Big Boss goes Undercover, Turning Waste to Resources!

Big Boss goes Undercover, Turning Waste to Resources!

In his undercover role, Larry learns that sometimes front office “efficiency” can undermine front line “effectiveness."
Monday, February 8, 2010 - 4:00pm


In his undercover role, Larry learns that sometimes front office “efficiency” can undermine front line “effectiveness."

Photo: CBS

It’s a plot line right out of an ancient fairy tale—where the king, disguised, spends time among his subjects to discover what their lives are like and what they really think of his rule.


In the premiere episode of “Undercover Boss” on CBS, Larry O'Donnell, President and COO of Waste Management, worked alongside frontline WM employees, cleaning porta-potties, sorting recycling streams,  collecting trash and picking up paper on the hillside of a landfill—even being fired for the first time in his career.

Right after the spectacular New Orleans Saints Super Bowl XLIV victory, CBS aired “Undercover Boss” for the first time. We get to ride along with “Randy Moss”, Larry’s alias as he trains as a recruit on several Waste Management front line jobs.  We are right there with “Randy” sorting cardboard and trash, riding in the collection trucks, meeting the people along the route, dealing with tough supervisors and getting sacked for not being able to pick up paper fast enough to make the grade.

In a past life as a corporate sustainability consultant, I learned and used to teach the value of what was called “management by walking around”, being on or at the front lines, knowing the people doing the jobs and seeing their challenges, frustrations and triumphs first hand. In an enormous enterprise like WM, that’s particularly challenging but even more important.

And “Randy” does the job well- even when he screws up. One of WM’s goals is to triple the amount of recycling the company does by 2020. Larry helps to set that goals back a bit by missing some cardboard on the line that jams the system, forcing a temporary shutdown in his very first assignment. But learning from what doesn’t work in a key to effectiveness in both nature and companies. “Randy” walks a mile in each employees’ shoes, understanding the tough attitude and real courage of the landfill supervisor on dialysis; the warmth and stress of the female driver woman who must keep up a breakneck pace on her route, (even to the point of peeing in a can instead of taking proper rest stops), yet finds the time to greet and even hug the people on her route.

In his undercover role Larry learns that sometimes front office “efficiency” can undermine front line “effectiveness." He also experiences the shock of losing a job despite your best efforts, and witnesses a woman in sneakers running from place to place, doing 2-3 jobs, weighing trucks while handling the phone- and still not earning enough to hang on to her home.

His own family story not only gives him a passion for safety and proper procedures but helps fuel the compassion to help some of these loyal employees and retain their good will, inventiveness and initiative for the company.

The funniest part of the adventure comes when “Randy” has to deal with the daily “s—t”—literally cleaning porta-potties at the fairgrounds. But it illustrates that even the dirtiest work can ennoble if approached with an uplifting attitude “Turning what’s nasty into something funny and fun”. It kind of sums up the whole waste to resources field and the task before on us on this blue green planet.

The piece is full of funny, tough and moving stories. But the most inspiring thread may be the genuine learning that transformed Larry on his journey across the front lines of his company.

As a WM employee, I just want to say that you did a great job, Larry. Really. The best. I have a degree in acting and directing, years of management consulting experience, and I think you’ve got real natural talent. By the way my name is spelled J-O-E L-A-U-R. Over here at Greenopolis, your brilliant little online subsidiary that gets more traffic than the main WM website.

Photo: CBS

Speaking of brilliant—watch our own Melissa McGinnis interview Larry about his journey in this exclusive Greenopolis video segment. Then stay tuned for more stories on “Undercover Boss”.

For more information about Waste Management, go to their website or follow them on Facebook

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Full disclosure: WM is greenopolis' parent company. is dedicated to our users. We focus our attention on changing the world through recycling, waste-to-energy and conservation. We reward our users for their sustainable behaviors on our website, through our Greenopolis Tracking Stations and with curbside recycling programs.