Ask Dina Dwyer-Owens, co-chair of The Dwyer Group, about obstacles to the top for women, and she is quick with a suggestion: talk less about the proverbial glass ceiling and do more to encourage women to shatter their own self-doubt to compete.
"We, as women, are the biggest problem--the way we think, the way we talk ourselves out of what we are capable of," says Dwyer-Owens. "We have made the glass ceiling a problem for women, because we keep talking about it. It drives me nuts."
As leader of one of the world's largest service brand franchisors, with $1 billion in annual system-wide sales, Dwyer-Owens is doing her part to change the dialogue, break down stereotypes, and bring more women into the trades.
"What women know who join our company is that you are going to be treated with the same level of respect as men," she says. "If you are the best person for the job, you are going to the get the job."
Dwyer-Owens didn't have time to question her own path to the top of the Waco, Tex.-based company, founded in 1981 by her father Don Dwyer Sr. with the Rainbow International brand. At the time, she was running the group's real estate company and working closely with her father when he died at 60 of a sudden heart attack. That was Dec. 4, 1994, and his vision ran deep through company, which he had taken public the year before. When the board needed someone to grow the business and maintain her father's Code of Values culture, stakeholders turned to her. At 35, Dwyer-Owens, his third child and youngest daughter, was always the one most drawn to the business, which she knew from the ground up.
Like all her siblings, Dwyer-Owens grew up learning by doing. At 13, she pumped gas and sold polish waxes at the family business, the first full-service car wash in Waco, located on I-35 between Dallas and Austin. "He raised us, training us how to be great leaders," she says. "That is what he did really well."
Don Dwyer also taught his daughter that she could achieve anything she believed, if she worked hard enough. She admittedly lacked experience, but knew what customers wanted because she was the customer. She promised to step down in six months if she couldn't get the job done.
So when a group thought she wasn't right for the job, Dwyer-Owens went straight to the "ringleader," the largest Mr. Rooter franchisee. "I had to go deep within my soul and say, 'Why do I believe I can do this--and how am I going to help this guy understand I need to be given a chance?," she recalls. "This was my father's baby and there were too many jobs at stake and the livelihood of too many franchisees that could be hurt," she says. "He became my best cheerleader, a true champion of mine."
These days, The Dwyer Group, which went private again in 2003, operates eight service-based franchise companies, including the January acquisition of Five Star Painting, a commercial and residential painting franchise with 77 locations in the U.S. and Canada.
Dwyer-Owens credits her internal team and the support and advice from franchising leaders for helping her lead the company successfully after her father's untimely death. Since taking over, she has grown the portfolio of brands, formally cemented her father's vision with an operational Code of Values, and even sported the tools of the trade on the CBS show, "Undercover Boss." That experience inspired the formation of Women in the Trades, an initiative to educate and encourage women to enter service industries as owners and front-line service professionals.
In 2014, Dwyer-Owens transitioned from day-to-day operations to co-chair, to focus on acquisitions and promoting the values of the company. Her sister Debbie Wright-Wood continues to serve as chief administrative officer and secretary. Her other siblings, while not involved in operations, remain company owners.
She is passionate about her efforts to encourage all women--and men--to be the best version of themselves and is particularly inspired by her daughter Dani, 24, who successfully opened a business last year. She sees a bright future for women leaders who work hard, do their homework, and approach their lives and careers with confidence.
"Get past whatever is holding you back," says Dwyer-Owens. "Most of that is seeking help, getting help from encouragers, and still others to give you the hard truth about what you need to do to get there."
What did your career path look like?
Was becoming a CEO/president always part of your plan?
It wasn't the plan for me to assume the role as early as I did. But the unfortunate death of our father put me on a fast track to learn the business at a high level, first as vice president of operations and then as leader of the company.
Did you have a mission statement for your business life?
Yes. It would be the same as the company's mission and vision statements, which I fell in love with as a young person in my 20s. I remember standing beside my father at one of our conventions when we had fewer than 50 franchisees and one franchisee approached us, almost in tears. He thanked my father for providing him the opportunity to pursue and fulfill his personal dreams. That was a direct reflection of my father's mission for the company. Our vision is to be a world-class company admired for excellence that the customers, franchisees, and associates experience with The Dwyer Group. And our mission is to teach our principles and systems of personal and business success so that all people we touch live happier and more successful lives. Those two statements evolved to become all about my mission to "Live R.I.C.H.," which promotes the themes of the Code of Values we follow: Respect, Integrity, Customer focus, and Having fun in the process.
How did you prepare yourself and set goals that led you to the C-suite?
I am a proponent of mentoring, which includes being mentored and mentoring others. I looked to the IFA for peers and leaders I could learn from. I embraced associations like Strategic Coach to help me evolve and sharpen my executive skills. I also followed, and continue to follow, a form of goal-setting that I share with anyone who joins the company. I teach a course called Design Your Life that includes outlining professional and personal goals so you can realize your biggest dreams. That same practice led me to the C-suite and beyond. And as co-chair, I continue to set goals for myself.
When and where did you gain leadership experience/knowledge?
It all began with my father telling me that I could do anything in life that I wanted to, if I was willing to put in the effort. As funny as it may seem, I had a goal to be a cheerleader in high school, and that served as a basis for leadership training to include everything from managing a team of cheerleaders to sales (fundraising projects). I have to give credit to the IFA for the peer-to-peer support, the knowledge sharing, and the ongoing best practices and workshops that benefit us as practitioners. Likewise, I have learned a great deal from Strategic Coach, which helps top executives work smarter and not necessarily harder.
What leadership examples did you learn from?
I credit my father for his entrepreneurial drive and his strong belief in his Code of Values to grow a business. I credit my mother for her nurturing and love of those around her that taught me to be a compassionate and caring leader. She also grounded me in my faith. I rely on the good Lord every day to provide me with the wisdom and confidence to do what I do in any leadership capacity.
How did you benefit from networking?
We are a compilation of those we interact with, and I have always benefited greatly from leaders within the franchising community, the church community, women in business organizations, and more. Together, that helped me understand how to grow and lead a franchise community, how to remain grounded in my faith as a cornerstone for my personal strength, and where to learn from and tap into other talent that has benefited both The Dwyer Group as an organization and me, as a leader. Much of what I have learned over the years has come from my own team.
What role, if any, did mentors play in your career? How have they helped you?
Mentors have played a great role in teaching me how to lead, how to grow a team, how to delegate, and how to be a constant student of business and of life. My mentors started with my late father and my mother. My father would have all his kids listen to leadership and motivational tapes, and then quiz us on the information. Little did I know at the time how important that was as a first step to all of the business lessons he would give us. My mother also continues to inspire me to this day for her unconditional love of those around her. She taught me--and all of my brothers and sisters--the strength of family and togetherness. I have also learned from others in the franchising community. For instance, Fred DeLuca, founder of Subway, became an inspiration for his ability to grow an idea by sharing that idea. There is also Ken Blanchard, author of the One Minute Manager, who has shown how to be true to yourself and your organization. I sit on his Lead Like Jesus board and am reminded regularly about the importance of balance for faith, family, and business.
Are you now mentoring others?
I do mentor others. I teach the Design Your Life class to all associates and franchisees who join the company. I also started the Women in the Trades program at The Dwyer Group, which helps promote careers for women across the service trades. The program also gives scholarships to women wishing to pursue higher education in one of our service trades at accredited programs across the U.S.
What communication skills helped you reach the top?
I've always called myself the head cheerleader of The Dwyer Group, because I love cheering on our team. I was a cheerleader in high school, and I have embraced the skills of rooting for your players (family, friends, franchisees, and more) ever since then! I also cherish our Code of Values. And I knew that the integrity and strength of our organization across our service brands had its foundation in our values. Sharing and promoting those values has always been a top communication priority for me. That began when we evolved as a company, after the loss of our founder. His Code of Values was near and dear to him, and was integral in growing our company since its inception. Our leadership team took those values and developed them into an operationalized Code of Values, which provided clear and measurable guidelines for how we wanted to lead and to live throughout our organization. Once those goals were reworked to follow the Live R.I.C.H. theme, I made that a core message in all that I did and shared. But growing an organization makes it tough to share a message face-to-face with everyone. That's when I wrote Live R.I.C.H., which has become a calling card for The Dwyer Group. The book has been shared with audiences around the country and across the globe and has evolved into speeches I have been invited to give to organizations larger and small. I consider this message, and my ability to communicate it, a skill that has helped me achieve my goal to share great things with those around me.
What other skills were important?
The ability to grow a great team is immeasurable. The company is not successful because of me--or any one person--alone. We have a successful organization because we have a great team of people. Finding and hiring exceptional people who believe in our mission, vision, and values has made us who we are today. And delegating to those people to excel where they are the strongest makes us exponentially greater. Another important skill is our overlooked ability to be a good listener. Great leaders are not only invested in leading or dictating. The best leaders are also great listeners. I am regularly inspired by what I learn from others that would not be possible if I didn't have a friendly ear. Last, I like to borrow a value from my father that we must "re-earn our position every day in every way." That statement goes a long way toward achieving the respect and loyalty of those around you.
Did you encounter stereotypes/sexism, and how did you overcome that?
I had my skeptics in the beginning when I was first named to lead the company. There was even a group of franchisees that met and took a straw poll, voting no confidence in my ability to do the job. I addressed it head-on. I simply asked for a fixed amount of time to prove to them that I could do the job. And once that time had passed those same people became some of my biggest supporters. I also overcame any sexism by focusing on my strengths and what I could bring to my position that would be advantageous to everyone in the organization. It's what I coined the "Mrs. Jones Perspective." I discovered that I may not be a plumber, an electrician, a glass installer, an HVAC service professional, or any other trade professional on the front lines of our business, but I am the target customer: the woman of the house in the majority of more than 2 million service calls our brands make each year. And her opinion matters. With that approach, and the customer focus in our Code of Values, the perspective has been embraced across our entire franchise family. As for the skepticism I first met on the job, I am happy to say that it was all short-lived. That was then and this is now. In fact, you can look across all our service brands and find women in incredibly prominent roles today, each with an impressive track record. I think the stereotypes continue to fade with each passing day.
Do you think women bring a different approach to leadership? How?
Women bring a nurturing quality that can be so beneficial to an organization. We instinctively care for our business like we care for our loved ones, with compassion. That doesn't make us incapable of tough choices. We just have a different approach and an emotional connection to things that can work for the good of the organization. This is true for our service brands as well, where we are seeing female service professionals (plumbers, electricians, and more) highly commended on the front lines of our business. They are embraced by the woman of the house, our target customer, for their ability to do the job while breaking down the stereotypes of our trades.
What are the biggest mistakes you see female leaders make?
I think women often want to portray how they think a man would lead in order to get it right or be perceived as capable. But that's not the key to success. I like to think that you have to be your true, authentic self to be the very best leader. Embrace your strengths and acknowledge your weaknesses. I have found that surrounding myself with team members who complement my weaknesses also helps to strengthen my leadership skills.
Can you have a family and a career at the top?
I have a wonderful husband and an incredible son and daughter who are proof that you can, in fact, have both a career and a family. That's not to say it's easy. But it is important to prioritize and not miss out on things you can never go back and do over.
What does it take for a woman to become a CEO in franchising today?
I think it's the same for a woman or a man. You must be capable. You must have the support and trust of your team. You must be a good communicator. And you must value a win-win equation: that success for a franchisor is reflected in the success of its franchisees and vice versa.
What's at stake if women continue to be underrepresented in the C-suite?
If you see this as a problem, please explain. I think progress, albeit gradual, continues for women in the C-suite. And I am optimistic that those advances will continue to reflect successful advances, likewise, for the organizations they lead.
Are you doing anything to help the next generation of women become franchise leaders?
We have done that here not simply to promote women, but to attract the very best qualified leaders. There is Mary Thompson, president of Mr. Rooter and the executive vice president of The Dwyer Group, who is an incredible leader and visionary. There is also Mary Kay Liston, president of Five Star Painting, our latest acquisition. She was previously vice president of operations for Mr. Appliance, another of our brands. We also have Debbie Wright-Hood, our chief administrative officer, and Pam Harper, our vice president of marketing. That's just at the executive level. We also have had incredible success in promoting our Women in the Trades program to communicate career opportunities across our service brands, at both the front-line level for our services and as franchise owners capable of running the business.
What advice would you offer to women seeking the C-suite?
Seek out mentors and leaders you admire. Study them closely. Learn from those who have gone before you.
What would you like your legacy to be?
I want my message "Live R.I.C.H." to provide a lasting and meaningful statement for others, so that more people realize the true benefits of living and leading a values-based life for themselves and for their businesses. As Peter Drucker once said, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast," and I agree.
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