Undercover Lew

After the Super Bowl on CBS Sunday night was a new show called Undercover Boss where corporate CEOs get into the trenches with their employees to find out what working for their company is really like.

It was the most-watched post Super Bowl show since 2001 according to the overnight ratings.

In episode one, Larry O’Donnell, CEO of Waste Management, went undercover to find out, among other things, what cleaning latrines is like.

As The Wall Street Journal put it:

“In the pilot episode, the president and chief operating officer of Waste Management, Larry O'Donnell, helps an upbeat, smiling employee as he cleans out port-o-lets at a carnival ground. The third episode shows 7-Eleven Inc. Chief Executive Joe DePinto working on an assembly line making donuts. His voiceover reminds viewers that the convenience store chain has expanded its fresh-food offerings. Mr. DePinto says he saw the series as "an opportunity to showcase our people, our stores and the things we're known for."

Now, this isn’t really a reality show.

No one gets fired, bitten by a poisonous snake or has a girlfriend named Snooki.

And there is no doubt these big firm CEOs wouldn’t subject themselves to such public scrutiny if it didn’t all end with a great big PR kiss on the lips.

Still, I got to thinking ...

Could you imagine Lew Dickey, CEO of Cumulus – perhaps the most despised radio executive of the day (and that’s saying a lot with contemporaries like John Slogan Hogan at Clear Channel and Citadel’s Farid “Fagreed” Suleman) – going undercover to actually see if his policies actually worked?

I can imagine Lew going undercover to catch people making mistakes and of course, I am aware that Lew Dickey is a wanted man at Cumulus. His face is well-known to everyone who toils for him.

I mean, would Lew really want to discover the deleterious effect a Gary Pizzati station visit has on local radio clusters?

Would Dickey even be willing to sit through one of his own spy-in-the-sky sales meetings for an hour or more (piped in from Atlanta) if he really then had to go out to the street and come up with 12 new leads? Would Dickey see these meetings as the colossal waste of time as many of his sales people do?

Could Dickey Doo survive the mindf#@k that goes on everyday at Cumulus stations as the Dickey Nation gets to play with people’s lives and livings?

I don’t think Lew Dickey would be as brave as the Waste Management or Seven Eleven CEOs even if there were a PR bonanza at the end of it all.

This type of “undercover” scenario presumes that the person at the top actually cares whether his policies are helping or hurting company employees.

Dickey and his brother, John, were born with a silver microphone in their mouths. Obviously, they never took it out long enough to learn how to use it – after all, they owned everything or at least dad did.

One wonders if Lew Dickey could actually find 12 new leads each day.

How about each week?

Okay, how about 12 new leads, period – forget the time limitations. That’s what Cumulus is asking their lowly, unwashed salespeople to do.

I don’t like to get into a person’s personal life even taking poetic license here, but would Lew like to take home paperwork after he has failed to come up with 12 new leads during the day and then fill it out on his own time?

Lucky he’s a bachelor. Kids like to have dad read to them and actually be in the same room with them. Not possible if you work at Cumulus under their scenario.

Look, Dickey is not lazy. Far from it. He is motivated to succeed because the patriarch of his family has so designated him Dictator for Life.

There’s a lot of money in it for him.

If Lew had to go undercover and work for the peanuts he pays his employees, he'd get an ear full.

Undercover Boss presumes the CEO actually wants to find out how the other half lives and works or at the very least wants to be seen as a person who cares.

In one segment, O'Donnell was invited to dinner by a female employee he was working with who obviously did not recognize that he was the CEO. O'Donnell snapped up the invitation from this person who he could see was doing several jobs -- not just the one she was being paid for.

Sound familiar?

But at Waste Management, O'Donnell ate dinner at her house, met her husband and family and discovered that three generations were being supported on her salary. And he discovered that she had her house for sale because she couldn't afford to keep it.

Sound familiar?

What's different was that O'Donnell risked blowing his cover for the show to try to help her out (he eventually promoted her, had two people hired to take her former job and made her eligible for bonuses).

Sound familiar?

Hell no.

Dictator Lew would have shown her the door and dining with her family would have been out of the question. Dickey's don't do that. Thus, Dickey Doo.

Lew Dickey and Fagreed Suleman and Slogan Hogan seem to think they are running a reality show. That they get to play Donald Trump and bark, “you’re fired”. Even Trump isn’t that evil.

Meanspirited consolidators seem to enjoy hurting people. I say that because there is very little anecdotal evidence that indicates they care about their employees.

The Journal article also mentioned MTV’s new The Buried Life as “a feel-good series that contrasts sharply with the likes of its The Real World and Jersey Shore. Four friends travel the country trying to complete a list of 100 things they want to do before they die. Each time they check one off, they must help another person or group accomplish a dream of their own.

It isn’t that Dickey (and the other consolidators) cannot do it their way. It’s their company. They can do what they want even if it is destructive.

What is odious is the meanspiritedness of some radio CEOs (unfortunately the most powerful ones) in having their way with other people.

In the end, they’ve killed local radio and all the iPhone apps, HD radio and simultaneous webstreams in the world won’t put this genie back in the bottle.

But if Lew Dickey got to check off downsizing the sales force at Fayetteville, for example, as one of the top 100 things he'd like to do before he dies, he ought to also help those adversely affected accomplish a dream of their own. Just like in The Buried Life.

Like get a new job.

Continue to support the family, send the kids to college, salvage a great career.

And it’s easy to do.

Make the copy machine available. Write a personal "thank you" letter to each employee you let go. Give them free studio time to record demos (I hear voice tracking has made a lot of studios wide open). Make a call on their behalf to help them find a job. Extend benefits to allow the exiting employee make a transition to a new career in a bad economy.

All this costs little or nothing, yet it is rarely if ever done.

Spend just one week as an undercover boss and even the meanspirited among us will see the virtue of giving our brethren a helping hand when bad things happen to good people.

At the end of the show, Waste Management's O’Donnell confronted all the people he worked with when he was undercover. He did not fire them. He thanked them for helping him understand how his company really worked and the problems that some of his policies have caused.

When O’Donnell spoke to his management team and showed excerpts of his journey, one employee commented “All my hard work has been noticed”.

That, Mr. Dickey, is your answer. And it doesn’t cost a penny.

The number one thing people crave is not money (many surveys have proven that again and again).

Employees crave recognition.

Les Moonves has a hit on his hands. Watch Undercover Boss and while you're doing so try to imagine Lew Dickey cleaning out port-o-lets. Watch here.

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