When a CEO is too well known in an organization to go convincingly incognito on "Undercover Boss," it's not uncommon to send another high-placed executive in to do the job. But in this week's episode, which airs on CBS Friday, March 2, for the first time ever they sent a CTO (Chief Talent Officer) into the fray. It turned out to be the perfect choice, because Lynne Zappone of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen had never worked behind the counter in the "quick service" food industry before, and had only been with the company five months before she donned the undercover wig.
Now you might be wondering, as I was, if "Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen" is an upscale offshoot of the Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits franchises you've seen on so many street corners. After all, they have about 2,000 locations in 26 countries. But actually, it's the same Louisiana spiced fried chicken chain you're familiar with -- the company has just been rebranding over the last few years, and the efforts haven't extended to every single operation yet.
You might also be wondering, as I was, what a spinach-swilling sailor man cartoon has to do with their fried chicken brand. The answer is: absolutely nothing. The franchise founder was a big fan of the film "The French Connection," and, as you may or may not recall, the lead character played by Gene Hackman was named Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle.
The company was founded in Louisiana, which also has a definite French connection, although several other cultures contribute to the unique flavoring of Popeyes fare. For her "Undercover Boss" adventure, Zappone went back to the company's roots in New Orleans and worked in food prep, shift management, food packing and various other jobs that even involved cleaning toilets--with inadequate cleaning supplies.
Zappone found that some Popeyes franchises could have been more supportive of employees, especially after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. She also found that many of the nearly 40,000 employees could use some more incentives and perks.
In addition, Zaponne told me she gained a better understanding of how important it is to "create a safe space in the working environment where they can feel they have support," she said, mentioning that there was so much going on outside in the employees' personal lives that she wanted the work environment to feel like a safe haven that would help pull them through.
It was an eye-opening experience for the Rhode Island native and single mom, who has her Masters in Organizational Leadership. Prior to joining Popeyes, she worked for 13 years in senior executive positions with the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG).
But she'd never experienced anything quite so exhausting, and yet ultimately as satisfying, as going behind the counter at Popeyes. "It made me feel like I am old...and slow," she laughed. "But it was a wonderful opportunity to understand the employee experience, and to get a sense of the great people working for us--they have such passion for the brand."