W&D: Undercover Boss – Waste Management


Last night was the premiere of Undercover Boss, a new reality show that puts CEO’s face to face with their front-line employees and the challenges they encounter on a daily basis. This week it was Larry O’Donnell with Waste Management. In working front-line positions, Larry got a new-found appreciation for the people of Waste Management and what they do. Of the experience Larry stated, “‘I thought I had a good understanding, but I was wrong.”

If you missed the episode, you can see it here.

So far I’ve read a lot varied opinions about the show, and would love to hear what YOU think.

Here are some of my observations, from a leadership perspective:

Larry started seeing his employees as people.
When this happened, he realized that the decisions he had been making about productivity were doing the exact opposite of what he intended. While he wanted to run an efficient company, it was happening at the expense of the happiness and comfort of his employees. Case in point: a female route driver was under such pressure to finish her routes and be productive, she was afraid to stop and use the bathroom. She felt like she was being spied on by her supervisor and that if  a directive “came down from corporate, that’s just the way it was.” Larry saw that the true value of the route drivers was the relationships they had with the customers, because they were the face of the company, not him.

Larry saw that some people are overworked. When visiting one of the WM landfills, he met Jaclyn, an office manager, admin assistant, scale supervisor, and the list seemed to go on and on. Her multitasking was the result of being more “efficient” with resources while trying to achieve a lower payroll percentage. Larry seemed to be most impressed by the fact that Jaclyn, with many other hardships in her life, took it all in stride. In the end, Jaclyn was promoted to Supervisor and allowed to hire two other people to work for her. When asked how it felt, she said, “Unbelievable! All of my hard work as been noticed.”

Larry found people with special talents. Freddy G. was a guy who could make the nastiest jobs fun, and Walter was a motivational leader, using personal health problems as inspiration to accomplish more than most thought possible. Freddy G. was asked to speak to the senior leadership team about staying positive and Walter became a health mentor for the company.

Larry found that policies were broken or not being enforced correctly. At his first assignment at a recycling plant, Larry was eating lunch when a co-worker ran out of the room to punch in. ‘I only get a 30 minute lunch break”, she explained, “and I get docked 2 minutes for every 1 minute I am late.” Of course after she punched back in, she went back to the break room to finish her lunch. Larry didn’t think this was right, so he called in the manager (Kevin) of that location. He made sure that Kevin understood this wasn’t the right thing to do and that there had to be a better way. He asked Kevin to work on it and get back to him.

I think ultimately what stuck with me is how important it is to stay connected to the front-line of any business. It’s great that the CEO’s of the world get experience this from time to time because they can really see how their decisions impact the true face of their business. The other BIG lesson for us non-titled CEO’s, is that there is no reason we can’t ACT like a CEO. Larry had the power to fix the problems he saw, probably the same problems that his mid-level managers noticed, but those managers didn’t know what to do about them (or were too scared to try). We have that same power if we decide to use it. Just because we are not the final decision maker doesn’t mean we can’t make a decision.

That may be something else Larry needs to look at to make sure these changes and new outlooks are sustainable. He can’t be out there every day, so he needs to count on his mid-level managers to carry out his vision and to challenge back when things go too far. Larry seems like a smart guy, and I think he’ll take a look at this as well. Once he realized that is was his decisions and directives that made his employees more frustrated and less productive, he set plans in motion to fix it.

What did you think?  Add a comment!

Thanks for reading!

Next week: Hooters

One thought on “W&D: Undercover Boss – Waste Management

  1. Pingback: Biting the hand that could feed you « LeaderTips

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