There are CEOs who work their way up from the bottom, and there are those who look as though they've never done a day of manual labor in their lives. Stephen Joyce, the head of Choice Hotels International (CHH) who was featured on last night's Undercover Boss, the second type of leader.
In the opening shot of the show, Joyce comes across as the most abrasive boss yet. He even admits that it will be difficult for him to keep his mouth shut if he sees something that he does not like during his "undercover" assignment. Oddly, the company's web site promises that the program will give an "exhausting, first-hand look at the hotel industry." Joyce has headed Choice Hotels, which franchises 6,000 hotels, since 2008. He was at Marriott (MAR) for 25 years before joining Silver Spring, Md.-based Choice Hotels. One would think that Joyce, who earns $3.5 million a year running Choice, wouldn't need a refresher course in the hotel industry from a reality show.
Joyce's other challenge is that he is woefully out of shape: He probably should have spent less time at the breakfast buffet and more time at the gym before appearing on national television. (Come to think of it, I should probably do the same). The only reason that I even bring this up is that CBS (CBS) made a big deal out of it. The show features shot after shot of Joyce sweating profusely. He's also really, really slow. Tasks such as restocking a cart with cleaning supplies are as difficult for Joyce as running a triathlon.
"I am sweating like crazy, and all I seem to do is get behind," says an exasperated Joyce.
Christina, the hard-working housekeeping supervisor overseeing Joyce, bluntly says that her new colleague "needs to go to housekeeping boot camp."
Sweat drips down his face while he's cleaning the pool, causing him to remark that he "would be willing to pay $100 to jump into the pool." Good thing he doesn't say that while his boss is around.
First Humility, then Humanity
In one of the show's signature moments, Christina reveals to the "undercover" Joyce that she really wants to be promoted to be a general manager, but that she hasn't been able to get any training. Off camera, the CEO goes ballistic, furious that her managers have not told her about "Choice University," a training program. He also feels for Ricardo, a genial maintenance man at a dumpy Econolodge who is working two jobs to put his son through medical school. While "working" under salesman John, the loquacious Joyce becomes tongue-tied and awkward. And he almost blows his cover when introducing himself on a cold call as "Steve." But the story of front-desk worker Brandalyn seems to touch him deeply. Her family abandoned her after she became pregnant at 16.
"If Brandalyn had lived in my neighborhood, my mother would have brought her into our house," he says, with tears welling up in his eyes.
Joyce proves that the hit CBS show hasn't lost its way -- meaning that it relies on the same cliches that it pioneered last season: hard-luck employees with unbelievable tales of personal hardship, and out-of-touch corporate titans who get a lesson in humility. Then, as my DailyFinance colleague Bruce Watson so eloquently put on Friday, the CEO reveals himself "like a gray-suited fairy godmother" and solves his employees' problems. Christina and Bradilyn got a week's vacation and the training they wanted. John got to join the Choice Hotels global sales force. Ricardo got both a golf cart to make his job easier and a scholarship for his son.
This may make for entertaining television, but it's not reality.
It seems like the highlighted workers (if not their managers) are always noble, but in an economy where unemployment has been above 9% for months, just once I would like to see Undercover Boss feature an angry worker.