Companies & Industries

Book Excerpt: Undercover Boss


As Chris McCann discovered, being president of 1-800-Flowers.com isn't much of a power trip when you come face to face with a giant chocolate-enrobing machine

Chris McCann, second-in-charge at 1-800-Flowers.com (FLWS), learned business lessons both micro and macro when he labored incognito on the production line at a Fannie May factory for the CBS reality TV show Undercover Boss in early 2010. At Fannie May, the candy business his Carle Place (N.Y.)-based company acquired in 2006, he realized the importance of including front-line workers in the decision-making process for determining production goals. "Most of the time they'll set a higher goal than what I would have come up with on my own," says McCann, president and COO of 1-800-Flowers.com.

As for the micro lesson from his stint packaging chocolate-covered pretzels as they rolled down the conveyor belt: "As soon as you miss one little bit, things really go downhill. It was also disappointing to learn that they were slowing things down a little for me, and I still couldn't keep up."

Regardless, he believes all businesses should orchestrate some kind of job-switching program. "We have two management philosophies," says McCann. "No. 1 is 'Just do it,' like Nike (NKE), and the other is the Reebok philosophy, which is cross training. Every year, step up and take the job to your right. You may hate it at first, but then you'll see how it can help you do your own job better." The following is an edited excerpt from Undercover Boss (Jossey-Bass, 2010). —Rebecca Reisner

Although Chris's hands-on knowledge of chocolate was limited to eating it, he had some concrete goals in mind for the day he'd spend on the line at the company's Fannie May factory. "Right now, the plant produces about 10 million pounds of chocolate per year. I need to make sure we can ramp that up to anywhere between 16 and 20 million pounds per year to meet the kind of demand we project our online operations will generate."

One of the people he'd be relying on to meet these new production goals was Nicole, who'd be his trainer for his day undercover. Despite having worked at the plant for only four years, the 36-year-old was responsible for supervising the operation of one of the more important pieces of equipment in the factory: the enrober. The giant machine takes anywhere from 7,000 to 11,000 pounds of pretzels an hour and covers them in chocolate, sending them down conveyer belts to be bulk-wrapped and packaged for shipment in 30-pound cartons.

With visions of the classic I Love Lucy episode running through his head, Chris was stationed at one of the "bulking" positions, where he'd be responsible for assembling and positioning cartons to catch the finished chocolates as they fell off the belt. Chris did his best to bounce between the box station and the belts of streaming product, but he barely managed to keep up.

After a short while, chocolate covered pretzels were scattered across the floor at his station. Chris's frenetic efforts were offset by Nicole's calm, efficient assistance. Whenever the pace threatened to become overwhelming she would step in and handily set things right and then depart again, leaving Chris to struggle.

As the shift wore on, Chris found the best he could do was to apologize for failing to keep up. He asked Nicole about the factory's productivity goals and who set them. She explained that the target at this station was 1,100 pounds an hour, and confessed that she had no idea how management had come up with the figure, seeing as how "the people who set the goals never come out to see how hard we have to work." Chris was stunned. The managers of the chocolate factory were some of the top operational executives in the company, and the plant appeared to be one of the company's best run business units. And yet he had just experienced firsthand an exceptionally tough productivity mandate set by absentee management.

As the day wore on, Chris developed a rhythm for the job, and the piles of chocolate-covered pretzels littering his work station shrank. By the end of their shift, Nicole actually high-fived him for exceeding the goal. But when Chris expectantly asked whether there were incentives or bonuses in place for beating targets or exceeding their goals, Nicole told him that none existed.

Reflecting on his debut as a chocolatier, Chris pointed out that "this was a great lesson illustrating that no matter how productive you are as a manager and a leader, it's vital that you also connect with your people. We should be doing that. That's the way Jim built our company: by listening to the workers. That's how we learn. I can't help wondering how much more productive we could be if we listened to people like Nicole and engaged them in the process. There are all sorts of different studies on why employees stay or leave a company. Compensation is never at the top of the list. It's always whether or not they feel connected. Two ways to foster that are to recognize their contributions and to ask for their input."

Chris began instituting changes as soon as he arrived back at the company's Carle Place headquarters. His coworkers from his undercover experience had all been brought to Long Island, still unaware of the identity of their trainee.

Nicole looked nervous when she found out Chris's true identity, but his smile put her at ease. Keenly aware of how hard Nicole worked, Chris promised that she would be part of the process of setting production goals from now on. "Not only that, but your hard work and great attitude inspired me to create an incentive program so you can make more money when you exceed your goals." Nicole was grateful, not just for the promise of input and bonuses but also for someone noticing how hard she worked.

Excerpted with permission from Undercover Boss: Inside the TV Phenomenon That Is Changing Bosses and Employees Everywhere by Stephen Lambert and Eli Holzman with Mark Levine, Jossey-Bass, 2010.

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