HR Goes Undercover

Working the counter or cleaning the restrooms may not sound like HR executive work, but for one top professional, those chores and others proved to be fantastic learning experiences.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013
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Lynne Zappone, the chief talent officer for Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, had her 15 minutes of television fame (actually 42 minutes) when she appeared on CBS' Undercover Boss in March 2012. She agreed to briefly discuss her time on the show, but also to relay her feelings about HR today in a Q&A.

HRE: When they approached you to be on Undercover Boss, what was your initial reaction? I had only been with Popeyes for five months when the opportunity came up. Our CEO, Cheryl Bachelder, was too visible with employees to do the show. I was new, so I was happy to share what I could share. The show's producers look for organizations that would be good and had reached out to Popeyes a few times. We talked about the benefits of doing the show and decided it would be helpful to really understand the employee experience. It also looked like a great chance for me to learn. We thought, because I wasn't the CEO, we would not have much of a chance. But they chose us, so it was a surprise. It was a wonderful opportunity to work side by side and see the world from our employees' eyes. It also was a very meaningful experience. We are working on projects today that were informed and influenced by what I learned during Undercover Boss. One of them was to reinstitute our employee discount program and another was an employee relief fund, for example. I also have been spending more time out in the restaurants, meeting employees.

HRE: Being the "boss" (the one undercover, of course) on that show can really make a person vulnerable on the job. Was there much prep involved in terms of guidelines or was it more of a spontaneous experience?

LZ: The Popeyes team members I met were quite open and generous. I was working with them for the first time and they were there to help train me and learn part of their job and get the experience, whether that meant frying chicken, cleaning up or working at the drive through. In my younger days I had been a hostess and waitress, but never worked in quick service. It was really a fantastic experience, personally and professionally.

HRE: On a clip from Undercover Boss, you came across a "coaching moment" with one of your co-workers. Can you talk about it and tell how you handled it?

LZ: He did a few things, like shouting across the line in front of customers, and that's not the way we want to do business. Throughout the experience, sometimes there were great examples of leaders coaching people and going in the right direction. And then there were moments that I wanted to pull a person aside and explain what they were doing well but that they also needed to make some changes. In the "reveal," [when she shed her undercover persona of Pam Hawkins], I continued the same conversations about those issues. When I asked them who I was out of my "disguise," they all immediately said "Miss Pam," which told me I connected and they could see I was the same person. That was important."

HRE: How did you get into HR? Was it something that you decided on early, or was it more unplanned?

LZ: I started out in education as a teacher, but as part of an annual in-service program I started getting into training and development. So I decided not to renew my teaching contract and took a job as director of training at a hotel. Then I got into leadership development in a different industry. I ended up working with Intercontinental Hotels for 14 years, where I managed in the global learning, talent and training areas. I focused on the learning and leadership development side, so I never was an HR generalist. I am not a traditional HR practitioner in that sense.

HRE: What characteristics do you believe make for an effective HR executive?

LZ: Most of all, someone who is at the top of the HR ladder has to be approachable. You have to build relationships with peers in other business units, but also with team members throughout the organization. Everyone really must be comfortable with you.  But you also have to be a good problem solver, flexible and a change agent. Plus, you have to be nimble enough to make adjustments based on business needs. You can't be set in your ways, because adjusting HR practices is part of the job. Finally, you have to be willing to push boundaries. In HR, you are surrounded by regulations and rules, and you need to adhere to them, of course. But you also have to figure out how you can work within those restrictions. I define it as being able to look left and right, you have to have peripheral vision and be able to connect the dots by bringing people together when you see their work connecting. In the end, HR is about solving business problems that often are outside of HR.

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HRE: You transitioned from hotels to quick service restaurants? Is there any difference in terms of HR strategy based on industry?

LZ: Coming from one franchise to another was an easier transformation for me. I just want to ensure I am providing the right support for our team workers, the people on the front lines. Hotels or quick service, they have very similar needs and it's important to be connected to your folks. For me, if you do that, you will be creating the right environment that results in the best possible guest experience. My job is to help team leaders create that environment with their team members, and that leads to the best possible guest experience.

HRE: Factoring in your experience as an Undercover Boss, how do you see HR's role today?

LZ: We in HR have had lots of discussion about being less tactical and more strategic, about getting a seat at the table. I believe the critical thing is to be interested in the full business and forthright when talking to the other business leaders within your organization. HR must be a strong business partner, which means looking for ways to inspire team leaders and all employees so they can deliver superior results. After all, the HR job is to help them prepare to run the business. It's exciting to be part of an organization that is truly trying to do that. You can't stay in a small HR space. Of course, you have to keep the trains running and all that. But you also have to be open to what's happening and adjust and be nimble to move quickly.

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