The obituaries of long-forgotten companies all read pretty much the same. They had no vision or mission. Disengaged employees defected to competitors. They didn’t understand their customers. Organizational policies and processes weren’t user-friendly. Managers didn’t know how to lead and leaders didn’t know how to inspire. Innovation was a foreign concept. Tragically, all of them have gasped some version of the same seven words on their business deathbeds: “We’ve always done it this way before.”
At meetings, seminars and conferences throughout the country, automotive professionals often ask the same question: If manufacturers and dealership organizations could do one thing to halt the wave of struggling and dying organizations in our industry, what would it be? The answer is pretty simple: Hire and develop the right leaders. See, every success and failure in your dealership can be traced back to either a competent or incompetent leader.
In order to avoid horrific mistakes in recruiting, selecting, hiring, training and promoting leaders, it is incumbent upon executive boards and dealer principals to embrace and uphold those qualities that produce positive organizational results while at the same time creating a culture of openness, trust, and integrity. And all of that has to be accomplished in our contemporary economy of change and innovation.
The Big 10
Leaders that will prevent your dealership from becoming a corporate dinosaur practice 10 commonsense leadership principles. Let’s take a look at each one.
1. They live by a set of values. The values critical to success in the business environment include integrity, competency, self-discipline, personal courage, selflessness, humility, and accountability.
Candidly, many of us have defined our leadership style and traits based on negative leadership experiences — the antithesis of the important values and traits we hold in the highest regard. Think about it. How often do you find yourself saying, “If I’m ever in a position of leadership, I don’t ever want to be like …”?
And while these seven values are important, one stands out among the others: integrity. That’s because the absence of integrity absolutely diminishes the credibility of the other six. It was billionaire investor Warren Buffet who so succinctly suggested that we look for three things in a person: intelligence, energy, and integrity. “And if they don’t have the last one, don’t even bother with the first two,” he famously said.
"It’s sad to say, but it’s a fact: An overwhelming majority of companies and organizations don’t know the difference between a manager and a true leader. As a result, low levels of employee engagement and high turnover cripple their financial success and the attainment of their business goals and objectives."
2. They have a creed or ethos to guide their daily activities. While conducting leadership training for a major dealer group in Florida, an employee voiced this challenge: “Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do in a given situation when your boss constantly flip-flops on issues that really matter.” The fact is that leaders who don’t live according to a personal creed and don’t communicate what’s really important to their people can’t really be called leaders at all.
3. They maintain situational awareness and are always aware of their environment and the people around them. Do you as a leader have a hand on the pulse of the team? Is your work environment conducive to supporting high-performance work teams? Are you aware of what’s in the minds and hearts of the people who deliver service to your customers? Do you really know or care what employees and customers think about you as a leader and the company in general? What specific actions do you take on a daily basis to be aware of the environment and the people around you?
4. They are clear and concise in their verbal and written communication. It was Plato who wrote, “Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.” Generally speaking, in large dealership groups and organizations, interactions between leaders and their employees are infrequent, so it is important to be clear and concise when those opportunities arise. Are your direct reports confused about the meaning of your email? Do they ask questions like, “What does he really want me to do?” Unfortunately, that’s a sign your project is headed for disaster.
5. They manage expectations. Good leaders tell people what they expect, provide guidance, and grant authority to act on their behalf. Their people know exactly how they want the end product to look, and are praised for their effort. And if all goes well, it is their success. But if it goes badly, the good leader takes responsibility for not giving clear enough guidance and supervisory support.
It has been repeatedly proven that articulating a clear vision to your people always creates a clearer path to the accomplishment of individual, departmental, and corporate goals. And while some dealers are good at providing a vision, success is rarely achieved when expectations associated with achieving that vision aren’t managed.
"No one gets to where they are on their own. As a leader, remembering where you came from, how you got there, and never losing sight of those who helped you along the way is important to securing not only your own legacy, but inspiring others to be a part of that legacy."
6. They make people feel like they are part of a team and their actions are critical to both the leader and the team. It’s sad to say, but it’s a fact: An overwhelming majority of companies and organizations don’t know the difference between a manager and a true leader. As a result, low levels of employee engagement and high turnover cripple their financial success and the attainment of their business goals and objectives.
7. They lead by personal example and they don’t ask people to do things they are not willing to do themselves. Adhering to this leadership principle creates a work environment with a high degree of mutual respect and collaboration. Leaders who aren’t afraid to get down in the trenches with their employees sends a clear message to the rank and file that we’re all in this together.
8. They are thoughtful of others and never pass up an opportunity to be polite, positive and respectful. When employees feel they aren’t valued by their leader, their loyalty to both the person and the company disintegrates. Truth is, it doesn’t take much effort to employ language that establishes a positive attitude and a climate of gratitude. If leaders expect their employees to engage customers with a “Please” and “Thank you,” isn’t it imperative that leadership do the same?
9. They don’t forget where they came from and how they got there. Combining situational awareness with humility allows a leader to maintain perspective of his or her journey to leadership. No one gets to where they are on their own. As a leader, remembering where you came from, how you got there, and never losing sight of those who helped you along the way is important to securing not only your own legacy, but inspiring others to be a part of that legacy.
10. They have a sense of humor and use it liberally. A sense of humor provides communication opportunities with people that might not otherwise exist. It’s a great way to show your team you are a real person. It also reduces stress and tension. A sense of humor is an effective tool, but it can be equally harmful if not used in a healthy and constructive way.
The essential ingredient of a dynamic dealership organization is leadership. And that leadership needs to be a unique blend of art and science, just like jazz music is a blend of rote performance and improvisation.
See, accomplished jazz musicians are all trained on their particular instrument in a traditional method (science), but their accomplishments are the result of their ability to improvise (art) their music in a unique way. Similarly, accomplished leaders are trained in a traditional manner (science), but the best leaders improvise (art) by injecting their unique skills and qualities to create a leadership style that is unique to their ability and personality. Does your dealership have this essential ingredient?
Maj. Gen. Karl Horst, U.S. Army (Ret.), is a graduate of the National Automobile Dealers Association’s Dealer Academy and president of It's Just Common Sense LLC. Tom McQueen is PDPAuto.com’s automotive industry expertexpert, and has consulted with more than 400 dealerships on performance improvement and employee engagement. Email them at [email protected].