowering organization. Brooks’ father started the company, and I could relate to his comments about some of the challenges faced in being the second generation in a family-owned business.

I was hooked! The next show I saw profiled Joseph DePinto, the president and CEO of 7-Eleven (which has more than 4,000 stores). Again, he went undercover for a week and interacted and was genuinely touched by the multi-national employees who support their families by working for 7-Eleven. I was impressed to see that 7-Eleven is committed to donating all unsalable (but edible) food to local food banks and charities. And DePinto was genuinely interested in his employees and got a new perspective on how personal relationships make the difference between a “good performing” and a “TOP performing store.”

Of course, with less than 100 employees at our single Frieda’s location, it is not practical for me to go “undercover.” But, I’d like to share with you what I did a few years ago. At the suggestion of a trusted business advisor, over a 3-month period of time, I met one-on-one with each of my employees. We met alone in my office and I learned about their family. I asked each employee what they liked and didn’t like about working at Frieda’s and allowed them the opportunity to ask me anything they wanted.

Before I started, I was a little nervous (as I’m sure they were). But, guess what I learned? In those 10-minute meetings, I learned that coworkers smiled when they talked about their family. They showed me pictures of their successful children and were so proud that they moved to our country and raised their family. (We have employees from almost a dozen countries!)

They told me that they wanted to see me more often (and suggested I walk the warehouse more regularly). They gave me feedback on how I was doing at running the company.

You don’t have to be a CEO of a company to benefit from this concept. Next time a server in a restaurant comes to your table, ask him or her where they are from. When you’re at your kid’s school, ask the teacher or aid where they went to college and what they studied. Ask your coworker about their family (learn the names).

But, my advice is that you must be sincere. It’s not something to check off your “to-do” list. It’s a way to get in touch with those around you and to be a better human being.

So, to Brooks and DePinto, thank you for taking a chance and letting us watch you go undercover. (I was reminded of all the humble lessons I learned when I opened up and got to know every single one of my coworkers.) I hope you both continue to be in touch with all the employees at your companies – they are truly the key to your success.

I can’t wait for the next episode of “Undercover Boss.” But what if I’m not home to watch it? Well, yesterday Garry got us all hooked up with a DVR, although he hasn’t taught me how to use it yet!


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