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Earlier this year, I met with a dealer in the Northeast who expressed the frustration that he and his wife were having with the business. "Nobody in my dealership wants to step forward and take the lead on anything," he said.

Unlocking leadership in your dealership

By Bob Clements


Earlier this year, I met with a dealer in the Northeast who expressed the frustration that he and his wife were having with the business. “Nobody in my dealership wants to step forward and take the lead on anything,” he said. “My wife and I are never going to get to the point where we can walk away from the business and not have to worry about it.”


As I continued to talk with the couple, it became apparent that they had given up on their dream of having a business that would eventually run without their constant supervision. For the next hour, we talked about how their lives would be different if their employees were to step up and take the lead. Then, I worked with them both to lay out a plan to begin the process of transforming their dealership and their team.


Every dealer in North America would love to have their employees be as passionate about their dealership as they are. Is it possible? Sure. Is it easy? No, but it is worth every bit of energy you invest in making it become a reality. It’s important to understand that creating an environment where your employees are willing to step forward and take a leadership role in their jobs doesn’t happen by saying some magical phrase, or by giving some motivational speech over pizza after work. You have to thoughtfully cultivate an environment where employees feel they can take risks, implement their ideas without a discouraging amount of second guessing by the owner, and benefit personally from the results of their actions. 


Define what you are looking for


Growing up on a farm teaches you a lot of things, including the importance of preparing a good seed bed before you plant. The better you prepare the soil, the higher the probability you will produce a good crop. The same holds true in your dealership. You have to spend some time thinking about why your employees are not currently taking on the leadership roles you would like to see and then be willing to make the necessary changes in yourself and your business to create a seed bed that grows employees that are leaders instead of followers. Owners who have a desire to grow leaders in their dealerships have to first define what characteristics they are looking for in their employees. One of my favorite characteristics is courage — the ability to take the right risks.


There are numerous opportunities in dealerships for employees to create a difference by what they do on a daily basis. As an owner, you have to create a culture that encourages and enables your employees to step up and see themselves in a leadership role. As I work with the employees in the dealerships that we consult, I tell them that if they are going to bring up a problem, they have to be willing to take a leadership role in fixing it, which means offering up solutions. If you teach employees that it’s the solutions, not the problems, you seek, and that you are willing to “pony up” the dollars or resources to make those solutions become a reality, you will find employees who will find the courage to take the “right risks” you need them to take.


Empower your employees


The change begins with empowering your employees to think like an owner. There are times when I talk to a husband and wife that they think that the concept of creating a culture for leadership is the same as empowering employees. The culture you create will draw out the leadership qualities that exist in all of your employees. When you empower your employees, you are giving them the tools they need to achieve success. And the most important tool is a clear picture of where you are going as a dealership and what role they play in helping you move the company toward that future.


Your primary job as an owner is to make sure that all of your employees have a clear understanding of what you are trying to accomplish and how their effort, each and every day, helps move the company toward that objective. As I work with service managers and their techs, I am constantly preaching the vision of the shop — “We do it right the first time, with as little bench time as possible!” As simple as it sounds, it’s easy for everyone to know if they are doing the right things. As I consult, my role is to empower the manager, service writer, service coordinator and techs to understand the objective and to give them the tools and processes to make it happen. By having a clear and simple focus, the employees only have to ask themselves, “If I make this decision, will it achieve our objective — to do it right the first time, with as little bench time as possible?”


Your goal is to create a culture in your business where the employees not only know what to do in any given situation, but also how what they’re doing ties into the bigger picture of the dealership. Having the clear focus allows your employees to make good decisions without the need to constantly ask others if they are doing the right thing.


Empowering your employees also means giving them the necessary tools — from equipment to people — to succeed. If you ask your employees what they need to accomplish the objective, you have to be willing to deliver what they want. I recently witnessed a good example of this at a dealership. I brought the managers together, and, with the owner, laid out the new vision for the dealership. We talked about working with them to create a culture where every employee took on a leadership role and the managers accepted responsibility for giving their employees the tools to succeed. I then asked them the $1-million question, “Now that you know where we are going to take the dealership over the next five years, what problems, issues or concerns do you have, and what tools do you need to help you reach your goals?” I immediately was hit with a lot of ideas that required a lot of money to accomplish.


I complimented them on their ideas and challenged them to come up with ways to find the money to do what they told me needed to be done. We concluded the meeting with the understanding that they would come up with some solutions and be prepared to present them to the management team at 7 a.m. the next day. That following morning, we had a great meeting with some very creative solutions from each manager. I then encouraged them to meet with their people, pose the problems to them, and ask them to come back the next day with some ideas for solutions. Again, I was amazed at the simple solutions that the employees provided and their high level of excitement at being asked to participate in helping the dealership move forward.


Rewards produce behavior


As your employees engage in the process, you have to find ways to reward them for their initiative. Keep in mind that the reward in the beginning has nothing to do with a solution that was a good idea or not, but that they participated in taking a leadership role — defining a problem and bringing forth a solution. It’s interesting to note that most new employees come into a dealership and ask a lot of questions and think about solutions to problems that they see or encounter. Because they are new, for the most part they are ignored and dismissed with a wave of the hand and soon they learn that their thoughts about things have little, if any, value in the company. So, they are trained that to be a good employee means you don’t think — do what you’re told and leave the thinking to the owner or manager.


It only takes a couple of days for a new employee to move from being a potentially valuable leader to just someone who merely punches the time clock and collects a paycheck. Few employees are rewarded for the initiative they take in bringing in possible solutions to problems they find. In fact, for most employees, “initiative” means being frowned upon by an owner or a manager for a mistake they made while trying to implement a solution they believed would help the company move toward its goals.


Start by rewarding employees for the initiative they take even if they make mistakes as they try things. I understand that mistakes can be costly, but so can missing an opportunity to improve your dealership. Your goal is to encourage your employees to take some risks as long as they are not illegal, immoral, unethical or life threatening. When an employee comes up with an original solution, even if it doesn’t work, find a way to reward him or her. Part of rewarding employees is to use the solutions they present. Nothing is more demoralizing to employees than to be asked what they think, then see the solution they offered disappear into a management hole — never to be seen again.


Don’t be concerned about letting employees know you don’t have all the answers. When owners and managers try to project a “know-it-all” image, they encourage employees to remain in a passive role and just do what they are told.


Coach, coach, coach


A dealership is comprised of a group of people who have come together to make money. And as an owner, if you just let them come in, do what they do, and leave, that is all you will ever have — just a group of people. But if you make a decision to mold the group of people into a team, you have something that has potential. Your goal is to create a team of leaders who think like owners, who are willing to step out and take some risks to try ideas — knowing that at times they will fail, but at times they will succeed — and who can count on receiving recognition and encouragement either way.


Your goal as the owner is to provide the game plan, the encouragement and the rewards, and to work to cultivate the competencies and skills that each of your employees brings to your business.


Understand that your employees will benefit from clear directions and the acknowledgement from you that they play a vital role in the dealership and have the ability to contribute in significant ways to the team.


Successful owners encourage their employees to take risks, try new ideas, think outside of the box, and, if they make a mistake, to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and learn from what happened. When your employees know that their mistakes are looked upon as a part of their willingness to take a leadership role in their job, they will be more creative and take more risks. Just as you have done in building your dealerships, they too will use mistakes to become stronger and more adept.


Practice becoming a great coach and work to develop your employees into the leaders that you need to move your dealership forward into a bright and profitable future. Will it be easy? No. Will it be worth the time and effort? I guarantee it.


 Bob Clements is the president of Bob Clements International, Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in the development of high-performance dealerships. His organization works hands on with dealerships throughout North America, helping them attain the personal freedom and financial wealth all owners strive to achieve. For more information, contact Bob Clements at (800) 480-0737 or bob@bobclements.com or visit his Web site at www.bobclements.com.

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