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New Best Buy CEO Will Not Be An Undercover Boss

Best Buy's new CEO, Hubert Joly, has announced he will spend his first week on the job working the retail floor at a few of the company's Minnesota locations. "The last time I worked in a store was in 1975," he says. Wow, this ought to be fun.

It's sort of like that CBS reality show Undercover Boss. You know, the teevee show your DVR starts recording before your kids change the channel without asking first. Or maybe that's just me. Joly, whose critics claim lacks retail experience, won't be hiding his 007 CEO identity from his fellow Best Buy co-workers, though. No, he says he wants to work cognito and be trained in the grumpy ways of customer service, ringing up returns, stocking items, and tagging along with Geek Squad agents. I guess he automatically gets the wingman front passenger seat?

This story caught my eye, because in the age of reality teevee shows we turn off after two minutes more CEOs are striving to look in-touch, in-tune, less in-humane, yada yada yada. I'm really the CEO and I care about you, SURPRISE!!! Or, like Best Buy's Joly, they're going on-site to get a better feel for the business. Just put me on the front lines, guys! Can someone show me how to use the scanner? Wow, things have really changed!

Now I'm all for senior management interacting with entry-level employees to get a feel for what's happening on the front lines. Kudos to leaders who take the time. It's a small act of bravery on their part. Steve Jobs, for one, was famous for taking customer service calls from real Apple customers. Management-by-walking-around in the age of social media is taking on new meaning, and managers must push the envelope by getting out of the C-suite and onto the sales floor. It's getting way too easy to hide behind a computer screen these days.

But let's look at this staged event from another angle. Can you imagine being a store employee at a Minnesota Best Buy and here comes your new co-worker who just so happens to be the new CEO? There he is, putting on the company t-shirt as his well-heeled public relations minders stand there checking their smartphones. Now he wants someone to show him where the stock room is, and how to ring up a return. Or maybe the PR people have pre-determined who will show him. Most likely it's the latter, and the anointed one is most likely the store manager.

Having the CEO work the front lines can be great for public relations, employee morale and for streamlining processes and procedures, but it can also be an incredible distraction unless it's planned well. It might also be a vaguely stressful experience for store employees, who are in the presence of a "trainee" who could fire all of them on the spot or close the whole store if he felt like it.

In these stressful times, large companies should ponder the impact of high-profile CEO visits on entry-level employees before the visit ever happens. What are the pros and cons, and how will we make sure the visit goes smoothly for everyone? Will the CEO walk the floor to meet all the employees, or only a few? What is the point of this visit?

Joly's assistants might also make sure he gets reaquainted with modern cash register technology before he starts work to avoid any George H.W. Bush grocery store-like moments.

I wish Hubert Joly well on his week's worth of in-store work adventures. I hope it goes well for him, and that he gets a better feel for the front lines. I also hope he doesn't have to change the roll of receipt tape in the register while impatient customers wait in line. Such a pain.


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