'Undercover Boss' Interview: What Really Went Down

Last Updated Feb 11, 2010 3:12 PM EST

Undercover Boss The InterviewAs you could tell from Monday's 'Undercover Boss': What Cleaning Toilets Can Teach Execs, I was certainly skeptical about the management value of doing a reality TV show. And, like everybody who watched and reviewed the show, I made certain assumptions based primarily on how the show was produced and edited.

As it turns out, some of those assumptions were right, and some of them were dead wrong. But what really surprised me was the real reason why Larry O'Donnell, president and COO of Waste Management - a $13 billion company with 45 thousand employees - did the show. And I may have been wrong about Kevin, too.

Here's the truth about what really went down and why, from a fascinating interview with the Undercover Boss himself and his VP of corporate communications, Lynn Brown. Let's get right to it, shall we?

Tobak: Since you took over operations in 2004, you've managed to keep profit margins trending up and to the right. Doing a show like this strikes me as a risky move for an operations guy. So why do it? Why risk rocking the boat?

O'Donnell: I'll tell you precisely. When Lynn first brought this opportunity to me, I told her she was absolutely crazy. I'm a reality type person and there is no way I'm doing reality television. But the more we talked about it, well, we'd been working really hard for the last several years on our employee engagement, getting people engaged at every level of the company and opening up communication. We do employee surveys and, as we talked about it, this seemed like a very unique opportunity to drive that engagement.

And I can tell you we got it right because just the number of emails I've received since the promo started has been overwhelming. Everybody in the company, they're all talking about it. They're seeing how important it is to have open communication, talk about the issues that confront the company, and pull together as a team and solve these things working together.

Tobak: I know what a challenge that can be in a big company. It seems that, almost with one fell swoop, you've accomplished that.

O'Donnell: That's exactly right. If you can succeed in doing that, do you know how powerful that is for a company? When you can transform your company from a place where people just show up to collect a paycheck to a company where they feel appreciated, they feel recognized, they feel like they have a voice and they become engaged in helping you solve the problem, what a powerful company.

Tobak: So what are you doing to keep it going? [Note: the show was actually taped a year ago.]

O'Donnell: A few months ago, Lynn and I started filming some short, YouTube-like videos of what I learned. And, as I continue to travel around the company, I'll continue to film more, just to get people talking and get people engaged.

Brown: We created social media sites so people will feel empowered to put their ideas out there. We've got a Facebook page that the employees are really embracing -- they're putting their feelings out there. We've got an idea change program and we hope to pull out what people are thinking so that he [Larry] doesn't have to go undercover again.

O'Donnell: Yeah. We've worked with Gallup to do an annual survey that all of our employees participate in. And then we have action planning at every level of the company, and we measure management's engagement score.

We want to improve that engagement score throughout the company because we've seen the impact that having an engaged workforce can have on the company. Who better to ask how to improve the company than the people on the front line doing those jobs each and every day?

Tobak: So you actually have an engagement metric?

O'Donnell: Yes. Not only is it a metric, it's actually in management's bonuses. Engagement is critical, and this is a whole new way to go about it.

Tobak: Speaking of your management team, on the show they looked spooked.

O'Donnell: I take my hat off to the production team that they were even able to make it look like that, because they're not that way. That was the premise of the show, that management is aloof and sitting in their office and even Kevin, you know, the manager that had the time clock issue --

Tobak: Yeah. I was going to ask you about Kevin --

O'Donnell: Well, he's a great manager. You know why he was "hiding" in his office? Because Lynn locked him in there and wouldn't let him out. [Laughter]

Brown: I didn't want him to recognize Larry.

O'Donnell: You saw it in the epilogue of the show; he is so good and his team is so good that they were recognized for having one of our best recycling facilities in the company.

Tobak: But it really looked like you threw him under the bus on national television.

O'Donnell: I felt terrible. I had no idea it would look that way. I don't know how they even pieced that together.

Tobak: Well, like I said, you took a big risk but I think the reward might be there.

O'Donnell: This is early, just the day after the episode aired, but I've already seen so much benefit from this. I'm getting emails from people who want to become employees, emails from customers who are happy they do business with us, I'm even hearing from people who say, "Gee, I want to become a customer."

Last Word: So, it was all about internal communications and employee engagement. Nothing about PR, free advertising, or branding. Who would have guessed that? Actually, somebody did. Kernalkorn, who commented on the Monday post, nailed it. Props to kernalkorn, whoever you are. Oh, and Kevin was a setup. Go figure.

Image of Waste Management COO Larry O'Donnell courtesy of CBS / Dan Littlejohn

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