February 11, 2010
Out From Under The Covers
I enjoyed the show Undercover Boss that aired after the Super Bowl. In the pilot episode, Larry O'Donnell, President and C.O.O. of Waste Management, works alongside his employees, cleaning porta-potties, sorting waste, collecting garbage from a landfill, and even being fired for the first time in his life.
As his eyes were opened on several levels, he began to understand the impact that his board room decisions were having on the rank and file. Cutbacks meant that staff were working two or three different job duties. He learned from one of the women who worked on the garbage truck that she has to urinate in a bottle along the route because there were no other facilities.
By the end of the show, Larry was a new boss. He understood. He was changed.
Of course we won't know the depth of what changes might happen at Waste Management as a result of this experience. My fear, however, is that the focus on a specific employee or employees who happened to encounter Larry during the filming of the episode won't be pervasive across the company if only attacked at this narrow view.
The reality is that empowerment (yes, that overused and under implemented word) is the only way to ensure that good (and maybe even some bad) ideas get implemented. The President got a fractional taste of the kinds of things that "corporate decisions" impact at the staff level. Sure, the one woman got the promotion, but only because she was in the right place at the right time. Who is making sure that each of the 100s of other employees, also going "above and beyond," are getting noticed? And that someone is actually listening to the women (and men) who don't have a place to urinate on the job?
Management, especially middle management, must take responsibility for soliciting, organizing, facilitating, and implementing staff ideas and recommendations. And if those recommendations need a champion, that manager must be brave enough to stand up for them.
It's a good show to watch. I'd love to see a follow-up on each of these companies 6 months later.