DirecTV's Michael White: The Best 'Undercover Boss' Yet

Michael White, CEO of DirecTV
Michael White, CEO of DirecTV

DirecTv (DTV) Chief Executive Michael White may have been the best Undercover Boss yet, although by the standards of the hit CBS (CBS) reality show, that may not be saying much.

The latest episode had all the hallmarks of the series -- a clueless boss who learns that life outside the corner office is hard and meets plucky yet determined employees who triumph over adversity -- that viewers have come to expect. In previous episodes, the drama always seemed staged and the rewards given to the hard-working employees who meet the boss almost fairy-tale-like in their generosity. This time, it was more believable because White was by far the most likable of any previous boss.

The 58-year-old CEO came across to viewers as a regular guy who also happens to be really rich. In fact, the employment agreement he signed with the El Segundo, Calif.-based company when he took the CEO job in January calls for him to receive a base salary of $15 million, according to DirecTV 's latest proxy. He also got a stock grant valued at $25 million over a three-year period. In 2008, White's compensation from his previous employer, PepsiCo (PEP), topped $10 million.

Investors seem to like him as well. Shares of DirecTV are up more than 25% this year, while shares of rival Comcast (CMCSA) only rose 6.52%.

A More Genuine Kind of Guy

What separated White from the other Undercover Bosses was his attitude. Maybe because he is fairly new to DirecTV and has no background in the satellite-TV business, White seemed to realize that he has much to learn. He also came across as being fairly humble. The show points out that he wasn't born to high station and that he's had his share of difficulties, including his son's battled with substance abuse. Though other CEOs from humble origins have appeared, when White made statements such as that he was excited to go undercover so he could see what makes his employees tick, he seemed genuine. His alias was Tom Peters, presumably an homage to the best-selling management guru.

As with other Undercover Boss episodes, this CEO was surprised to learn things that should not be surprises. At a service call in Alabama, White was stunned to learn that his supervisor for the day, Phil, had purchased his own GPS for his truck. Phil also was forced to spend 15 minutes on his cell phone in front of a customer to find an surprisingly hard-to-get HD receiver.

On a later mission, White meets Ryan at DirecTV's warehouse and soon discovers that the relationship between the warehouse and the technicians needs to be straightened out. One employee named Tequila worried White when she climbed on a roof in the rain. She, too, is forced to wait an eternity with customer service to get the customer's TV service activated. That's another problem that should have been brought to White's attention. White did the best at working with Chloe at the DirecTV call center though he got flustered when he accidentally called a woman "sir."

Low-Key Denouement

One of the things that drives me crazy about the show are the back stories of the employees, which though real often come across as contrived. The human drama was dialed down a notch in this episode. Phil was an ex-crack addict who runs a youth ministry. Ryan is a divorced dad with twin boys battling a degenerative back disease. The drama around Tequila centered on her being a woman in a job dominated by men. She missed her family reunion because White slowed her down. Chloe was a former foster child who's now working her way through college.

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The denouement also was low-key, a welcome change from recent episodes where the now-revealed boss made ridiculous gifts such as flying lessons or offers to send an employee's child to medical school, which seemed to be planned for the cameras.

Still, White did manage to brighten the employees' days. He gave Phil -- not surprisingly -- a GPS, along with a $5,000 donation for Phil's ministry. Ryan got a less physically demanding job and a birthday-party spectacular for his boys courtesy of the CEO. Tequila was named to DirecTV's Women's Leadership Exchange. White felt guilty because she missed her family reunion and paid for another one. Chloe got a $10,000 scholarship and a promise from White to be her mentor.

Though this episode was an improvement, the premise remains as realistic as a fairy tale, albeit one with middle-aged men (except for last week's boss) instead of magical fairies.