Businesswise | Bittersweet lessons from Golden Krust on 'Undercover Boss'
Last Sunday evening, social media was abuzz with excitement and sentiments of national pride as we prepared to watch Jamaican entrepreneur Lowell Hawthorne take centre stage on CBS's popular business reality television series Undercover Boss.
If you missed it, the episode is posted on YouTube and the Undercover Boss Facebook Page.
Though I shared in the joy and enthusiasm, I couldn't suppress my strong reservations about whether the show would help or hurt Hawthorne's Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery and Grill's brand.
With a weekly viewership of almost four million people, Undercover Boss is built on controversy and high drama. Disguised CEOs go undercover in their own companies, tricking employees as they work alongside them, doing the most menial and labour-intensive jobs.
Viewers see the good, bad, or downright ugly side of business as the CEOs learn how their businesses really operate and what their employees really think of them and the company.
Adding to the build-up of tension is the stark contrast between the lavish lifestyle of the successful CEOs showcased at the start of the show and the hand-to-mouth struggles of their employees, which manifest themselves as the show progresses. It's a corporate publicity gamble that some companies would understandably shy away from as there are too many volatile variables outside their control. That, in and of itself, is one of the most profound business takeaways.
Within the first 30 seconds of watching, I realised this would be a bittersweet experience for the Golden Krust family. This was the intro:
"Tonight on Undercover Boss, Lowell Hawthorne, president and CEO of Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery and Grill, goes undercover in his own company. This Jamaica-born immigrant with an appetite for expansion dons his dreadlocks and finds life on the road isn't so easy. Along the way, he'll find employees who don't think his company is full of sunshine ... . And will this laid-back leader be able to keep his cover from being compromised? Find out next on this episode of Undercover Boss."
During the intro, we saw clips (cutaways) of employees interacting with a disguised Hawthorne, making comments such as:
"We didn't come to America to skin teet and play games, bro."
"The Golden Krust franchise, they have a bad name. I would say to the owner of the franchise, 'Let it burn!'"
"There are warehouses where someone gets paid $15 an hour and they do half of the work that I do here."
From the viewer's perspective, the CEO learnt that his business was not operating as he expected. Hawthorne himself tweeted that this was one of the most "enlightening experiences" he had ever had.
Some restaurants had no recipe books or manuals. There seemed to be very little standardisation, some key established processes were not being followed, and some workers were disgruntled about their salaries.
Giving workers on-the-spot bonuses or random increases may look great for television but could have negative consequences for the business and organisational culture in the medium to long term.
Barring the few jarring comments and some provocative show elements, there was much for Jamaicans to celebrate. The promotion of Golden Krust stores was a huge plus, as was the spotlight on our food - delicious patties, tasty jerked chicken, sumptuous banana porridge, and savoury oxtail, to name a few.
Very important was that Jamaicans were highlighted as hard-working, ambitious, and visionary people.
Millions of viewers now know of a tenacious and inspirational Jamaican immigrant who has built a successful business selling authentic Caribbean food. We aren't simply 'laid-back' people, despite that unfortunate initial characterisation by the show's producers.
Sentiment aside, there are some other lessons we can apply to our businesses. Publicity can be positive and negative, so one must assess each opportunity, carefully weigh and manage the risks, and determine whether the pay-off will be worth it.
Also, there is often a disconnect between what managers think is happening and what really occurs. Senior management should hire secret shoppers and spend more time on the ground and in the 'trenches'.
Consistency is essential for any business, especially when it comes to food, yet even large companies struggle to get it right. Having documented manuals and training staff is a good first step, but not nearly enough to ensure procedures are being followed. This is why companies must engage in regular audits and assessments and take corrective action as needed.
Floor managers must also be empowered to lead and be held accountable. Aesthetics matter, so it's important to view the business from the perspective of your customers and ensure that the facilities and experience provided is on point.
Finally, businesses always have challenges management is unaware of. Therefore, we must constantly engage employees and customers in various ways to get feedback, look for opportunities to improve, and constantly evolve. Quite often, we learn and grow more from criticism and critique than from commendations.