CEO’s experience as Undercover Boss becomes learning opportunity for whole company
CEO’s experience as Undercover Boss becomes learning opportunity for whole company

It’s common for CEOs to leave their offices to work on the frontlines with employees to learn more about their companies. But it’s a whole different matter to do that on national television as Dina Dwyer-Owens did last year.

As CEO of The Dwyer Group (TDG), a Waco, Texas, multi-concept franchise .....

It’s common for CEOs to leave their offices to work on the frontlines with employees to learn more about their companies. But it’s a whole different matter to do that on national television as Dina Dwyer-Owens did last year.

As CEO of The Dwyer Group (TDG), a Waco, Texas, multi-concept franchise company, Dwyer-Owens wanted to see for herself how some Dwyer Group franchisees worked their brands’ systems and followed the company’s code of values—only she did it in disguise as the guest CEO on CBS’s “Undercover Boss” show.

To avoid being discovered by her franchisees, Dwyer-Owens topped her short blonde hair with a long brown wig, covered that with a ball cap and then painted on thick, waterproof makeup to build a disguise. Adding to such ever-present discomforts, shooting for the show was done in the dead of summer in Memphis, Houston and Atlanta.

“Everywhere we went, the heat indices were at least 100 degrees—Memphis was 118 and I was working outside with our Grounds Guys franchisee,” said Dwyer-Owens, referring to TDG’s grounds maintenance and landscaping franchise. “I have to admit, I had some trouble working one of their lawnmowers, but overall it was great because I was working with frontline team members. For me, it’s fun when I’m engaged and in a conversation with somebody who’s trying to achieve the same goal.”

Dwyer-Owens didn’t just put herself in that spot for the show, she said she really wanted to see how well her franchisees followed systems and practiced her company’s deeply ingrained code of values. She said every franchisee she worked with, except for one, was right on track, but even the one who deviated slightly from the brand’s 14 key steps “still really cared about providing that customer an excellent experience. That matters a lot. It was exciting to me to find that they all had done a really good job of teaching those values and were working hard to live by them.”

While she admits doing the show was time-intensive and exhausting (CBS does not allow show guests to discuss production details), Dwyer-Owens is glad she did it because it taught her a lot about how her company’s franchisees operated in the field and reminded her how hard they work.

But would she recommend other CEO’s go to such lengths? Perhaps, she said, as long as they thought it through carefully.

“If you are a leader who knows what’s going on in your company, is really aware, I’d say do it,” she began. “But if you don’t really know, go find out what’s going on before you get in front of that camera. You’re going to be vulnerable in that position.”

Dwyer-Owens said TDG’s leadership saw her doing the show as a learning opportunity for everyone, but they knew the decision wasn’t without risks.

“You don’t have any editing rights at all or tell them who they’re going to talk to or film,” she said. “It’s the real thing and it’s out of your control.”

Dwyer-Owens was quick to credit CBS’s editors with “a very fair cut” for the episode that aired, and that she was amazed at “how they could take all that footage and put it into 44 minutes and tell The Dwyer Group story.” But perhaps what amazed her most was the feedback she got from viewers all across the country.

“About 99 percent of the feedback we got was extremely positive: people said it was refreshing to see a CEO who truly does care about employees and customers and has values in their business,” said Dwyer. She also said many praised her for being an outspoken Christian on the show because they saw it as proof of her transparency. “I actually expected to get some negativity about that … but the opposite was true.”

One letter writer, however, shared how she’d nursed a 15-year grudge toward a Dwyer Group company.

“It had been that long ago, but she’d still not forgotten about it! Talk about the impact you make on customers!” she said. “You can bet we’re going to use that person’s experience in our franchisee training about customer service. It’s proof that customers never forget a good or bad experience.”

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