What Every CEO Should Know

I love reality television.  I realize I should be trying to hide this fact from people I’m trying to impress but I find it so compelling that I can’t help talking about it.

Luckily my kids and I share this passion and so we watch Toddlers and Tiaras (gasp!), Storage Wars (YUUUP!TM) and America’s Next Top Model (no comment) together.  This past weekend we caught a rerun of Undercover Boss.  The concept of this program is for a CEO to go ‘undercover’ as a new trainee in a series of front line worker roles to find out what it’s really like to be an employee of the company.  In this particular episode Kim Schaefer, CEO of Great Wolf Lodge, was the central character.

Like the undercover bosses before her, Kim was challenged to keep up in a variety of roles.  Working the front desk, she was shocked at the complexity and length of the check in procedure.  Her patience was repeatedly tested in the kids club and she completely sucked as a waitress.  She became so flustered at one point that she asked a family if they were ready for their bill … before she had served their food!  But the highlight for me was when she was called upon to deal with an AFR (Accidental Fecal Release) in the kiddie pool.  The young man who was training her, made sure that she collected all of the floating pieces in spite of Kim’s complaint that it fell apart when she tried to pick it up.  His standards were high, and he sent her back a second time until she had cleaned away every trace of the smear on the bottom of the pool.

In her post experience interview, Kim repeatedly expressed her surprise at the pressure employees were under, and the degree of skill required in order to be successful in these roles.

Now as much as I delight in seeing executives struggle, and often fail to deliver, in jobs that they may have once thought a well trained monkey could perform, it infuriates me that they universally seem to require this experience to help them realize that their company is full of people who do difficult work for little money.

Again and again, they are surprised to learn that employees face family and financial challenges outside of work, and that many of them work extra shifts or even secure a second job at another company in order to make ends meet.

At the end of Undercover Boss, the company ‘trainers’ are summoned to head office where they are told that their trainee was actually the head of the company.  One by one, the participants gasp at the realization that the person responsible for running the whole company had trouble keeping up with the peons.  As a means to transition from this shock and awe to a happy ending, they are usually given some sort of reward born out of the CEO’s newfound insight into their plight.  Kim Schaefer offered to pay one waitress to stay home with her baby rather than working extra shifts because she felt that the worker shouldn’t have to sacrifice this time with her child to make ends meet.  Well that’s great for that particular waitress, but what about the hundreds more slaving away at all the other Great Wolf Lodge Reorts!?

It was with this in mind that I read an article this weekend from the Toronto Star about a KPMG recommendation to outsource city cleaning jobs.  Much to Mayor Rob Ford’s dismay, the current union contract won’t allow contracting out when it comes at the expense of permanent union jobs.

Do private cleaning companies have some remarkable technology that allows them to deliver the service more efficiently and cheaply than city staff workers?  Of course not.  Their lower cost comes on the backs of their employees; living, breathing people, who perform unpleasant tasks with inconvenient part time hours at low pay with few or no benefits.

When companies treat their employees as a faceless ‘resource,’ like oil or paperclips that can be purchased from the low cost bidder, we’re all in trouble.   Because paying people less to do the things that make the world go ‘round, means that the population at large has less money to spend.  This means that they can buy less, which means that goods and service companies sell less, which places more pressure on companies to reduce expenses, and causes tax-supported governments to reduce services, and so on, until a good number of us (the 99%?) are living in cardboard boxes and wondering how this happened.

If you’re not a general labourer you might think you’re immune.  You’ve got a university education after all.  But heed the human insight from Undercover Boss.  Those CEOs are failing to value all kinds of jobs, including white collar staff.  Having the boss freak out about the time pressure and accuracy mandate in an accounting role just doesn’t make as interesting TV as seeing him or her scrape poo from the bottom of a pool.

Who knows, maybe it will be the 99% movement that will spark change.  Perhaps it will be an offshoot of the trend to think globally and act locally.  Whatever the impetus, I have to believe that there is be a tipping point somewhere down the line when companies start to realize that their obligation is not only to shareholders, and that they also have a responsibility to contribute positively to the prosperity of the communities in which they operate.  Yes, we need business to provide useful goods and services, but also to provide gainful employment so that people can raise good families and build strong communities.

And if Undercover Boss is any indication, there are certainly enough people out there willing to work hard for companies in return.


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