Employee Engagement Tips From Undercover Boss
By: Eli Holzman
The success of the television series Undercover Boss would have been welcome any time, but the show came along at a uniquely fortuitous moment for our production company, Studio Lambert. It was our first show in the United States and while the benefits of a hit TV series need no explanation, there was a less obvious and, for me, entirely unexpected result that would ultimately shape our company; it would also become a valuable management lesson in cultivating employee motivation and employee engagement.
Filming a CEO’s Undercover Spot Checks
It started on the pilot. It was a great coup for us to land Waste Management (WM) and their boss, Larry O’Donnell. WM’s vast and varied operations stretch across the country and encompass hundreds of collection operations, transfer stations, landfill sites, waste-to-energy and recycling plants, along with a fleet of over 21,000 vehicles.
As Chief Operating Officer, Larry had oversight of all of this along with the more than 45,000 Waste Management team members who make their company run. Larry had been in his position for a few years at this point and had so much confidence in his operations — and such an earnest desire to learn how he could improve them — that he was willing to allow our camera crew to tag along as he went undercover within his company to spot check systems and their staff.
Our team, on the other hand, was brand new. Some of us had worked together before but many of us had not. Our first day filming with Larry was also our first day filming together. We were just getting to know each other and our roles and relationships were only just beginning to be defined.
As we struggled to stay on top of everything, traveling to a new city every day, shipping gear, moving staff, waking early, working late — I couldn’t help but compare my struggles in managing a 20-person operation with Larry O’Donnell’s aplomb in dropping in unexpectedly (and in disguise, no less) on some of his 45,000 employees.
It would not be the last time I marveled at the executive talent we were lucky enough to observe closely while filming this series. Of course, their undercover missions were not always easy ones, but suffice it to say, it takes a great deal of skill to manage the enormous companies featured on Undercover Boss. We were receiving weekly tutorials in the art of management from some of the very best bosses in America.
The Power of Team Effort
One lesson in particular has been especially resonant for me. I think this lesson lies at the heart of the show’s appeal: the importance of appreciating and acknowledging the contributions of every member of a team. It may seem simple, and I suppose it is, but it boils down to remembering to say ‘thank you.’
As we worked on our new book, Undercover Boss: Inside the TV Phenomenon That Is Changing Bosses and Employees Everywhere, we encountered the benefits and importance of this elementary idea over and over again.
At the end of each episode of Undercover Boss, our bosses reveal their true identities in one-on-one meetings with the frontline employees they’ve worked beside. In most cases, the boss has been impressed or moved by the employees. Often, they take the opportunity at these meetings to thank and appreciate those employees for their work. And as we’ve witnessed each week, these moments can be very emotional.
Watching these moments first hand, I couldn’t help but be moved to reflect on our staff and the contributions each person makes to this show. We obviously appreciate that each of us has a role to perform and that our success is largely the sum of those contributions, but it’s one thing to know it and another to say it and do it.
Seeing how moved the employees are when their boss thanks them — and watching as bosses see for themselves the incredibly hard-working and talented people who contribute to their team’s success — prompted me to take a fresh eye to our staff and to my style of management.
As we produced our first show and began to assemble our team in the United States, we placed a strong emphasis on appreciating all of our team members. The idea that we are only as good as our people was fixed at the forefront of our minds. And we knew that the best way we could attract and retain them was by acknowledging and appreciating their unique contributions. Undercover Boss taught us that.
Strive to Promote Employee Accountability
Over the past two years, Studio Lambert has grown quickly. Today, in addition to Undercover Boss, we have added four other series and even more pilots. Our shows reflect a range of styles and sensibilities, but they share a few common threads. They are the work of an engaged group of talented and passionate filmmakers who do much more than just come to work each day. From the lowest entry-level production assistant to the executive producers in charge of each show, Studio Lambert employs some of the best people that can be found in any position in our business. Each of them is the reason for our success.
This note is addressed to our people, to each of our team members, freelancers, vendors, executives and associates who contribute their talents and efforts to our shows every day. We can’t possibly say it often enough — Thank You. I would recommend this tactic for any business — large or small — that’s striving for success.
Eli Holzman is Executive Producer of the hit reality TV show Undercover Boss and author of the newly released book, Undercover Boss: Inside the TV Phenomenon That Is Changing Bosses and Employees Everywhere, published by Jossey-Bass.