An ‘Undercover Boss’ Uncovers Some Unexpected Lessons

By Bill Leonard Feb 27, 2012
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Dina Dwyer-Owens never expected the overwhelming response when she agreed to appear on the popular CBS television reality show “Undercover Boss.” Surreptitiously, CEOs work undercover with front-line employees at their company.

Since her appearance in an episode that aired Jan. 22, 2012, Dwyer-Owens said, she has received nearly 1,000 congratulatory e-mails and inquiries from more than 500 people about job opportunities with her company, the Dwyer Group, based in Waco, Texas.

Dwyer-Owens, the first female CEO of the home services franchise company founded by her father, has been pleasantly surprised by the outpouring of goodwill. Her appearance generated hundreds of leads for expanding the company’s franchises, which include the service and repair companies Mr. Rooter, Mr. Electric, Mr. Appliance and the Grounds Guys.

 

“The show gave our company some very positive exposure, which I expected,” she said. “What I didn’t expect was the response to me being a female boss working in what are typically male-dominated jobs.”

In fact, Dwyer-Owens has set a goal to recruit more women as technicians and franchise owners. The exposure from her appearance helped advance that objective and has paid dividends she never expected.

“The response that I got from women who watched the show was great. And many have told me that I had inspired them, which is a bit humbling,” she said. “I also heard the same thing from a lot of men, which did surprise me some.”

In the show, Dwyer-Owens disguised herself as an office worker named Faith Brown, who was interested in branching out and changing careers. The CBS television crew used a cover story that they were filming a pilot for a new show called “Keep Your Day Job.” The technicians and franchise owners that Dwyer-Owens worked with were told that they would have to assess her performance and then decide if “Faith” should keep her day job.

Dwyer-Owens worked with a plumber for a Mr. Rooter franchise in Georgia, an employee of a Grounds Guys franchise in Tennessee, an owner of a Mr. Electric franchise in Texas and a technician with a Mr. Appliance franchise, also in Texas.

“I wanted to do this because I knew it would give me a firsthand look at how our franchises operate and what employees think and feel,” she said. “This show does offer a very unique opportunity for a CEO like me.”

“Undercover Boss” has featured 35 corporate heads, and Dwyer-Owens is the third female CEO to appear in the series. Dwyer-Owens said her friend Shelly Sun, CEO of BrightStar Care, convinced her to appear. Sun said that her experience with the show gave her fresh insights about how working parents juggle the demands of work and family.

For Dwyer-Owens, one of the show’s most powerful moments came when she met Tanna, a female technician who makes service calls for a Mr. Appliance franchise just outside Houston. Tanna needed the job so that she and her husband, who works as a firefighter, could support their four small children. In the course of working with her, Dwyer-Owens learned that Tanna was planning to take a second job because she needed the extra money for her growing family.

“I was totally blown away by this woman and her dedication to her family and to her job,” Dwyer-Owens said. “She represented to me everything that our company stands for and supports. I knew that we needed more people like her working for us.”

When Dwyer-Owens revealed that she was the company’s CEO, Tanna looked shocked and asked sheepishly if she was going to be fired. Dwyer-Owens reassured the stunned appliance technician and offered her financial assistance so that she wouldn’t have to take a second job. The resulting tears and hugs created a powerful TV moment that resonated with both female and male viewers.

The positive responses to the emotional outburst taught Dwyer-Owens a very important lesson. Before the show was filmed, several male executives and managers for the Dwyer Group had told their boss that it might be a good idea to keep her emotions in check. Dwyer-Owens told SHRM Online that she does have a penchant for tearing up when she is truly touched by something.

“A few people told me that to cry on camera might make me look too emotional and reinforce some stereotypes about women bosses,” she said. “But instead, the overwhelming positive response to the scene made me realize that I just need to be honest and genuine about who I am. The best characteristic of being a good boss is to truly care about people and not be afraid to show it.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.

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