01 Sep 2010
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A CEO Goes Undercover

Real-Life Lessons from a Reality TV Experience
by Joel Manby

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As I reached out to shut off my alarm at 3 a.m. — wake-up time for my first day as a street washer — I wondered, “What have I gotten myself into?” Approached by CBS for its reality TV show Undercover Boss, I had agreed to work at different jobs in my company. But I would not appear as myself, the president and CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment (HFE), one of America’s premier, privately held theme-park operators. Instead, I would be “John Briggs,” a laid-off autoworker looking to reinvent himself in a new industry. Weeks later, even while struggling to learn some new task in the wee hours of the morning, I would realize what an incredible experience this had become.

I went incognito at four of our properties. The cover story was that the film crew following me around was making a documentary about John Briggs as he adapted to his new, unfamiliar job. In fact, I was eager for the undercover experience because I’d never worked the frontline jobs in the theme-park industry and didn’t want any CEO-type special treatment. Plus, I thought it would be good for employee morale to see themselves and the company showcased before a national audience. As “John,” I swept streets, took tickets, waited tables, window-washed gigantic fish tanks, and even cocaptained an amphibious vehicle. From those different vantage points, I wanted to see if we were true to our company principles and core values: being patient, kind, humble, respectful, selfless, forgiving, honest, committed, and putting the welfare and well-being of our guests and employees first.

I was paired with employees whom I had never met face-to-face. Each had a unique story. Richard, my street-cleaning supervisor, had seen a catastrophic flood destroy his house, leaving his family, including five kids, homeless. Yet Richard didn’t want a bailout. He told no one at work. HFE already had a foundation in place to help employees in such need, but Richard hadn’t applied. His incredible humility left me forever changed.

Working with Albert, a college student, as a ticket taker, I recalled how young people sometimes need a break. Albert, who was about to get married, was logging more than forty hours a week while earning a degree at night. While others might have griped or looked for help, Albert was determined to succeed on his own.

Working with single moms Mercedes and Jennifer helped me realize that during the recession, I had become withdrawn and detached, affected by difficult business decisions. They showed me the importance of getting back in touch with people. Mercedes’s story was particularly eye-opening. Before working for our aquarium, she had been homeless for eighteen months, sleeping with her son on the floor of his daycare center while she searched for employment.

So what then was my takeaway? I learned the family culture our company cherishes is alive and well because of the dedication of great employees. But I was also reminded that the enthusiasm our guests feel about our parks won’t rise any higher than the enthusiasm of our employees. And it is my job as their leader to be our employees’ champion — to ensure their well-being and remove obstacles so they can work productively and exceed our guests’ expectations.

As a result of the show, we made systemic improvements to assist all our workers, not just those I met. We beefed up our existing employee foundation and helped Richard apply. Through the foundation and the kindness of his fellow employees, we helped him fix his family’s home. We also added a single-parent component to the foundation to help workers like Mercedes and Jennifer with childcare. And finally, we established a new scholarship program to make it easier for employees like Albert to attend school while still earning an income from the company.

Richard, Mercedes, Jennifer, and Albert truly gave me a gift. Each taught me how to be a better boss. Even more important, they taught me how to be a better person.

— Joel Manby (MBA ’85), formerly CEO of Saab Automobile USA, leads Atlanta-based Herschend Family Entertainment, which owns, operates, or partners in 24 properties in nine states, including Dollywood, Silver Dollar City, and Stone Mountain Park. View Manby’s undercover episode.

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