Family Businesses Go Undercover

Mark Green Photo
Mark Green

It can be a lonely place to lead a family business but CBS Television’s Sunday show ‘Undercover Boss’ has become a useful tool for many family business leaders to get a glimpse of how others interact and relate to their companies. This past week’s episode featuring family owned NASCAR was the latest installment of the top rated show.  ‘Undercover Boss’ has featured many family companies including White Castle, Herschend Family Entertainment, Hooters, and Great Wolf Lodge, as well as non-family owned companies including Waste Management.  In this week’s episode, The “Undercover Boss” had to be non-family executive Steve Phelps, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, because Brian France, CEO and Chairman is simply too well known in the NASCAR organization to be able to go “Undercover”.  

The typical ‘Undercover Boss’ features a CEO working incognito from the entry levels up the organization in multiple roles and gaining a new perspective on their company’s process and people. In spite of some slick Hollywood editing, a dash of cheesy music and a predictable formula of a story, it still results in a good hour of reality television which is not an easy feat in 2010. But perhaps the most useful aspect of ‘Undercover Boss’ to many of my clients has been the opportunity to see other leaders interact with their staffs. From running a meeting with their own executive teams to having difficult conversations with a manager that has not been doing his or her job.

‘Undercover Boss’ serves as both good and bad examples in leadership and tactical day-to-day management that many family business leaders simply don’t get an opportunity to see as an outside observer. Other clients have mentioned that the show has been a conversation starter with family members about what they observed in ‘Undercover Boss’ and a source of perspectives on matters of their own family business. Family members as young as eight have talked about what they have seen on the show, from the emotional aspects of employee’s lives to questioning the basics of customer service. ‘Undercover Boss’ has even brought some families together around the television on Sunday evenings like way back in the 1990s pre-TIVO.

Finally ‘Undercover Boss’ has emphasized the connections to the human element regardless of your level in the hierarchy of the organization. Each episode has reiterated the importance of a strong corporate culture based on treating the customer right, as well as living the basic simple values of the golden rule “treat others as you would like to be treated,” the central theme of ‘Undercover Boss’ that just happens to be part of the competitive advantage of a family business. This is one case of a television show being a useful reminder of never forgetting that the most important aspect of being in a family business is getting out of the corner office and managing by walking around once in a while.


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