Why you should go undercover

Sunday night, I watched an episode of Undercover Boss, the new “reality TV show” that takes a company’s leader and puts them “undercover” on the front lines with the employees. The show featured Joe DePinto, the president and CEO of 7-Eleven, Inc., who spent a week disguised as “Danny,” a guy starring in a documentary on entry-level jobs. During this period, he spent time at several 7-Eleven stores and a factory, working alongside employees while investigating the challenges they faced and successes they accomplished.

Perhaps his most significant finding was the individuals within his organization – not necessarily specific markets or processes – were most often responsible for the company’s strengths. At the 7-Eleven that sold the most coffee of all the franchises, for example, DePinto found the high sales numbers were the result of the strong customer relationships formed by a 20-year veteran of the business.

But by being on the front lines, he also uncovered many obstacles faced by his employees. A dedicated young man who had spent the past four years working the night shift so that he could afford to get his bachelor’s degree during the day didn’t see a future with 7-Eleven, for example. One of the highest grossing franchises was unable to get timely assistance from 7-Eleven in maintaining its building. And DePinto found that while 7-Eleven had several programs in place to direct leftover perishable goods to charities, some stores weren’t aware of and weren’t participating in the programs.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the “undercover” concept has serious value for individual dealerships and manufacturers in our industry. While owners and managers are already working on the front lines in many of the boating industry’s smallest companies, in general, the more that management can learn about the day-to-day experiences of their customers and employees, the more effective they’ll be in their jobs.

But where our industry could really benefit from this concept is in the relations between boat builders and dealers. Nowhere in our industry does there seem to be more of a disconnect between two groups, and no other connection is more important to the industry’s success. In my mind, it’s a two-way street. Dealers need a better understanding of the challenges and accomplishments of their boat builder partners, and vice versa. But the only way that will ever happen is if both parties acknowledge how important each other’s success is to their own success. And then begin investigating how they can help make each other more successful.

Perhaps a boat company CEO will never have the opportunity to sell or service a boat at a dealership – and perhaps a dealership owner will never work on the production line at a boat building firm, but the closer each can get to that point, the better off they’ll be, their customers will be, and the entire industry will be.


  1. Good points made Liz, the best leaders are those who know what it’s like in the trenches–and their staff admires them for not being “beneath” getting in their with them! Glad to hear that there is something to be learned from TV these days–it seems like there is precious little there worth watching!

  2. Liz, The undercover boss is a entertainment program if not a paid pr program. Isn’t it great he went undercover and saw how great his own company and employees are.

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