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February 28, 2011  |  by Brennen Jensen

Michael D. White, SAIS ’76

Mike White left the corner office to go undercover as a satellite TV guy last summer. Photo: CBS

Mike White left the corner office to go undercover as a satellite TV guy last summer. Photo: CBS

Mike White had a rough workweek last summer as a rookie employee with DirecTV, the satellite television provider. He was clumsy wielding a power drill during a rooftop dish installation. Clueless in the warehouse, he was instead dispatched outside to jump up and down in a dumpster to flatten a heap of cardboard. And while manning a tech-support phone at the company call center he mistakenly called a female customer “sir.”

So, did he get fired? In a manner of speaking, yes. When the week was up, White left the rooftops and trash bins to return to his real place within DirecTV’s operations: the corner office. White is the company’s president and CEO.

He was participating in an episode of Undercover Boss, the CBS reality series that clandestinely places senior corporate executives in entry-level jobs within their own firms. “It was a humbling experience,” White says. “I came away with a better appreciation and understanding of the challenges the frontline work force faces every day.”

For the program, which aired in October, White assumed the name Tom Peters and disguised himself with chin stubble and eyeglasses. What didn’t need to be staged was his newness to DirecTV, as he had only assumed the company’s top spot the previous January, following 20 years in various senior management posts at PepsiCo. He had spent the last seven years leading the food and beverage firm’s international operations, a period when overseas sales more than doubled.

White’s interest in global affairs dates back to his years as an undergraduate at Boston College and a semester abroad in then Soviet Russia. That experience led him to the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, where he pursued Soviet studies and international economics. He eventually parlayed that expertise into a career devoted to furthering companies’ economic interests overseas. “We developed a fascinating business model, a balance that reflected both globalism and localism,” White says of his days selling American snack foods around the world. For example, under his leadership, Frito-Lay, the convenience foods business unit of PepsiCo, added new flavors to its Lay’s potato chips to match cultural tastes: Peking duck–flavored chips in China, white mushroom in Russia. DirecTV, which wants to grow its presence in Latin America, is tapping White’s international business savvy as well.

Satellite television and foodstuffs may seem like very different kinds of products, but White says the companies have more in common than you might think. “DirecTV is not as much a media company as Disney or CBS,” he says. “We are really a distribution company, and Frito-Lay is a distribution company.” As such, both rely heavily on a clock-punching work force who drive trucks, stock shelves, and answer phones. Undercover Boss, he says, enabled him to get to know those workers a little better. “It was really about celebrating the sometimes unsung and underappreciated workers,” he says. “I met some amazing individuals.”

And, he adds, executives don’t need reality TV cameras rolling in order to leave the corporate offices for the loading dock. “In this tough economy I think it’s very important for CEOs to walk a mile in the shoes of the frontline work force,” he says. “It really sharpens your perception of how the business works from the bottom to the top.”


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