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Trading places

Trading places
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First Published: Thu, Apr 08 2010. 09 21 PM IST
Updated: Thu, Apr 08 2010. 09 21 PM IST
Recently, the president and chief executive of a company that owns horse-racing tracks decided to go undercover. He decided to cover up his true identity, and then work on the tracks as an entry-level worker. This way, he assumed, he would be able to genuinely experience what it felt like to work on the front lines of his organization. With the little people. Far away from his CEO pedestal.
There was just one problem. William C. Carstanjen, chief operating officer of Churchill Downs Inc., which raked in $439 million from its horse-racing business last year, is absolutely terrified of horses.
Eventually Carstanjen is made to overcome this phobia by being assigned to wash horses. Seriously. By the end of the day and episode, for all this horsing around was for a new reality show called Undercover Boss, Carstanjen proves to be quite bad at front-line jobs. But it appears he has developed renewed empathy for his workers.
Undercover Boss might sound like a bad Honk Kong kung fu movie with unintentionally bad subtitling and intentional “marketing” nudity.
In fact, the show is generating some debate in the US. Viewers have divided opinions. Some enjoy the comeuppance that these CEOs are getting as they flounder their way through menial jobs.
Dave Rife, the owner of fast food chain White Castle, is a case in point. Rife blundered while working at the company bakery and trashed 4,800 burger buns.
If you are a recently unemployed American who simply cannot understand why Wall Street bankers were spending millions on redecorating offices, while downstairs bailout packages were being negotiated, Undercover Boss provides sweet schadenfreude.
“Shut up and wash that horse, Harvard boy...”
And then there are viewers who hate the show. Many detractors thought that the show was just an exploitative way to tap into American discontent. Others thought it was a farce and that there was no way top management was this ignorant. Some thought the whole thing was simply staged.
Unfortunately, Undercover Boss is only available in the US. And you don’t need me to tell you that downloading episodes from the Internet, converting it into a format for the iPod, and then watching it in the Metro, on the way to office, is a shameful crime.
So let us not dwell on the show itself. Instead, it is worthwhile thinking about the larger concept: top management being exposed to front-line jobs.
I was once told this remarkable story of the CEO of a Japanese company who visited his Indian factory. While being escorted through the factory by the local CEO, local CEO’s cabal and four young women—garland, bouquet, diya and memento givers—the Japanese boss notices something wrong with a machine. Immediately, he throws off his suit jacket, rolls up his sleeves and begins to cut and weld. There was a collective gasp. The local CEO, who’s only worthwhile muscle was the one that rolled the wheel on his BlackBerry, was scandalized.
And then it got worse. Japanese CEO asks local CEO to sit down on the floor and help him file a part. CEO looks around helplessly. Which is secret signal for: “Hello vice-president of personnel! What are you waiting for??”
The VP immediately stepped forward and began to file. Crisis was averted. But all over the factory, there developed the myth of the Japanese manager. The one who is groomed in the fires of the factory floor.
And not on a syllabus of PowerPoint, segmentation and strategy.
Then there is the school of thought that says blue-collar and white-collar are two separate universes and the twain should never meet.
According to that school, the CEO need not know welding. Instead, his jobs are to handle larger problems like strategy, finances, who gets a company laptop and whether Pune is a Class A or B city for travel per diem.
Which side of the fence are you on? Think your CEO should know how to do your job?
Or are you a CEO? Do you know what life is like in the trenches? Does it matter?
Meanwhile, I’ve been wondering how an Indian version of Undercover Boss would do. (Disclaimer: There already could be a Chiranjeevi movie called that.)
Would bosses agree to do this sort of thing? Even if they did, I foresee a major problem: the undercovering.
How many Indian CEOs could get away with identity change? Given our propensity for noticeboards, illustrated newsletters, annual report mug shots, and “About Our Inspirational Leadership” section on corporate websites, it would take a most reclusive CEO to pull this off. But if things work out, I suspect decent TRPs.
If not, I am sure there is a way to fit a swayamvar into it somehow.
Cubiclenama takes a fortnightly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at cubiclenama@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Apr 08 2010. 09 21 PM IST