Undercover Boss: Escaping GM's Abusive Corporate Culture

Last Updated Dec 17, 2010 2:25 PM EST

Joel Manby CEO Herschend Family EntertainmentLast week I interviewed Joel Manby (pictured), CEO of Herschand Family Entertainment, a privately held $300 million company with 10,000 employees and 24 theme parks around the country.

Before taking the reins at Herschand nine years ago, Manby was an executive with General Motors, most recently as President and CEO of Saab USA.

During the interview, Joel was candid about a culture of abuse and intimidation at some GM divisions and how he found salvation at the helm of family owned Herschend and its "servant leadership" culture.

On the show, Manby was just as candid about his transformation from a workaholic automotive executive who'd lost touch with his family and was developing a drinking problem, to the nurturing, caring CEO that was evident on Sunday's episode of Undercover Boss.
Tobak: Tell me about the leadership culture at Herschend.

Manby: We have a common culture that we're trying to create at all our properties. It's a "servant leadership" culture; we have an objective of being a great place to work for great people. Servant leadership is actually a faith-based concept, but we adapted the behavior, not the faith. It has eight attributes that leaders are measured on. Half of their raise and bonus is based on how they go about their work, and half is based on hitting their numbers, so it creates a really strong culture. And as you know, every great company has a strong culture.

Tobak: So, what are the eight attributes?

Manby: Patience, kindness, honesty, humility, respectfulness, selflessness, forgiveness and commitment. You can dislike somebody, but you can still respect them, forgive them, and treat them with humility and honesty. We also have a phrase: "admonish in private, praise in public." So you don't embarrass people.

Tobak: Some companies teach that but don't practice it.

Manby: Some companies don't even believe in it. I don't want to bash GM, but [intimidation] was part of the culture there. You would get ridiculed in meetings. The CEOs had big egos and had no problem making you look silly. Not all of them, but there were some. In a company with a strong culture, that shouldn't be allowed. GM was very inconsistent in its culture. Saturn was wonderful and customer focused, and Saab was good, too, but I worked at another division I won't name that was just pure intimidation.

I once missed one of my numbers as head of Saab North America. I didn't miss it by that much, but the president of all of Saab calls me on a Sunday morning and orders me to fly over there [to Europe] that afternoon. I get there Monday morning, he chews me out for four hours, and then I get on a plane and fly back. It was so humiliating, so uncalled for. I figured, if that's the way I'm going to be treated, I don't need that. That's when I began looking at other opportunities.

Tobak: So, GM's loss is Herschend's gain.

Manby: Well, you juxtapose that with Jack and Pete Herschend, there are no better men on this earth. They treat people with so much trust and respect. They actually turned control of the company over to an independent board and non-family CEO while they were still healthy, to ensure that this company can make the transition.

Tobak: How are you driving that family culture throughout the company?

Manby: It's very difficult to do. We have a training program that every employee goes through, and when they graduate they actually get a statue of Jesus washing Peter's feet. They show it in the Undercover Boss episode. Again, we tell people it's not about the faith, it's about the culture. And their compensation is dependent on how they promote and exhibit the culture. You have to put your money where your mouth is. After that, it's all about hiring the right people. You know, this culture either resonates with people or it doesn't. If it doesn't, they're not going to enjoy working there.

Apple's culture, for example, would be very different from ours, but Steve jobs is still an incredibly successful CEO. I'm not pretending we're right and others are wrong; it's just our culture, and it works for us.

Image: CBS Entertainment
More Undercover Boss Coverage: