Agency Management by TV Reality Shows

What Agency Owners Might Learn from ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ and ‘Undercover Boss’


Reality shows have taken over television. Every network has at least a few each week. They range from absurd spin-offs of Japanese game shows to personal challenges/competition to a day-in-the-life of somebody in New Jersey to the practical/educational types of shows. A few of these shows even offer some great management ideas. The American Management Association did a review of lessons learned from Donald Trump’s show “The Apprentice.” In this column, we’ll compare and contrast two business based reality shows to see what agency owners might learn.

The first show is “Kitchen Nightmares” starring Gordon Ramsay, who goes into a failing restaurant to breathe fresh life into it. The basic formula is that Chef Ramsay on day one checks out the “before picture.” He then evaluates the “mechanical problems” the owners have in running a restaurant (e.g. bad menu). He also addresses the “core issues” including personalities, conflicts among owners, lack of passion for the business, or just plain ineptitude. Magically, by the end of the third day he has addressed the core issues and revamped the operations.

This show is an excellent example of the trials and tribulations of running a small business. The owners are usually the chef, host or the maĆ®tre d’. They are typically in charge of everything, from soup to nuts… or at least should be. This is a good representation of many small agencies. There is no middle management and the owner is usually the “go-to-guy” for any problems.

The second show is “Undercover Boss” in which the CEOs of large corporations go undercover in their own companies. The CEOs step down from their ivory towers to mingle with the workers.

The boss pretends to be a new hire competing for an entry-level job. One of the employees tries to train the “undercover boss” to do the typical day-to-day tasks. This fabrication allows cameras to follow the boss around as he or she is being trained for a new position.

Without fail, the eyes of the CEO are opened to some major deficiencies in the business as well as to the skill and value of its workforce. After a few days in the field, the boss reports his findings back to the board. He then reveals himself to his employee/trainer as the company CEO. There is often a “feel good” resolution to the problems uncovered, including the personal problems of the employee/trainer.

This show makes it clear that one does not need to know anything about a company’s product or service in order to manage the business itself. It is a helpful reminder that owners should be working “on the business” and not necessarily “in the business.”

Both shows offer excellent business and management advice. Ramsay acts as both a consultant and implementer in turning around a failing business. He has the experience to relate to the restaurant owners, and he knows what works and what does not. On the other hand, “Undercover Boss” is more of a demonstration of problems faced in a large business, including the chasm between management and employees.

Lessons from ‘Kitchen Nightmares’

Ramsay (at least the TV version) is an excellent management consultant. He does not waste any time changing what needs to be changed, including the attitude of the people in the restaurant. The basic management lessons from “Kitchen Nightmares” include the following:

There are no pure “business problems.” Things other than “business problems” cause business problems. The root cause is “people problems.” The lesson for agency owners is that when trying to resolve problems, step back and take a look at the big picture. Don’t be afraid to address the “people problems” associated with the business problem. Usually there is at least one team member who stands in the way of progress. Sometimes that team member is the owner.

Be clear and direct in communication. Often, the genesis of “people problems” is related to communication problems. Ramsay is direct. Very *** **** direct. No one is left with any doubt as to what the problems are or what needs to change. Agency owners need to adopt a clear and direct way to communicate their important thoughts. Otherwise, employees will fill in the void.

Less is more. One of the first things that Ramsay does is simplify the menu. Too often, the restaurants are trying to have something on the menu to please everyone. This makes things too complicated for the chef and it also confuses the customer. Don’t try to be all things to all people. Find the core business product or service in your agency and focus on that. Focusing on the core product allows employees to become highly productive.

Be passionate about the business.Too often, owners as well as employees get burned out after years of mediocrity. Ramsay shows the value of being passionate. He loves every element of a restaurant, from the food to the decor to customer service. Small business owners have to at least like what they do. The more passion for the business, the better it will be.

Develop a signature dish. It is important for a business to create one thing the business does better than everyone else. This could be a special niche or an exemplary service. Then market the heck out of it.

Don’t forget, it’s a business.Many owners make decisions to please customers that end up being bad business decisions. Some restaurants will offer extra large portions. The food is often wasted and not appreciated. Owners must keep expenses in line while making sure they are paid for their efforts.

Let them shine. On numerous shows, there is a member of the restaurant team who is overlooked or underplayed. This could be a waiter or chef. Ramsay has a knack for identifying personnel who just need to be given the opportunity to shine.

Let them thrive. Give people responsibility. Congratulate them when they do well and pick them up when they fail. Let go!

Be consistent.Ramsay will send back food that does not meet his standards. Set high standards for the agency. Everyone deserves the best effort from the agency, all the time.

Focus on the customer.Ramsay drills into the owners and staff to focus on the customer. This is key to success in any business.

Lessons from ‘Undercover Boss’

In contrast to the “hands on” approach on “Kitchen Nightmares,” “Undercover Boss” reinforces the idea that to run a business, one does not need to know its technical aspects. In the show, CEOs of large corporations are oblivious to what really happens in the business. For example, the chief operating officer of Subway admitted that in the 22 years of his employment, he never once made a Subway sandwich. The CEOs in the show for the most part are unable to do the tasks that they ask their employees to do.

Another pearl of wisdom from this show is that Management by Walking Around is very valuable. CEOs do not need to crawl under the house to inspect for mold, but they do need to appreciate what is expected from their employees.

Other lessons from “Undercover Boss:”

The customer relationship is what it’s all about. The CEO of 7-11 found out that the reason a Long Island franchise sold the most coffee in the chain was the relationship a single employee had with the customers. It was that simple. The lady knew everyone and they came in to buy coffee because of her. Insurance is clearly a “relationship” business, too.

Employees are the key to customer relationships.This is a main theme in every show. Without great employees, there is no great customer relationship. Find those employees who make a difference and reward them. Get rid of employees who don’t have a focus on customer service.

Employee training is important.The CEOs in the show demonstrate that they do not have the skills and competencies to do the jobs they expect the employees to do every day. Employee training is important to every business. Agency owners need to understand that to grow the business, employees need to grow as well.

Bottom Line

The basic concepts of running a business are universal. The great thing is that an agency owner can model success by watching a TV show. Don’t underestimate the power of Hollywood!

Topics Agencies Restaurant

About Catherine Oak and Bill Schoeffler

Oak is the founder of the consulting firm, Oak & Associates, based in Northern California and Central Oregon. Schoeffler is an associate of the firm. Oak & Associates. Phone: 707-935-6565. Email: catoak@gmail.com. More from Catherine Oak and Bill Schoeffler

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Insurance Journal West March 7, 2011
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