Waste Management’s undercover CEO

Since taking over operations at Waste Management six years ago, President and Chief Operations Officer Larry O’Donnell has kept profits moving up.

So why on earth would he agree to take part in a reality TV show that has CEOs spy on their employees? Why risk it?

In an interview for business management site BNET, O’Donnell says that at first, he found the idea crazy. Then he considered that for the past few years, he’d been trying to open up communication at the company.

So he took CBS’ offer to appear on “Undercover Boss,” its version of a British reality show in which CEOs secretly take jobs at the very bottom of their corporations to see how things really work.

O’Donnell worked on garbage trucks, cleaned out portable potties and collected loose trash—a job from which he got fired for working too slowly. Along the way, he found dedicated employees, some of them thoughtful and candid about what could be improved.

It shocked him to learn that his own policies had created hardships for employees. Ultimately, the CEO changed some policies and promoted the best employees he found.

Since the show aired in February (it was taped a year earlier), O’Donnell and Waste Management have been deluged with e-mail and web postings.

“Everybody in the company, they’re all talking about it,” he says. “They’re seeing how important it is to have open communication, talk about the issues that confront the company, and pull together as a team and solve these things working together.”

To keep the conversation going, O’Donnell has started making short videos about what he’s learned, and he plans to keep moving around making videos, “just to get people talking and get people engaged.”

Waste Management launched social media sites so employees could share their thoughts, and is working with Gallup on an annual employee survey.

O’Donnell also created a metric for employee engagement that drives the bonuses of front-line managers. “Engagement is critical,” he says, “and this is a whole new way to go about it.”

— Adapted from “Undercover Boss’ Interview: What Really Went Down,” Steve Tobak, The Corner Office, BNET, http://blogs.bnet.com/ceo/?p=3793.