More dangerous than Congress: Clueless CEOs

I’ve decided after watching a couple more episodes of the TV show “Undercover Boss” that the greatest threat to the U.S. economy is clueless CEOs.

They are a more serious threat than the U.S. Congress.

If you’ve not seen the show, it is a reality TV program that features a weeklong  visit by a company head, usually the CEO or president, to  a series of the company’s stores or facilitates.

These are generally medium-sized corporations, some with recognizable names, and engage in retail sales, food service, office management, trash hauling, and a variety of in-home services.

The show has featured tearful admissions by the grandsons of company founders promising to change after a week in the field showed how far the company strayed from the founders’ vision; showed a few CEOs coming back to their upper management and politely but firmly telling the VPs that they all need to pull their collective heads out of their collective asses because there are things that are wrong; and sorrowful and human CEOs responding to the individual tales of need and sacrifice their employees tell.

But the overriding conclusion from watching this show is that these CEOs are so far removed from the day-to-day  operations of their companies that they are astonished by the jobs their employees perform and how hard they work to pay that CEOs salary.

This is especially true of food-service executives.

One woman from a Canadian food company had clearly never worked in a restaurant, and as the program moved on, it seemed that she had not actually gone to a restaurant for a meal in many years.

She was flabbergasted that there was food to be prepared and floors to be swept, dishes to be washed and customers to be greeted.

My guess is the reaction came from too many corporate luncheons and years of having her secretary order lunch.

She reminded me of a Congresswoman about whom I had read several years ago. She had volunteered to live on $22 of food stamps for a week and wrote a blog about her experience. The experience fell apart when she realized that she did not have a toaster in her Washington, D.C. home.

I imagine she had one back home in Missouri.

In a show I viewed over the weekend, the CEO of a fast food company was amazed his manager assembled sandwiches for 10 customers in five minutes. When given the chance, he could not manage to assemble one sandwich in three minutes.   Three employees stepped in to get the customer flow back to normal.

Should he have known how to do make a sandwich? No. But he should have been embarrassed that he was so inept.

It ain’t that hard: Bottom bun, mayo, lettuce, onion, tomato; top bun, ketchup, cheese, meat. Fold and wrap.

One time, it is not that hard, but it not an unskilled job. Try doing it with 35 people in line who need to be served in 5 minutes. That is true multitasking.

But his body language showed that he wanted to be anywhere but on that sandwich line.

It raised the question: How do people in positions of power and authority relate to average citizens, average workers, in other words, most of us.

A word about these workers: They are us. They are also the population highlighted  in the United Way’s ALICE report on the lives of low and medium wage workers. (Link:

They are not, as the conservative media would have you believe, lazy.

They are performing work at a high level of efficiency often in outdated facilities, following top-down work orders devised in corporate think tanks, understaffed. They innovate, often making up solutions on the spot to keep the work flowing and the customers happy. They plan, they want advancement, they are dedicated to the company they work for and even defend it.

These people are the  face of the corporation to the public, which never sees the frustration and upset. They put on a smile and greet the next customer.

All for eight bucks an hour.

And their corporate CEO and his staff don’t even know they exist.

The TV show sets this up in the opening. The corporate head leaves their million-dollar home in a black $100,000 SUV and is driven to the airport where they fly to their first destination in the company’s private jet.

After the week in the field, they meet with the top staff, the chosen few sitting around the conference table in their thousand dollar suits, wearing Rolex watches, with $200 haircuts and manicures, where they are going to hear their boss tell them they need to relate better to the folks who haul garbage for a living.

The VPs respond to this with a look that says, “He’ll be OK after a few days back in the office.” Back inside the fortress; back in isolation.

To be fair, the CEOs generally respond well to what they see in the field, and to their workers’ situation.

But too often the solution they propose solves the problem next to the real problem.

They replace the 1960s intercom and pave the parking , lot, but fail to direct the VP of property maintenance to evaluate the conditions of each site and search for new, modern and probably less expensive methods.

They praise the local employee for establishing practices that eliminate workplace bottlenecks but fail to assign the VP of manufacturing the task of a companywide survey to search for similar solutions.

They give the employee ten grand to solve a financial problem or $50,000 to address a child’s health issue without proposing to examine the company’s pay scale or benefits program.

In some cases they provided advanced training, promotions, opportunities for a person to gain their own franchise, but I suspect that little overall changes took hold.

The CEOs went back to their spread sheets and their VPs went back to filing self-serving reports, once again insulating themselves from the real world of their companies, talking to investors and stockholders  about earnings ratios,  wage to sales differentials, their golf game and their golden parachute.

When if they paid more attention to the little people in the first place , their companies would be better off.

But innovation, change and employee engagement costs money and the stockholders don’t like to spend money.

So the CEO’s do nothing.

And collect their salary for it.

And when the customers desert them for a rival, they are clueless why it happened.

About michaelstephendaigle

I have been writing most of my life. I am the author of the award-winning Frank Nagler Mystery series. "The Swamps of Jersey (2014); "A Game Called Dead" (2016) -- a Runner-Up in the 2016 Shelf Unbound Indie Author Contest; and "The Weight of Living" (2017) -- First Place winner for Mysteries in the Royal Dragonfly Book Awards Contest.
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