I finally got a chance to check out “Undercover Boss” this week, after being curious about it since first hearing about it at the Super Bowl. It follows many reality show conventions, including dramatic music, montages and strategic repetition (I heard, “Those items are supposed to be going to charity!” at least three times).
Why, though, is “Undercover Boss” dramatic? In short, it’s based on an assumption that big-company CEOs are completely disconnected from the front lines of their businesses. Only by the CEOs being out of touch can these shows create the surprise and drama they depend on. Seeing Joe DePinto, CEO of 7-11, struggling to make coffee is funny, but it’s also telling. Selling coffee is how 7-11 makes money. According to DePinto, the store he works in serves 2500 cups per day. DePinto spends his days attending meetings and reading reports, not making coffee, and it shows.
I saw a terribly sad example of the “undercover boss” last week while watching “The Hurt Locker.” One of the soldiers meets with a psychologist colonel who is counseling him for his stress-related illness, caused by his daily encounters with IEDs and their carnage. The soldier teases the colonel that he doesn’t know what it’s like out on the streets. The colonel replies that he’s been out on the front lines earlier in his career. One morning, surprisingly, the colonel shows up and offers to accompany the group on their daily missions. The tragic ending of this amazing scene really struck me and pointed up in an extreme way the costs of the out-of-touch boss. How can one lead when he has no idea what it’s like where the rubber meets the road?