Bigwigs Descend Corporate Ladder

To many employees, company presidents are out-of-touch suits who do little more than issue memos and attend martini luncheons.

But a number of top-level bosses have descended the corporate ladder to spend more time among the rank-and-file, learning what makes things tick from the ground up.

Bob Dickinson, president of Carnival Cruises, joined the crew on a Caribbean cruise to make beds, serve drinks on a sweltering deck and carry enormous trays in the dining room.

"They had me for six days," he said. "It gave me a real appreciation of not only how challenging the jobs are but how artful the people are at it. They really have tricks of the trade."

Meanwhile, Central Park Conservancy President Regina Peruggi traded her heels for work boots and got dirty by helping plant trees, re-seed lawns and pick up trash.

"I grew up in the Bronx in an apartment, so wielding pick axes was not something I'd done a lot in my life," she said. "It was hard, but enormously beneficial."

And she said was surprised by the pride her employees took in their work.

"One of the things that struck me consistently was how much the people who work here love their job," she said. "And it's enormously hard work, they are not sitting on park benches."

Some of this hard work included cleaning up used crack vials and encountering a hostile drug user. Yet, she said she'll join the workers again. "You really feel a great sense of accomplishment at the end of every day — and you sleep really well!"

Peruggi was not the only boss to encounter elements of danger. John Ferguson swapped his post as head of the multibillion-dollar Corrections Corporation of America to be a prison guard at a medium security women's facility in New Mexico.

"Being a correctional officer can be a tedious job, and you are constantly in harm's way," he said.

He mopped solitary confinement areas, handled loads of paperwork and participated in some of the prison's therapeutic activities such as anger management and alcohol abuse meetings.

"All of the women there wanted to tell me how life-changing these programs have been for them," he said. "I met people who committed murder that you never would've suspected."

Ferguson said the staff and inmates treated him graciously, but he did get a few catcalls as he made his rounds, which he took "in good faith."

The PBS series Back to the Floor documents detached bosses getting a dose of reality, working a variety of lower-level jobs within their organizations. A takeoff on a British program of the same name, the series was co-produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting and the BBC and debuts June 14.

"People at the top get disconnected with what goes on on the floor," said John Lindsay, a vice president at OPB. "By spending a short time going back and working at a fairly base level they learn about ways to make their company better."

Corporate heads also said getting back to the floor was important, because they found ways to improve work conditions for employees.

Peruggi added more night crews to help pick up trash in the park and she's also rethinking the uniforms.

Carnival Cruise bar waiters will get cooler thanks to their boss' experience. The uniform they wore while serving drinks in the hot sun was "99 percent poly and the other one percent lead," Dickinson said. "So we have a cotton shirt now that is much more breathable and comfortable." And the crew's mess hall closed too early for some people to get there in time to eat, so lunch hours were extended.

Ferguson has addressed problems with control panels that open and close doors, and he said salary issues have been adjusted as well.

"How do you know things sitting in your office?" Ferguson wondered. "It's easy to get reports about how things are going but you don't have a real appreciation 'til you're out there."

Dickinson summed up his experience with an expression he often heard growing up in the West: "You can't judge a man till you walk a mile in his moccasins," he said. "This allowed me to walk several miles."