What Makes This Ex-Undercover Boss Different? Love (and a Book)

Joel Manby
Joel Manby

Week after week, Undercover Boss features CEOs putting on coveralls, growing out their beards, and trying to blend in with their companies' rank-and-file workers. The tactic has mixed results: Some executives manage to disappear into their roles, some can't quite hide their near-manic enthusiasm for their companies, and some can't quite hide their contempt for the jobs that they are called upon to do. In concept, at least, the bosses are expected to learn from their experiences and develop better relationships with their employees.

Recently, a former undercover boss took the show's lessons a bit further: He turned them into a book.

A little over two years ago, Joel Manby, the CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment, appeared on Undercover Boss, where he got a close look at his company's amusement parks. This month, he released Love Works, a guide to effective business leadership that occasionally veers into a critique of the huge chasm that all too often exists between the shop floor and the executive suite.

A Different Perspective

Manby recently talked to me about his book. This was, admittedly, a bit uncomfortable -- When the show premiered in 2010, I was somewhat critical of it -- and of Manby's involvement. As a regular reviewer, I soon learned that Undercover Boss echoed much of the classism and condescension that seem to plague business community. In the best episodes, the program was a formulaic rehash of the classic Disney fairy godmother, as the hidden boss would right wrongs, fix injustice, and pay for their employees to go to college. In the worst episodes, as with Churchill Downs' Bill Carstanjen, the show was a barely-watchable demonstration of the contempt that many CEOs had for their employees.

In my preview of Manby's episode, a smidgeon of my cynicism peeked through, as I noted that viewers could expect the show's standard melodramatic mix of friends made, lessons learned, and justice served. To be fair, the episode did, indeed, contain those scenes, as the CEO learned about the tragedies that his employees have survived and the hard work that they do.

But, in an unusual twist, Manby's episode also explored the CEO's own struggles, including an impoverished childhood and a career in the auto industry that, literally, drove him to drink. As the show progressed, it became clear that Manby had a better than average understanding of the struggles that his employees faced.

It also didn't hurt that Herschend had an especially generous corporate culture. For example, while the employees Manby met received a bunch of bennies -- one got a raise, one got a grant to work on his home -- many of these came via an existing company program, Share-It-Forward, in which Herschend matches employee donations and uses the money to help workers who are facing difficult times.

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Lead With Love

In his book, Manby credits much of his corporate philosophy to Herschend. "I worked in the auto business for years, and grew very disenchanted with the mentality that I often saw at play," he recalls. "In general, too many of our businesses are set up for short-term results. I want to raise a discussion about the tension between what is best for employees and what is best for short term profit. Many short term profit decisions destroy the culture of a company and hurt its customers, which decreases profits over the larger term."

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At Herschend, this perspective translates into a leadership philosophy that blends respect for employees with concern for the bottom line. "The profit motive is important," Manby stresses, "but it must be balanced with a care for workers and customers." Part of this is embodied in Share-it-Forward, which, Manby points out, has gone from helping 40 families a year in 2010 to helping 800 a year now. "That's almost 10% of our seasonal workforce."

While Manby emphasizes that the Herschend perspective was in place before he appeared in Undercover Boss, he admits that his appearance on the show made him realize how uncommon his workplace environment was. "After the episode ran, I received letters and e-mails from across the country," he recalls. "I soon saw how widespread the leadership crisis was, and realized that my experiences in the auto industry weren't an isolated incident."

Systemic Problems

Manby points out that Herschend's Share-It-Forward program has its roots in a similar program at Walmart (WMT), but admits that part of the problem with America's business culture may lie in the focus on pushing stock prices ever-higher. Recalling his years at General Motors (GM) and Saab, he notes that there's a significant difference between companies that are publicly and privately owned. "There's no doubt that I'd rather work for a privately-owned company." Herschend, it should be noted, is privately owned.

For Manby, however, the larger question is one of values -- and of the fact that personal morality often runs headlong into the endless quest for profit. "You shouldn't have to leave your private values at the door," he points out. "Any leader who has a heart struggles with pain and suffering. Sometimes, you feel like you either have to shut out your emotions or get overwhelmed." But, he stresses, it's important to move beyond this struggle between morality and business. At Herschend, he claims, the corporate philosophy tries to integrate respect -- and love -- for employees: "We have six metrics for judging our company. The last is love -- the degree to which we show love for each other. For us, success is hitting all our numbers well."

This sort of philosophy is easy to hew to when times are good, but harder to indulge when times are bad. When the economic downturn hit Herschend, the company had to lay off employees. However, in many sections, workers and executives voluntarily cut their budgets, and even salaries, to help keep their fellow employees on staff. Ultimately, Manby claims, the company came through the recession in better shape than management had expected: "As far as I know, only corporate people were caught up in our layoffs at Herschend, and all of those laid off had found jobs, with our support, before their last day of work at HFE."

A Final Word on Undercover Boss

But what of his time on Undercover Boss? Manby admitted that the show was not entirely unscripted. To begin with, CBS controlled the people that he interacted with: "They pre-screened everyone at Herschend about a week before they taped the show. They wanted workers with engaging personalities and engaging stories."

%Gallery-156197%However, he emphasizes, his work wasn't scripted. In fact, he claims that he went in completely blind. "They didn't tell me anything about these people," he recalls. "I wasn't prepared at all."

Even so, Manby claims that the Herschend philosophy underlay his interactions with his employees -- and the show's upbeat resolution of its problems. That, he hopes, is what readers will learn from his book. "I want to show that love is the best leadership principle, I want to help leaders to enjoy their work, and I want to show that if we had more companies that really cared about their workers, we'd need fewer bailouts."

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at@bruce1971.

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