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What All CEOs Can Learn From an “Undercover Boss”

On Jan. 3rd, Sam Dushey, CEO of Shoppers World, a $250 million family-owned and operated discount department store chain, will appear on the CBS hit TV show Undercover Boss (8:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. ET). While undercover, Dushey visited four Shoppers World stores: two in New York (Queens and Brooklyn); one in Cleveland, Ohio; and one in the Atlanta suburb of Morrow, Georgia. CEO Briefing spoke with Sam about the lessons he learned that all CEOs can use in their own business.
Sam Dushey Undercover
Sam Dushey as Alex, on Undercover Boss
The real Sam Dushey
The real Sam Dushey

CEOB: You’ve been CEO for 10 years. Why did you decide now to go on Undercover Boss?
We’ve been growing at a rapid pace over the last five years, and a lot of changes have taken place. It’s not every day I get to see the results of those changes and how they’re affecting the stores firsthand. When I found out about Undercover Boss and saw that I would have an opportunity to do those jobs my employees do on a daily basis, I realized I would gain a lot of insight on how these changes are affecting our company on a daily basis.

CEOB: How did being on the show give you a competitive edge in handling these growth challenges?
I’m in a corporate office in New York and making daily decisions not knowing how those decisions are affecting the employee, affecting the customer, affecting the store environment. Being able to go into a store unknown and under cover and to be told, today you’re going to work the register, the stock room and do all these various jobs, so many things came to light. I found out that there are stumbling blocks holding the employees back from making them as successful as they should be. There were so many things that needed immediate change that I would not have seen working from the corporate office.

“Going undercover was the best opportunity to look myself in the mirror and see how I can improve as a leader and provide our employees with greater success and to give back to some of them for all their hard work.”

The key benefit was with each individual employee speaking out and having an opinion and being able to say what makes them successful and what’s stopping them from being successful. Under normal circumstances, most employees wouldn’t feel they were important enough to speak out and have an opinion.

Under cover, I saw direction given from corporate down to the stores and I realized some of that direction is incorrect and needs changing. The employees knew it needed changing, but didn’t think their opinion mattered. We’re trying to develop a culture where every employee’s voice can be heard.

CEOB: If you had not been on Undercover Boss, is there another way you could have gleaned the same information and insight in a timely manner?
No. I can tell you it’s not every day I get to go into a store as an employee, put on a uniform, hop on a register and ring up a customer. I don’t even think my district managers and regional managers get to do that. There is no comparing it to anything else. I don’t believe I would have had that experience unless I did this show.

CEOB: For the benefit of CEOs who might want to follow in your footsteps, what was that experience like?
The real benefit is I wasn’t the CEO for a week. I went through the process of hair and wardrobe. I had a different name. walked into the stores as a regular employee. I got bossed around. I got told what to do. I got judged on whether I was doing a good job. It was so much to take in. When I do a store visit as the CEO, even if i wanted to go to a store unannounced, they smell me from a mile away. I can’t walk through any one of my own stores without being followed and the entire company being alerted. so the anonymity of this opportunity was huge.

CEOB: What lessons did you learn that you might not have otherwise learned?
I would definitely say that it was all about the employees. I never realized that 99.9% of my employees want to be succesful at what they do. They truly care about their jobs. The only way for them to be successful is if I have the ground rules in place to make them successful. They just need the tools to do so. I never would have thought that when I was going into this. It’s the realization of how valuable the employees are and that they want to come to work every day and do the best they can do.

CEOB: Obviously all CEOs can’t be on the show. What advice for uncovering insight would you give to CEOs who don’t have the opportunity to go a program such as Undercover Boss?
I think they need to have their eyes and ears peeled at all times and listen to their employees. i don’t think my company or staff did a good enough job of ensuring that our employees were heard. The main factor that came out of this show was that nobody knows a job better than the employee doing the job. So they should listen very carefully to what their employees have to say and have a culture in place that hears their employees.

The Brooklyn store on Pitkin Avenue featured in Dushey’s Undercover Boss episode started as a small corner store and later expanded to cover a full city block. The Morrow, Georgia, store is one of the company’s hottest markets, while the Cleveland, Ohio, location is another of the company’s high-performing stores. Dushey previously worked at the Queen’s store, which the Dushey family founded three generations ago.

“It was an eye-opening experience to observe the people behind the scenes who are running Shoppers World without them knowing it was me,” Dushey said. “Going undercover was the best opportunity to look myself in the mirror and see how I can improve as a leader and provide our employees with greater success and to give back to some of them for all their hard work.”

Now in its seventh season, Undercover Boss is a two-time Emmy Award-winning reality TV series that follows high-level executives as they slip anonymously into the rank and file of their own organizations. Each week, a different leader will sacrifice the comfort of his or her corner office for an undercover mission to examine the inner workings of his or her operation.

Shoppers World, a full-line discount department store chain, operates in Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas and Virginia. It features fashion apparel and merchandise for all ages, including housewares, home furnishings and more. The company also carries a variety of fun year-round and seasonal holiday merchandise and toys. Visit for more information.


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