March 1, 2010| 0

Television Series Review: Undercover Boss


Created by Stephen Lambert (CBS, The Learning Channel, Oprah Winfrey Network)

Americans feel deep cynicism and mistrust of corporate America. It is not surprising that this is the prevailing attitude, given the recent abuses and perceived arrogance of many corporate bosses, especially those leading commercial and investment banks. And yet...

TV series review by John Terrill

Reasons for hope

In "Inside the Great American Bubble Machine," a story it ran last year, Rolling Stone described Goldman Sachs, the most venerable of the investment banks, as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."

Strong words to express strong sentiments. And yet, corporate managers, public policy and religious leaders are working in unprecedented ways for reform. In 2008 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Bill Gates argued for a "creative capitalism," whereby big corporations would commit to serve the common good through their business operations. A book by the same name, Creative Capitalism, was published to record the ongoing conversation coming out of the Forum among senior leaders and advisors. Even the Vatican, as another case in point, has joined the conversation. In 2009 Pope Benedict XVI issued an encyclical on economic reform, Caritas in Veritate, in which he offers insightful ideas on reform without vilifying the capitalistic system.

American television and cinema have sided mostly with the negative, taking aim at corporate America, sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly. When anger, cutthroat competition and disdain aren’t the prevailing themes depicted, visual media lampoon the foolishness of work life, such as in the popular television show, The Office.

This is why I was so surprised to see a refreshing new series which recently debuted: Undercover Boss. The new CBS reality series (Sunday 9/8c and available to view online) follows high-level chief executives as they anonymously enter the rank and file of their companies. Their reason for going undercover is to understand operations at a grass-roots level. As they make their journey, which consists of a week of working mostly menial jobs, they find their fair share of inefficiencies; but more importantly, they rediscover the impact their decisions have on others, as well as the everyday heroic acts of the employees who make their companies run.

Some of the chief executives who go undercover include Larry O'Donnell, President and C.O.O. of Waste Management; Joseph DePinto, President and C.E.O. of 7-Eleven; and Dave Rife, Owner/Executive Board Member of White Castle. (Hooters President and CEO Coby Brooks also goes undercover, but I thought this episode was sub-par compared to the others.) To give you a snapshot of what they learn about the impact of company policies, Larry O’Donnell, Waste Management’s boss, while riding with one of his female garbage collectors, discovers to his horror that women drivers are often forced to pee in cups due to unrealistic time and route demands.

Against a backdrop of mostly negative portrayals of work life, Undercover Boss stands out. People want to trust and believe in their leaders and are searching for reasons to do so. The bosses who go undercover in this series restore hope. They recognize that business is at its best when people are valued and jobs are designed in ways that enable creativity and personal growth. They resist "executive privilege" to work alongside employees who do much of the unglamorous "heavy lifting" of making a business run.

As a Christian, I am encouraged by the show’s portrayal of servant-oriented leadership, which finds its highest expression in the life of Jesus, who "came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (See Matthew 20:28) For a glimpse of what business and its leaders can be and the positive impact service at the top can have on corporate culture, invest an hour in this inspiring show.

John Terrill directs the Center for Integrity in Business in the School of Business & Economics at Seattle Pacific University.

Want to read even more reviews? Check out Ethix online.

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