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“What Working on ‘Undercover Boss’ Has Taught Me:” An Interview With ‘Boss’ Creator Eli Holzman

Undercover BossWhile it’s common to see film and television studios convert best-selling books to screen, rarely does it go the other way around. And yet, that’s exactly what Eli Holzman and Stephen Lambert, creators and executive producers of CBS’ hit show “Undercover Boss,” have done, with the release of their new book, Undercover Boss: Inside the TV Phenomenon That is Changing Bosses and Employees Everywhere.

“It’s the story behind the story,” Holzman said of the book in a recent phone interview. An extension of the television show, Undercover Boss features new, in-depth interviews with the bosses featured in the first season of the show, offering greater detail about what went on behind the scenes, how they changed since the show and where their employees are now.

But beyond the book’s entertainment value, readers will also be able to take away some valuable business lessons and management insights, as well. (The book even includes a “How to” guide for bosses who want to experience going undercover themselves.)

‘Boss’ as Business Book
If anyone can speak to the show’s value as a business tool, it is Holzman himself, who says that working on the show and witnessing what these CEOs experience first-hand has influenced the way he now runs his production company – and to which he attributes much of the success of the show.

“That message of appreciating people is a really powerful one, and it’s really good business,” he says. He has found that having people who work hard and dedicate themselves to their work and producing a quality product is a direct result of that message.

Holzman just may be on to something, because he’s clearly doing something right: Undercover Boss became the most-watched premiere of a reality series in history when it premiered to an audience of 40 million viewers last February – a number that surprised even the producers.

“We loved the show and we were incredibly proud of it, but we didn’t dare to dream it would reach such a wide audience,” Holzman says.

Tapping Into Americans’ Desires for Recognition
So what accounts for the show’s popularity? Holzman believes the show gets such a large audience because so many people can relate to it. “I think every one of us has thought at one point, ‘Gosh, if they only knew what they’re asking of me, they’d appreciate me much better.’ I think we all have that longing. And we tapped into that.”

He recounts one visit to a White Castle frozen food packaging plant, when the CEO was giving him a tour of the facility prior to taping.  In the middle of the tour, the CEO stopped to introduce Holzman to a woman working on the line, pointing out that she had a perfect attendance record going back nine years.  Recalling the look of joy on the woman’s face upon being recognized for the distinction, Holzman says, “I think that’s what’s at the heart of Undercover Boss: We crave esteem, and we crave recognition for our hard work…and when someone appreciates us, it means the world to us.” So when audiences see it happening on television, he says, “it touches a nerve.”

Hitting Close to Home
But it’s not only his audience with whom these stories resonate: Simply working on the show has pushed Holzman to try to be a better boss himself.  “People tell me ‘you made me cry again. Well, we cry when we make the show,’” he says of witnessing the emotional impact this experience has on both bosses and the people who serve them.

He admits that, early in his career, he gave little thought to developing his skills as a manager, something he now realizes is as important to the success of his business as anything else.

“One of the things that is really challenging for bosses of big companies, they have so much going on that they can’t immerse themselves in the details… however, as important as [things like the bottom line and key growth areas] may be, they don’t trump the vital aspect of the quality of your workforce,” Holzman says, recalling how Harvey Firestone used to say, “We’re not in the tire business, we’re in the people business.”

“It’s an old adage,” he admits. “But it’s true.”

Listening to Holzman talk, it’s clear that with both the book and television show, he is setting out to provide more than just entertainment value. “I like to think that we [the people behind the show] help our world to the extent that we can make a show that helps people understand each other a little bit better, that helps people appreciate each other a little more,” he says.

And while he admits that trying to make the world a better place is “a very lofty goal,” he also believes – after witnessing it firsthand – that it’s not an impossible one.  And with a new medium by which to spread that message, the co-author of Undercover Boss is that much closer to reaching this goal.

Eli Holzman is president and cofounder of Studio Lambert USA, where he launched and executive produced Undercover Boss. The second season of Undercover Boss airs Sunday nights on CBS at 9/8 CST.  Undercover Boss: Inside the TV Phenomenon That is Changing Bosses and Employees Everywhere is available for $24.95 by Jossey-Bass.

Mary Lorenz

About Mary Lorenz

Mary is a copywriter for CareerBuilder, specializing in B2B marketing and corporate recruiting best practices and social media. In addition to creating copy for corporate advertising and marketing campaigns, she researches and writes about employee attraction, engagement and retention. Whenever possible, she makes references to pop culture. Sometimes, those references are even relevant. A New Orleans native, Mary now lives in Chicago, right down the street from the best sushi place in the city. It's awesome.

There's quite the noble concept behind the show and I definitely think it brings to the forefront of most managers and business owners, that remembering and recognizing their works will go a long way both with internal development and external financial growth.


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