On Sunday, Oct. 10, DirecTV (DTV) CEO Mike White will become the latest corporate executive to don a scruffy beard and a baseball cap in order to appear on CBS' (CBS) Undercover Boss. Posing as an entry-level employee at the company, he will go on service calls, work in one of the company's call centers, and spend some time in its warehouse.
This week's episode should offer an interesting take on a recurring theme of Undercover Boss: the embarrassing disconnect between the average worker and the head office. Week after week, CEOs and presidents strip off their ties and suits, grow odd-looking facial hair, and head off to work on the front lines of their companies.
During their brief sojourn on the other side of the big desk, they inevitably are shocked by the fact that their workers have problems and personalities, concerns and issues of their own. Sometimes the bosses cry and sometimes they rage, but mostly they seem to be surprised and blindsided, like an extremely well-paid deer caught in a pair of headlights.
If the bosses seem baffled, the workers don't seem much more perceptive. Week after week, credibility is strained as the executives' flimsy disguises seem to hold up under scrutiny. The undercover boss inevitably goes to work, seemingly disappearing into the identity of "Randy" or "Todd," a late-forties, down-on-his-luck drifter from another town who happens to be applying for an entry-level job with a camera crew in tow.
More than anything, the show demonstrates the painful lack of internal communication at most of these companies. For the folks in the boardroom, the register jockies and mop pushers seem to be beneath interest; for the front-line workers, the bosses are like Olympian gods: capricious, often incompetent, and completely divorced from their realm of existence. Neither side comes out well: The execs are shamefully unconcerned about their workers, and the workers are surprisingly ignorant of their employers.
CEO Sees Undercover Role as "Great Education"
In that regard, Mike White should provide a welcome change of pace. The CEO probably went into his undercover experience with no more understanding of the rank and file than Churchill Downs' Bill Carstanjen (still the show's gold standard for executive incompetence and condescension). However, unlike the hapless and horrendous Carstanjen, White has a great excuse for his ignorance: He's only been at DirecTV for ten months.
Before January, White was a Pepsi (PEP) man. Hired in 1990 as Vice President of Planning at Frito Lay, he spent the next twenty years working through the ranks, ultimately becoming CEO of Pepsico International in 2003 and Vice-Chairman of Pepsico in 2006. He has also worked for Avon cosmetics and sits on the board of directors at Whirlpool (WHR).
To put it mildly, the shift from packaged foods to entertainment services is a major one, but it has been a profitable ten months for DirecTV. Under White's direction, the company launched three 3-D channels, expanded its popular "NFL Sunday Ticket" option onto an online site, and increased the number of subscribers. So far, his moves have worked out nicely: The stock recently hit its highest price ever.
For that matter, White seems to have used his Undercover Boss experience to great effect. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, he noted that the two weeks he spent working on the show were "a great education in the nitty gritty" of DirecTV's business. With what appears to be a solid feeling for the company and a newly minted familiarity with its ground-level workers, White seems well prepared to lead DirecTV.