Meet the Undercover Boss

Shaefer, 44, had been running the $330 million publicly traded family resort company for two years when producers of Undercover Boss approached her about being on the show. She saw it, in her words, as "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to observe her company and employees from an angle most CEOs never get to see. It's also not a bad way to show your product (and yourself) to millions of potential customers. (Full disclosure: Undercover Boss airs on CBS, which also happens to own BNET. )

Meet the Undercover Boss

CEO, TV Star

CEO, TV Star

BNET: Had you ever been on TV before you did the show?

Kim:  I'd done a few interviews, but I was never really on TV where I was…where my actions really defined what was going on the show.

BNET: You were the star. Wasn't part of the job description when you signed on, was it?. 

Kim: [Laughs]

Meet the Undercover Boss

Why?

Why?

BNET: Why expose yourself and your company to the risk of looking bad on national TV?

Kim:  I've been with the company 14 years, and have been CEO for the past two, and I saw this as an opportunity to do something different, something a little dramatic, to get a new perspective. I had seen the show last season, and I always thought that if I had an opportunity to do that, I would.

BNET: What if the show exposed things that would reflect badly on the company?

Kim: There's always that concern. But ultimately my company's success comes down to the interaction between the guest and the employee. I knew that fact intellectually, but to see it firsthand just seemed like something I ought to do. Sometimes you have to take a risk if you're going to learn something new.

Meet the Undercover Boss

Going Undercover

Going Undercover

BNET: Your disguise was…well, it wouldn't have fooled your family.

Kim: I thought I looked very different.

BNET: Did you worry about being recognized?

Kim:  Well, when the cameras are there, people know something's going on. But I didn't have a plan for what to do if I was recognized.  I thought  I'd figure it out on the fly. [laughs]

Meet the Undercover Boss

What She Learned

What She Learned

BNET: What was the biggest surprise?

Kim: We build these big, beautiful resorts with lots of entertainment options, but what it really determines whether we succeed or not is the interaction between the employees and the guests. They're really the ones who make it happen.

I've found that over the past two years, with the economy tightening, you tend to retreat a little bit and keep your circle of advisers closer to you as you make decisions.  Doing the show opened my eyes to the fact that we have 4,000 people working for us who have a voice and can participate at different levels in how we make policies. That was a nice reminder.

Meet the Undercover Boss

How She Changed

How She Changed

BNET: Having had the rare experience of actually watching yourself manage other people, what would you change?

Kim: I found I had to do a lot more listening when I was under cover. I wasn't in charge and so listening to the employees and getting to know them became a huge motivator for me. I was inspired by their stories, and of course I had to listen hard to learn how to do the task at hand. That was something I took back as CEO. I think I could stand to listen a bit more in my interactions every single day.

Meet the Undercover Boss

Her Co-Stars

Her Co-Stars

BNETOn the show you appeared with four main employees. Who stuck with you the most?

Kim: Each touched me in a different way, but I especially related to Deanna and to Jackie—working moms struggling to balance family time with their careers. But what struck me about all four of them was how dedicated they were to the company.

BNET: Have you stayed in touch?

Kim: I have. I feel like I connected to them and I want to continue to meet more people like them in our company. So when I go to visit a resort now, it's not just about the meeting the management team and saying "hi" to the employees. It's about finding the time to sit down and get to know people on a different level.

Meet the Undercover Boss

The Changes She'd Make

The Changes She'd Make

BNET: Did the show help you decide to change anything about your company?

Kim: I was really inspired by what I went through and a lot of my subsequent conversations with my senior management team revolved around getting employees more engaged. We used to be a small company and we relied on the employees to help us make decisions. So how do we get back some of that small company feeling?  How, for example, do we involve employees in the front desk check-in process?  Let them help us answer questions rather than trying to figure it out at a corporate level and maybe having it slip in the priority level.

Meet the Undercover Boss

Shuold Other Bosses Do This?

Shuold Other Bosses Do This?

BNET:  Would you recommend that other bosses do what you did?

Kim: You don't have to go on TV to do what I did. It just happened to be a great platform in my case. But being able to take an unfiltered look at your company is hard...I would recommend it to anyone. If I were to go into my company as Kim Schaefer and sit down with our housekeepers or servers, I'm not sure people would feel comfortable telling me what they really think. But coming in as a peer or subordinate gives you a perspective you'd never get otherwise. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.