Leadership Coaching Undercover Boss: CEO or Santa Claus?

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About Me

I am a Professor of Management at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California where I have taught undergraduate and graduate business students for 13 years. I am an author and co-writter of the book Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Protégés Make the Most Out of Their Mentoring Relationships (2005, Jossey Bass). I am currently in the process of writing my second book on career advice entitled, Career Crossroads. I am also a mom, a pilates and beach workout enthusiast, and an avid fiction reader. I love teaching and writing but I also love to put my son to bed and collapse onto my couch and morph into Professor Couch Potato. Like a lot of people, I have become addicted to Undercover Boss and all shows related to work—I rationalize my couch time as my time to connect with pop culture and in fact often weave in TV and movie clips into my classes on Human Resources Management. But let’s face it—lying around and being amused is a big part of the appeal! For more information about me, you can check out my academic curriculum vitae and professional biography. .

Purpose of this Blog

Leadership Coaching Undercover Boss: CEO or Santa Claus?

The purpose of this blog is to provide a consistent commentary on TV shows about the world of work using the lens of management theories and themes. So, I will comment on shows like Undercover Boss, The Office, Outsourcing, The Apprentice, and whatever else strikes my fancy and is recommended to me by my fellow couch potato students and friends. I am going to start with Undercover Boss because watching the show has become my entertainment dope. I hope this blog might be helpful to students, professors, or anybody in business who wants to see how management theory is applied in practice or maybe just wants a slightly intellectual and irreverent spin on their own TV watching. Feel free to use these ideas in your classes, casual conversation, or whatever (as we love to say in Southern California!). I am going to have some fun with this and I hope you do too!

General Overview to this Episode of Undercover Boss

Recently, I watched the episode of Undercover Boss depicting Kim Schaffer, the CEO of Great Wolf Resorts. In this episode Kim Schaffer goes undercover in her company and experiences a day in the life of four entry level jobs: a) Childcare center worker, b) Front desk clerk at the resort, c) Water park employee, and d) Waitress at the resort restaurant. According to the show, Schaffer was promoted from within the organization and interestingly, she is the first female CEO to be portrayed on the show.

What I Loved and Some Related Reading for Further Food for Thought

Here is a list of what resonated for me on this episode:

– I enjoy watching a woman in charge and I loved that Schaffer copped to struggling with her balance as an executive and wife and mother.

– I loved that she had a supportive stay-at-home husband (hooray for non-traditional roles!) and that she felt guilty for splitting her attention between her kids and work no matter how much support and how cared for her kids are. I do believe that the plight of all working moms, no matter what level of the organization you are at, is to feel guilty. (for a more in-depth take on this you can check out my recent article I co-wrote on Opting In Between which is in press at the Journal of Career Development). Also, check out a book called the The Opt Out Revolt: Why People are Leaving Companies to Create Kaleidoscope Careers by Lisa Mainiero and Sherry Sullivan.

– I love that Schaffer cried a lot- I think there are a lot of repressed tears at work by both men and women and yes, dammit, I loved every schmaltzy, contrived, tearful moment!

– I love the human stories and everyday heroism depicted by her employees- If you enjoyed this, don’t miss Barbara Ehrenreich’s classic book, Nickel and Dimed where she goes undercover for a year and takes a series of minimum wage jobs. A new take on this is by Gabriel Thompson who wrote, Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing Jobs Most Americans Won’t Do—the writer goes undercover and works as a lettuce picker, poultry factory worker (warning – you might find yourself switching to a tofu diet!), flower shop worker, and restaurant delivery guy.

– And, I don’t want to be mean but yes I did enjoy watching the CEO picking up shit from the bottom of the pool- that was a deeply satisfying moment, although that might speak more about me than about the show!

WTF and Management Themes

This is the section, where I talk about what made me cringe or sometimes even say WTF? In this episode, my biggest WTF moment was around the short term feel good solutions given to the employees that the CEO encountered while making the TV show.

Thus- the title of this essay- Ask yourself: do you want to be a CEO or Santa Claus? We all know what happens to Santa Claus… retention drops off and disillusionment sets in after a few short years when expectations of the little people are no longer being met. I fear the same fate might be in store when CEO’s approach systemic problems as if they were Christmas morning. I wonder, as I was watching the show, was I the only shouting out, OMG, What about Equity Theory?!

Kurt Lewin says “There is nothing as useful as a good theory.” So check this out:

Equity theory says that each of us compare ourselves to others at work. In fact, we even are likely to find one person in particular that is similar to us in important ways (background education, demographics, etc.) and that becomes our “comparison other.” So, what we do is we compare our ratio of inputs (this is everything we put into a job like our skills, education, effort, our social capital etc. to what we get out of a job which we call our outcomes (like pay, promotions, status, travel, recognition). Everybody is cool and happy when the ratio between your inputs and outcomes between yourself and your comparison other is roughly equivalent. All hell breaks loose though, when the ratio is not in balance. Have you ever been satisfied with your job until you found out your goofy co-worker was making more than you … and suddenly you wanted to make more too? When we find out that someone is getting more than us, it rocks our world.

So, imagine how the employees NOT depicted on the Great Wolfs episode feel about their coworkers who did work with Schaffer and as a result got some pretty sweet rewards? Here were some of the rewards granted to the Great Wolf employees portrayed on the show: a consistent work schedule, a vacation, a paid for college education, a promotion to training manager. I think we all know the answer- I am betting the other employees are feeling that they were unfairly treated (and yes, all employees now get family discount days but let’s face it these don’t compare to the goodies enjoyed by their on camera colleagues).

So what happens next according to equity theory? Simple, people tend to: 1) Withdraw either physically (so they engage in tardiness, absenteeism, or just quit) or psychologically (so they check out mentally), 2) they reduce their inputs (so they don’t work as hard), or 3) they increase their outputs (employee theft, sabotage or other creative ways of getting even).

The Santa Claus CEO is not a syndrome limited to Kim Schaffer, but is endemic to the show and tempting to fall prey too. I would encourage the CEO of Great Wolfs to work on long term systemic solutions that have a broad impact on many employees and the entire organizational culture, rather than on short term interventions that help only a few.

Last Random Thoughts and Key Learnings

Here is something cool I learned from the show:

Question: What is an AFR?

Answer: An AFR is an Accidental Fecal Release.

In the show, the CEO had to pick up an AFR out of the water as part of her training by her supervisor.

For fun, let’s use AFR in a sentence. When my son was 2 ½ he had an AFR in the middle seat of a flight from England to the United States. Or, did my coworkers just have an AFR come out of his mouth—again? You can see, this AFR thing can be loads of fun!