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Undercover Boss: Sharon John And The Laggards


In 2016, for the eighth season of Undercover Boss, Sharon John, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop, went into stores to learn how the transformations she was implementing at the top end were being responded to on the ground. Having become the CEO of the company back in 2013, dealing with a rapid drop in the market, where she acknowledged on the show that 22% of the North America branches of the store were completely unprofitable, she knew changes needed to be made.


The nature of undercover boss, is inherently agile, having someone with the most power within an organisation being able to experience the workplace from the perspective of the storefront workers, who wouldn’t be able to point their CEO out of a line-up anyway. It means that in learning from these honest workers, that CEOs can work out how to improve their own practice on a personal level or a workplace level. They can receive brutally honest and genuine feedback from the workers that often make minimum wage, and learn what these changes at work may have meant for them.


One of the workers that John experiences shop work with, is Leney, a young shop assistant in one of the California stores. Leney explained to her that with the remodel of Build-A-Bear, and the removal of the station where the children could bathe their bears, and instead, there would be a station where children could get a picture taken with their new furry friend, and that that change had been really emotional; the experiences she had as a child within the original store model had a great level of nostalgia to it, and she had been hesitant for change to occur. This was something that she certainly would never had said if she knew that Jessie, the worker in the store with her, was actually the CEO.


This feedback, however, allowed John to realise that perhaps the smile with me photo station did not have the same oomph as the original station, the fluff-me station, where the bears would be bathed. Leney’s feedback was taken into consideration to work out what could be


Leney later provided her CEO with background information about how her home life is. Her mother had left four years prior to filming, back in 2012, but according to Leney, her mum had been checked out for a while before that. Her father’s mother, who raised her, has lupus disease, and her father doesn’t work due to being disabled, therefore she works three jobs in order to support the family. She was gifted 10,000 for personal time for herself, and 15,000 for her father’s and grandmother’s medical bills, lastly, John set up a college tuition savings fund for Leney’s younger sister.


At the latter end of the show, John met Kendall, who has worked at Build-A-Bear for eight years, and during the summer months, she trains up to sixty new employees. She informed John that she had crafted her own training manual. This left her mortified until Kendall elaborated, expressing that the packet that she has made improves the accessibility, with her explaining “I have Build-A-Bear’s way, which I always follow but everybody learns differently”.


John was still hesitant, seeing that the main training source material had been cast aside for a “cliffnotes version” made by an assistant manager, but, understood that the nature of accessibility was important and was something that the company likely needed to take another look at.


When they met again, John and Kendall discussed the packet, with John declaring that she “loved the initiative” that Kendall had taken in making a separate packet. “What [Kendall] saw was a need, so [John] [thought] it’d be a really great idea if [Build-A-Bear Workshop] had a quick-start manual”. Kendall was, therefore offered the opportunity to assist John in “elevat[ing] [the] training program at Build-A-Bear”.


A person, a worker that appeared to be resisting the process of change, was suddenly able to feel seen, and recognised as an innovator, thinking around the problems of accessibility at work, and she was rewarded for that. She hadn’t been against the company’s changes; she just didn’t want anyone to be left behind. She was rewarded for her dedication to the company over the last eight years, with her manicures being paid for by her workplace for the next year, as well as ten thousand dollars being gifted to her to go toward her upcoming wedding, and forty thousand dollars being gifted to her to establish college tuition funds for her four children.


This idea of lagging behind change, is not always because you’re against the idea, sometimes, you are hesitating to make sure nobody falls to the wayside. For further reading on these ideas you can read The Agile Works’ articles: Resistance Is A Lack Of Clarity and No Man Gets Left Behind.



Based in London, U.K., and founded in 2016 by Arvind Mishra The Agile Works (www.TheAgileWorks.com), is an up-and-coming recruitment and Agile consulting company. Arvind is a Certified SAFe SPC and regularly delivers both private and public SAFe certification workshops.


He is a design thinking expert, Sr. enterprise, portfolio Agile Coach with over a decade of experience working as an Agile coach in diverse industries such as banking, pharma, retail, auto, oil, gas, consulting and government.


The Agile Works; a small team of three strive to help shape the leadership's mind-set and values in readiness for their business transformation journey challenges. With Arvind at the helm, we strive to provide you with the agility tools to make your company that can thrive, and not just survive.


To book a consultation, or for any enquiries, you can contact Arvind via the following email address: arvind@theagileworks.com

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