Undercover Boss: Norwegian Cruise Lines' CEO Debriefs

Last Updated Jan 3, 2011 5:34 PM EST

The CBS TV show Undercover Boss put Norwegian Cruise Lines CEO Kevin Sheehan to work, with chores including scrubbing the decks of the company's cruise ships and dancing on stage. In an exit interview with BNET, Sheehan talks about why he did it, how he handled his assigned tasks, and what he learned that will change how Norwegian does business:

Tice: Why did you decide to go on the show?
Sheehan: I've been in five or six different industries, and it was like I was thrown into each one without a lot of experience. I'd been on two cruises in my life, and all of a sudden, here I am at the helm of a cruise company. I wanted to dig in and understand what was going on. Our business has underperformed for the opportunity that's out there -- we have the youngest fleet of ships.

One of the early learnings for me was we had a big disconnect between the shore-side operation and the 15,000 people who work on the ships. It was really quite startling to me the way the business was run -- the corporate headquarters would come up with new dining alternatives or change the menu, and they weren't in consultation with the ships. The big task was to try to reconnect the ships with the headquarters.

Also, the big thing for me was to understand what was going on on the ship. Ordinarily, every single crew member knows when I'm coming on board and I can't walk down the hallway without the big "hellos." So this was a great opportunity for me to go in deep undercover to see from their perspective how things are progressing and where we need to open up communication.

Tice: What was your disguise, and how well did it work?
Sheehan: I'm a funny-looking guy, so anything in a disguise is going to make me look better. I had to grow a beard about four weeks in advance. Then they colored it black. My hair was red...so I ended up with a deep, dark, black beard and they toned my hair black as well, and a pair of black glasses. I really looked very different.

But one of the first tasks I did, we weren't as heavy on the makeup, and I walked into one of our showcase dining rooms, and one of the waitresses screams out: "Kevin Sheehan! Kevin Sheehan!"

It was a moment of "Oh my God, what just happened? And everyone froze from the show, then scurried to the phones and talked to CBS. We came up with a very creative way of making that segment work, where she was in on it. After that, the makeup was heavier, they really darkened my hair more, and I had a hat on.

Luckily, from that point no one saw who I was. Later in that same segment, I was designated to serve at three different tables, and one was a table with three women from the cast of Cirque Dreams. They never recognized me, which I thought was unbelievable. They knew me well.

Tice: What jobs were you assigned, and how did you do?
Sheehan: One was as a waiter aboard our new ship, the Norwegian Epic. The dining room seats 700-something people. You go down an escalator into the galley, which is almost the size of a football field. It's very complicated. I never could remember where anything was. I had one funny episode -- a table ordered a couple pieces of key lime pie. I went down the escalator, into the galley, walked for about five minutes, saw the pieces of key lime pie with little pieces of lime on top, put them on the tray, went upstairs again, and the head waiter said, "Peter -- that's cheesecake."

In one, I was in the deck-and-engine group, swabbing down the ship. Then I was brought up for another exercise where I had to take rust off. It was a really hard thing, taking a hammer and chisel and getting the rust off and then painting it to preserve it. And I was killing myself. The guy was telling me I wasn't up to snuff.

At the rappelling wall, it was very complicated, and I got in a lot of trouble on that one, too. You have to put this jacket on the guest and the strings come from behind and have to come up through your legs. It was a hysterical process, me putting it on some of the women. This one lady wouldn't stop yakking and I finally said, "Would you stop your yakking," or something like that. When we showed the vignette to the crew, 1,000 people in the theater went "Aaaagh!" Because they would never talk to a guest like that.

Then I had to dance in front of 1,000 people and make a complete fool of myself, dressed completely in white with big angel wings. I looked like a complete boob and to match that, I couldn't do any of the dances. It was a very uncomfortable experience.

Tice: What did you learn about your ships' crews?
Sheehan: At the end of the day, the crew works extraordinarily hard -- long hours and long weeks. I was only working half a day and I was exhausted! And not only working, but making the guests feel so special with a smile, or a "How can I help you," giving them great service.

I met one guy up in deck-and-engine -- a colorful character, looks a little like Popeye. He actually had worked on the sea all his life, and his wife was eight months and three weeks pregnant and living in Taipei. I found out he was living in New York right before 9/11, working on the Pride of America, and he enlisted in the military the next day. He was too old and had to go through all kinds of bells and whistles to serve. It was an overwhelming experience that he did this. Being able to unite him with his family was great.

The guy with me on the dancing, his mom had just passed away and it was a sad story, very sudden. It was very similar to my brother, who passed away also, so we could track a little bit. We did a lot of nice things after the fact to honor his mom.

It helped me better understand the complexity of having over 1,000 people working on a ship together, all from different backgrounds and at different stages of their lives, with different family situations. The ships' officers do a really good job of keeping that all together and keeping everyone motivated and focused on the guest experience.

Tice: What will you change as a result of your Undercover Boss experience?
Sheehan: It brings me back to the corporate office to say to the entire shore-side operation, "Guys, you gotta understand the only success we have is because of the crews, and we need to make their lives as easy as possible." It's a tough job at minimum, and if we make it more complicated, that's not good.

We simplified some processes. At the rappelling wall you had to sign a waiver -- when I go to Disneyland, I don't have to do that. It's a lot of small things like that.

We had one task that was backbreaking work, putting up the ice rink. It made me very mad that we were making our crew do it. And the time I did it was the last time that ice rink was ever put up.

  • Carol Tice

    Carol Tice is a longtime business reporter whose work has appeared in Entrepreneur, The Seattle Times, and Nation's Restaurant News, among others. Online sites she's written for include Allbusiness.com and Yahoo!Hotjobs. She blogs about the business of writing at Make a Living Writing.