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Undercover Boss: Upper School Economics Puts Students in CEO's Shoes

By Amy Reynolds, Communications Specialist
This article appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of the Tower Hill Bulletin

On a Sunday afternoon in October, Allison L. Smith ‘18 (pictured above) sat in the lobby of the Westin Hotel in Wilmington, watching as guests came to the front desk and taking note of the interactions.
 
Out of 30 interactions, only four were complaints, and she found that most guests were male business travelers in the millennial age range, which is exactly what she expected. But she’s also learned what needs to be improved: waiting time, catering to families and offering flexibility.
 
It’s all part of the “Undercover Boss” project in Patricia Carlozzi’s Upper School economics class, where students have the opportunity to choose any public company to study—all from the boss’s perspective. The project is based off the CBS television show of the same name that features the experiences of senior executives working undercover in their own companies to investigate how their firms really work and to identify how they can be improved.
 
“I’m trying to help them think about business from the perspective of an owner,” Carlozzi said. “Everybody thinks of themselves first as a consumer, so I’m trying to flip it and get them thinking of themselves as a business owner.”
 
For the project, students looked at their businesses and did qualitative, quantitative and benchmarking analyses. Smith chose to study Marriott, so for her qualitative analysis, she interviewed both a Visa employee who works with Marriott and the director of global marketing for Marriott. For her quantitative analysis, she observed guests at the Marriott property The Westin Wilmington, taking note of the customers’ demographics. For her benchmarking analysis, she compared Marriott to Airbnb, an online marketplace and hospitality service.
 
“From being the undercover boss, I learned that it’s really important to put yourself in the shoes of being the owner, the mid-level manager and the low-level employee because then you get the full perspective of understanding what the customers want but also what you can provide,” Smith said.
 
Originally, Smith wanted to study Target because she likes to shop there and it’s a great store to sit in and observe. But since she wants to study business in college and is particularly interested in the hospitality industry, she chose Marriott to study since it’s the world’s largest hotel chain.
 
“I wanted to learn more about the corporate side and see if I enjoy it,” she said. “I took the opportunity when I was talking to the global marketing director to ask her some questions about how she got into her field, what she studied in college and if she had any advice. It was a good opportunity to reach out to someone who’s in the shoes of what I want to do someday.”
 
Other students chose their businesses based solely on their interests.
 
Jake Myrick ‘19 chose Snapchat because it’s an app he uses every day. He knew that a lot of people like the app because it’s fun and easy to use, but through the Undercover Boss project, he learned that there’s also a lot of room for improvement.
 
“There are a lot more factors that come into play when creating a product than I figured,” he said. “There’s a lot of feedback that was unexpected. A lot of unique opinions, a lot of ways to improve. There’s a big margin for change, and definitely new things you could do with the app.”
 
Throughout the half-year course, a history elective that was new in 2016, students learn basic building-block concepts related to business and finance and then leverage that foundation as they plunge into economic theory. As they learn about markets, business structures, profit maximizations and competition, they look at their “Undercover Boss” company to see how it relates to those specific economics topics.
 
“Whenever we learn an aspect of economics—whether it’s learning about supply and demand or price ceilings or minimum wage—we’re going to be talking about it in the context of theory and then ‘How is this applying at your company?’ so it’s tangible,” Carlozzi said.
 
One of Carlozzi’s goals was to teach students about principled leadership and ethics. She said that while making money is one reason to go into business, there are many other reasons as well. 

“It’s because you want to make the world a better place and create innovative products. Because you want to provide people with quality jobs. That’s all important in this world, to have principled leaders running businesses,” she said. “A lot of these students say they want to major in business. If you want to major in business, you have to start thinking like an owner and an executive. I want them to start thinking, ‘Well, what would the boss care about?’”
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