I needed to fund the project myself to own the research
and avoid any conflict of interest. To make sure I was
making the right decision at the right time, I asked
How will you fund this?
How will it impact your current business?
Is now the right time financially?
Evaluate the impact that a primary research
project will have on your financial situation. What
kinds of expenses could you anticipate for research?
Would you need to pay for airline tickets, hotel stays,
rental cars, pet sitters, burner cells? Remember that
availability for speaking engagements declines as
research activities increase.
I decided the time was right. As a result, The Undercover
Candidate™ was born.
Though I was nervous and excited, the prospect
of researching cities, creating characters (all interviews were conducted under pseudonyms), writing
cover letters, crafting résumés, and participating
in interviews from coast to coast was still a little
After surpassing my goal of 100 interviews, inspiration struck again. What if I interviewed under my
real name and actually worked on the front lines? An
interview was scheduled, and Nora Burns was offered
a front-line position with a Fortune 500 company
for $0.10 over minimum wage. I committed to work
undercover for a year, which stretched to 15 months.
The Undercover Employee™ was born.
Working as many as three part-time front-line
jobs simultaneously generated both gains and losses.
The gain: 65 pounds.
The losses: friends who couldn’t understand my
erratic schedule and secretive ways. My dating life
was nonexistent, and my dog started to think her
dogsitter was her primary person.
NORA BURNS has 20-plus
years of experience in human
resources. She is a keynoter,
trainer, consultant, and the curious
mind behind HR-Undercover. Nora
currently serves as president of
Be curious. Curiosity leads to inspiration.
Be resilient. Run through the finish—it will
be worth it.
Be writing. Leverage your insights and start
the writing process immediately.
Be on a budget. Having a solid framework
at the start will make data tracking, story
collecting, and paying the mortgage easier.
We all take gambles. We take risks in this business
as entrepreneurs. This was a gamble. Was it worth it?
Absolutely. I now have a unique perspective for my clients, and I own the research, the stories, and the concept.
How would it be if you turned the tables? How could
you take a different look at your area of expertise? If
you’re ready, here are three ways to do it better than I did:
1. Hire and keep a trusted advisor. While Mark
was key early on, I foolishly stopped checking in with
him when I needed to cut expenses. I should have given
up something else.
2. Lean into your NSA community. If I had asked,
NSA colleagues would have gladly hosted me and kept me
connected to the speaking community. Where in your
project plan is there an opportunity for others to help?
3. Budget for vacations and healthy food. It took
me more than a year to bounce back after completing the
research—and a lot of effort to lose the extra weight. A
few preemptive measures will help exponentially.
Remember, I am part of your NSA community. If you
are considering a primary research project, I’d be glad
to talk you through it, offer encouragement, and buy the
first shot of whiskey. ■
Learn more at