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'Undercover Boss': What Cleaning Toilets Can Teach Execs

Larry O'Donnell Waste Management Update 2: When you're done reading this, check out 'Undercover Boss': The Interview - What Really Went Down!

On Sunday, something happened that I wouldn't have thought possible. After the Super Bowl and its super ads, I actually watched the premier of Undercover Boss, a surprisingly creative reality show where, each week, the top boss at a big company poses as an entry-level employee.

Don't watch reality TV? Me neither. This is different. Have you ever cursed corporate's dumb policies? Ranted that the mucky mucks never listen? Wished the boss would work a week in your shoes? Well, be careful what you wish for; it's really happening.

Now, my initial impression of the concept was "nice idea on paper, train wreck in practice." I've seen CEOs in the trenches; it's not a pretty sight. Trained in problem-solving, they tend to hone in on what's wrong: incompetent employees, their "good intentions" botched by middle management, their grandiose plans failing in practice.

Then there's the loose cannon factor: Who knows what they might say or do? Conventional wisdom says be careful when you put a CEO in front of customers because whatever he promises, the company has to deliver. Well, the same thing applies here.

So, as a management strategy, it's definitely high risk. At least, that was my initial impression. Having watched the show, I'd say the concept has merit -- with some serious caveats. Here's my take on what went down:

The show begins with Larry O'Donnell (pictured), president and COO of Waste Management -- a $13 billion company -- telling his senior leadership team that he's going undercover to find out what effect their aggressive cost-cutting and restructuring is actually having in the field. One exec looks over at his peers and says, "Is he serious?" That seems to represent the collective feeling in the room.

Larry takes on a different job each day: cleaning out portable toilets at a carnival, picking up trash at a landfill, even doing the garbage collection rounds. Along the way, he picks up more than just dirt and recycling. He learns that one supervisor (Kevin) docks his employees two minutes pay for every minute they're late, that one woman (Jaclyn) is doing the job of three because of budget cuts, and that a female trash collector has to pee in a can to stay on schedule.

When it's all over, Larry shaves and returns to his corner office with a new perspective on the plight of his workers. He seems to have learned a valuable lesson: His relentless drive toward cost-cutting and productivity improvement may be backfiring. After all, if his employees are miserable, how well can they serve their customers?

That's a big step. As we discussed recently, admitting mistakes is indeed a key to leadership success.

That said, Waste Management is not a "growth" company. The way to grow shareholder value at a company with flat revenues is to improve operating margins by, that's right, improving productivity and cutting costs. And that's exactly what Larry's done since he took over operations in 2004.

So, should shareholders be concerned if Larry goes soft on cost-cutting -- or is a happy company a productive company? Only time will tell. But from a management perspective, I'd say that Larry needed this experience to offset his natural proclivity to cut, cut, cut.

Larry also made some changes that I think were more about showmanship than solid management practice:

Jaclyn was promoted and got to hire two people. That's great, but how does that make all the other overworked and underappreciated "Jaclyns" in the company feel?

Kevin got chewed out by the big boss. Sure, he deserved it, but in private. Getting thrown under the bus on national television is a bit much for screwing up at work.

Then there's Larry's leadership team, who may feel that their authority was undermined, if not justifiably so.

    Bottom line: Some CEOs, like Verizon's Ivan Seidenberg, who began his career 40 years ago as a cable splicer's assistant, have a visceral feel for the customer and the rank-and-file employee. Those who lack that perspective should get out once in a while. But the cost of that education shouldn't include the undermining of an otherwise healthy management and organizational structure.

    Be sure to check out: 'Undercover Boss': The Interview - What Really Went Down! to get the real story of Larry's motivation for doing the show ... and to find out what really happened to Kevin!

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

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