Who's the Boss?
Larry O'Donnell is one of the first bosses to go into the trenches. For years, Larry has been the man in charge of Waste Management, the largest trash and recycling company in North America. As the chief operating officer, Larry is responsible for the company's $13 billion business, 45,000 employees and 20 million customers. "I've had a lot of nice opportunities come my way that've allowed me to progress in my career," he says. "I've been very fortunate."
For one week, Larry travels the country, posing as Randy Lawrence, a man who's shooting a small TV show about entry-level jobs at Waste Management. "I'll be traveling location to location and staying at budget motels as if I really am an entry-level recruit who's new to town," he says.
Sandy, the Waste Management employee training Larry, instructs him to pick up trash, cardboard and recyclables off a conveyor belt and place them in the right receptacles. The only problem? Larry can't keep up with the piles of garbage, which whiz past. Within minutes, Larry says he's sweating bullets.
"I wasn't prepared at all," he says. "I work out every morning. I think I'm in pretty good shape, but that reaching and trying to visualize what's coming down the line so you know what to pick off, it was not only physically demanding, but the mental stress..."
Maybe Larry will be better at his next job—picking up litter at one of the company's landfills. Walter, his boss for the day, asks Larry to collect paper that's blowing away from the landfill and put it in a garbage bag. "Every 10 minutes, you should have a bag filled and ready to go," says Walter, who completes this task with no trouble...despite the fact that he's on dialysis for kidney problems.
Ten minutes later, Larry's bag isn't even half full. "You're not cutting the mustard," Walter says. "I'm glad you came to Waste Management to try it out, but you just don't have it."
Larry says this is the first—and hopefully last—time he's been fired from a job.
While Janice likes the company and has great relationships with many of the people on her route, she tells her "trainee" that Waste Management isn't very female friendly. To prove her point, Janice shows Larry her portable toilet—a metal can she calls her "pee can."
"When you're a female out here working on the garbage truck, this is our outhouse," she says. "You obviously can't keep breaking off route all the time to go use the restroom."
At that moment, Larry says he started thinking, "Why is she peeing in a can?" Though it's not a corporate policy, Larry blames himself. "It is my failure to not have thought about that," he says. "And to say, 'We need to make sure that we have a stop on people's routes.'"
At the Waste Management offices in Fairport, New York, Larry meets his next boss, Jaclyn. Since the office is short-staffed, Jaclyn juggles many jobs, including office manager, administrative assistant, scale operator, scale supervisor, accounts payable and payroll.
"I make the same amount of money for doing dual roles or triple roles or quadruple roles," she says. "I don't even know how many."
Jaclyn gets her jobs done without complaint and tells Larry why she wants to get the most out of life. "I experienced a lot of health problems in my life. By the time I was 21, I had a total hysterectomy. I battled five forms of cancer before I was 25," she says. "I'm not the average 29-year-old girl. Someday, I'm going to run this place."
Before they arm themselves with hoses, Fred explains his work philosophy. "It isn't just a job—it's an adventure," he says. "I call it the battlefield of poop. I say: 'Good soldiers endure. Even if you get a little splatter on you, you're wounded but you keep going.'"
Larry gets off to a slow start. "Your productivity, as far as your speed, just a little bit faster," Fred says. "You want to do at least 15 cans within an hour."
Cleaning toilets is a far cry from corporate life, but Larry says Fred's positive attitude and fun-loving spirit made this the best job of all.
At the end of the week, Larry reveals his true identity to Sandy, Walter, Janice, Jaclyn and Fred and reflects on what he's learned from these hardworking men and women."What I took away from that was just an entirely new appreciation of what our frontline employees have to deal with each and every day and how my decisions can impact them," he says. "I thought I really had a good appreciation of what our folks deal with. I felt like I was approachable. I felt like I've engaged our employees, but this gave me an entirely different perspective."
For example, he invites Janice to be part of a Waste Management task force that's dedicated to improving conditions for female employees and asks Fred to share some of his inspirational spirit with the company's senior leadership team. To reward her for her work, Jaclyn is promoted to a supervisor position and put on salary.
Looking back, Larry says this experience helped make him a better manager and a better person.
"On the personal level, I am blessed. I have so many great things in my life. I have a wife that I've been married to almost 29 years and a wonderful family," he says. "[And I have] great employees. ... Every job I had, the people welcomed me in. They truly cared about me as a person and wanted me to be successful and be part of that team."
While undercover, Joe's alias is Danny Rossi. "My cover story is that I used to be in real estate, I'm out of work, and I'm looking for new opportunities," he says.
For his first assignment, Joe signs on for the night shift at one of the franchises. His co-worker, Waqas, asks him to greet customers, stock merchandise and perform the regular cleaning duties. "We have to keep these restrooms clean, four or five times a night," Waqas says.
The yawns start after a few hours on the job. "This night shift is a tough time to work," Joe says. "You're taking care of the 1,000-plus customers a day. So the challenge for me will be keeping that energy up."
Joe reports to work at 5:30 a.m. and meets the secret to their success—Dolores. This coffee queen has been working at 7-Eleven for 18 years, and she knows many of the customers by name. Outside of work, Dolores is raising five kids and dealing with serious health problems. She only has one working kidney and must have dialysis twice a week. "To have a person like Dolores in there, that's why we're selling 2,500 cups of coffee," he says. "Not because we have great coffee, but because we have Dolores."
After revealing his true identity, Joe rewards Dolores' hard work by giving her a special surprise—two season tickets to the New York Yankees, her favorite team.
7-Eleven also donates $150,000 to Donate Life America, an organization that encourages organ donation, in honor of Dolores. "What I recognized is, once again, how hard our folks work. They don't ask for much," Joe says. "They're trying to support themselves, their families, and what we need to do is better support them as an organization."
Igor doesn't seem to mind, however. "I'm living the American dream now. America is the best country in the world. You guys just do not really know how blessed you are," Igor says. "I am so motivated because I am so thankful for this country, which allowed me to survive and be happy."
Joe says Igor's energy, enthusiasm and positivity are inspiring, and he's the type of man 7-Eleven wants to invest in.
Now that the truth is out about Joe's real identity, he makes Igor an offer he can't refuse. "I know you've been interested in a 7-Eleven franchise, and you were concerned about the financing. But 7-Eleven wants to waive the financing on a 7-Eleven store and [bring] part of the American dream to you," Joe says. "So Igor, here are the keys to your new 7-Eleven franchise."
Now, Igor is his own boss. "Well, that's fantastic!" he says.
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