How to Level Up Your Leadership
It’s safe to say that in his early days at the helm, Brian Weeks, co-owner of two [atc] AutoCenter locations in Georgia, was rarely away from the shop.
“I’ll put it this way; I got married on a Saturday and you can bet I was back at work that Monday,” says Weeks. “I didn’t even get close to a vacation until we had our first child years later.”
Chances are, Weeks’ experience likely rings a bell for many fellow shop owners. According to 2021 Ratchet+Wrench Industry Survey data, the majority of today’s owners are still turning wrenches and identify as leaders who “get dirty on the shop floor and lead by example.”
And while building a business requires plenty of time, dedication, and drive, a hands-on approach may not necessarily be the most effective.
Survey respondents who identified as “visionary” leaders—those who focus on the big picture and inspiring their teams to succeed—far outshone their hands-on counterparts. Shops led by visionary leaders ran much more efficient, productive, and profitable operations, proving it pays to take a step away from the day to day.
But how does the engaged shop owner make that key transition away from the daily shop grind and start working on the business rather than in it?
“It won’t happen overnight,” says Weeks, “but the only way out is through.”
Here, three seasoned shop owners share the tips and strategies that have helped them pivot away from the bays to cast a vision and set their teams up for success in the process.
Do more than delegate.
The path to visionary leadership starts and ends with empowering your team, not just delegating, says Dave Toole, owner of two Toole’s Garage locations in San Carlos and Burson, Calif.
“There’s just no way around it. To get out of the day to day you have to delegate, and to delegate you have to give them room to own their roles, mistakes and all” he says.
While Toole adopted a visionary mindset early on, he finds that he’s like most shop owners in that he still occasionally struggles with what he calls the “rose-colored glasses syndrome”—a “shop owner knows best” mentality that leads owners to believe tasks not done their way will cause problems.
“Sure, it feels great to think you never missed a thing and you’ve got all the answers, but it’s not realistic and the sooner you get over yourself, the easier it is to trust your team,” he says. “Once they know they can tackle their work without you over their shoulder, they can fully take ownership of what they’re doing.”
Toole’s found that in giving his team space to problem-solve, his staff often comes up with stronger solutions than his own that ultimately drive better results.
But how do you empower your team after you’ve stepped out of the way? Toole says clearly-defined expectations are key—“high clarity brings high performance”—but he also makes sure he’s available as a resource. “I’m not a crutch or there to do it for them, but they know they can utilize my experience as a tool in their toolbox.”
Most importantly? He creates space for his team to speak up.
“We don’t operate by grinding everyone down with a ‘you better produce’ attitude. That empowerment comes from allowing people to bring suggestions forward and speak up when things aren’t going right.”
Toole says the open book approach has allowed his team to take initiative, work independently to solve issues as they arise, and build a tight knit team in the process. If his team sees a need, they’ll talk it out amongst themselves to find and carry out solutions because “they’re not afraid to. They know we want them engaged.”
Through the years, Toole’s also discovered an added perk in building an empowered team—one that’s proven to be vital in transitioning away from the day to day: staff retention. Like most shops, he’s experienced turnover through the years, but says his team’s long tenure has made the process of trusting and delegating to his team much easier.
“It comes full-circle in that I’m not constantly stuck in the starting blocks,” he says. “I’ve had time to build trust with them and I know that they understand the vision I’m laying out. I’m not constantly having to rebuild.”
Don’t shy away from setting boundaries.
As shop owners transition away from the day to day, the urge to help out on the shop floor or behind the counter may prove to be the biggest barrier in fully committing to a visionary role.
Weeks notes that shift can be especially difficult for owners who got their start under the hood—after all, it’s the natural mindset of a tech to jump in and fix what needs fixing, he says. According to the 2021 Ratchet+Wrench Industry Survey, nearly two thirds of respondents worked as technicians before moving into an ownership role. Weeks himself began working on cars at the age of 12 and was building transmissions by 14.
“When you understand exactly what’s happening out on the floor, you have to be so conscious and careful about how you help because you’ll get sucked in in seconds. It’s like a vacuum,” he says. Setting clear boundaries for himself has helped keep him from slipping back into old habits.
(Occasional) ignorance is bliss.
Weeks often thinks back to “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?”, a now iconic 1974 Harvard Business Review article on ownership throughout the problem-solving process. The article is a reminder to Weeks that even the simplest interactions can become openings to unexpectedly wind up with ownership of a problem and its needed solution (or have a “monkey” on his back).
“A tech could ask what I think of a noise he’s hearing, and if I casually guess it’s the alternator, he could stop there and just sell an alternator,” says Weeks. “I might have just stopped by to say ‘Hi’ and now this potentially incorrect repair or “monkey”could land on me.”
One rule that’s helped? Limiting the number of questions he helps his team answer. Weeks has decades of hands-on repair experience but if he were to help answer every question or diagnose every “problem child” repair, his team wouldn’t be learning and he’d be working in the bays full time. Instead he’s learned to be deliberate in what and how much he offers up.
“If someone asks for the specification of the BMW they’re working on I’m going to tell them to look it up. If they’re asking about a code they’re seeing, I might say, ‘Oh, you know I’m not really sure.’ They know that I know, but it’s an opening to back away, put the ball back in their court, and make sure they’re learning,” Weeks says.
Weeks is also deliberate in the amount of access he gives his team. “Business owners will ultimately end up as involved as they allow themselves to be,” he says.
He works to limit the amount of time he’s available or at the disposal of his team, but is also diligent in keeping them informed of his availability.
Whether he’s anticipating a trip out of town or has a conference call booked, Weeks makes a point of noting his availability (or lack of) on an agenda he now creates for the team that he says helps them feel like they’re informed, know what to expect and how to prepare. “Those are moments for them to step up to the plate and take the reins, but they’re also learning to think ahead and navigate without leaning on me. It’s all building good habits for them and myself.”
Get out. Really.
Toole, Weeks, and Wayne Watson, owner of Auto Works Automotive Service Center in Woodbury, Minn., all agree. The best way to make the leap from hands-on helper to future-focused visionary is to practice actually taking time away from the shop.
Building on the work he’s done to set boundaries with his day to day availability, Weeks is no longer struggling to carve out a few personal days here and there. From trips with friends to travelling to see his son compete, Weeks has become more comfortable not just with time away from the shop, but with travelling regularly.
“You can train, and set boundaries and prepare them as much as possible, but the best way to put all of that into practice is to fully take yourself out of the equation,” says Weeks. “And the more you practice, the easier it gets for you and your team.”
While he’s still working to feel comfortable leaving the shop for a full two weeks at a time, he and his team have made progress by setting clear expectations. On a recent trip, Weeks told his team he would not be checking emails, answering texts or picking up calls, and to his surprise he kept his word.
“I told everyone if they felt the need to reach out, to just make the best decision they could, that I had 100 percent faith in them, and that no matter the outcome I’d stand behind them,” he says. “When problems popped up, they thought ‘What would Brian do?’ and took it from there. They never reached out once and I came to find they had one of their best weeks yet.”
Watson has also made progress in taking time away his shop, and notes that while the move has encouraged his team to work autonomously, the process ultimately requires a leap of faith.
“You have to make peace with letting go and knowing that things may not go perfectly and they may not be done exactly your way,” Watson says, noting a 10-day trip he took just before COVID-19 entered the global stage. “I came back and nothing had blown up, no one had quit, they had taken care of things, and were even a bit more energized than before I’d left. Coming back to a good report helps build that confidence to venture out more, but you have to take that leap first.”
Watson notes that he more frequently travels for industry and trade events, networking, and training than for personal time, and finds the events were a helpful, more organic catalyst to get him out on the road and learn how to lead away from the shop.
Keep a pulse.
As shop owners begin to venture out and spend less time on-site, Watson, Weeks and Toole note that having specific steps for checking in and measuring shop success can ultimately help them let go and avoid the urge to micromanage from afar.
“If you know you have some consistent benchmarks you can be checking on a regular basis, you know you’ll have a way of catching red flags and it frees you up to focus on what you’re away to do” says Toole.
When out on the road, Watson makes a point of monitoring the same core KPIs he tracks in the shop. His management system automatically emails a full report of the shop’s daily stats at the close of each business day so he can easily check in on metrics like total sales, car count, gross profit, and more.
“I can easily take a quick scan wherever I am, see what happened that day and spot red flags right away,” says Watson.
He also prefers to maintain ownership of one key daily task. “I’ve always, since day one, called the customer after their repair to make sure everything’s going OK,” he says. His team now uses a CRM system to text customers to check-in (rather than call), but he still prefers to manage those texts, especially when he’s away from the shop.
“It gives me a pulse on what’s going on. If I’m on the other side of the country and I can see those shop stats and customer experience texts are all looking good, I’ve got the peace of mind to let my team be.”
Toole and Watson also lean on staff check-ins to make sure they’re able to keep tabs on shop operations from a social and cultural standpoint.
Toole meets regularly with his leadership team, including his store managers, office staff and HR admin, for updates and to see where he can offer support. Watson not only schedules regular check-ins with his team, but also makes a point to keep an eye out for any signs of tension within the shop.
“As I work less in the day to day, I’ve learned that the longer you let confrontation go, the harder it is to get your arms around it and its fix,” says Watson.
Should an issue arise in the shop, he calls a meeting with all possible staff involved to talk things out right away.
“I’ve found that when you sit everyone down at the same time, instead of gathering info from each person individually, you’re getting to the root of the problem much quicker. Those check-ins usually give me an idea of what might be going on and where I do actually need to jump into action.”
Seek out accountability.
The journey from a hands-on to a visionary mindset is filled with trial and error, and for many shop owners the shift is an ongoing, ever-evolving journey as they refine the boundaries that will work best for them and their operations.
But who can shop owners rely on when it's the boss who needs to be held accountable and pushed to progress? For Watson and Weeks, the help of well-versed automotive business coaches and reliable peers was vital in their transitions away from the bays.
“You can keep working at those goals, but if you have no one to answer to, how far will you really make it?” says Watson. “It’s hard to set those rules and boundaries you need to make that shift if there’s no one holding you to it and pushing you to do better.”
As a repair pro who genuinely loved his work as a technician, Watson struggled to let go of his time turning wrenches, especially as business took off. His shop grew from four to eight bays in just 18 months, and already overwhelmed, he brought in a coach to help define his larger goals. He’s had a business coach ever since.
Watson relies on regular check-ins with his coach to keep him on track and ensure he’s reaching his goals, but he’s also come to collaborate and lean on fellow shop owners for feedback and insight—including an Illinois shop owner he met back in 2007 that he’s connected with every few weeks for years.
And Weeks has found an industry mentor and role model in Elite Worldwide president and coach Bob Cooper. As a fellow shop owner, Weeks says Cooper’s insight based on his own experience ultimately helped him transition to a visionary role.
“Everything that I’ve brought to him, he’s experienced too. He’s been there and he’s not going to tell me exactly what to do—it’s not prescriptive—but he can give me insight on what the scenario looked like for him and how he worked through it,” says Weeks.
But most important to a leadership style shift? Weeks says having a contact at the ready to challenge him throughout the process.
“Just having someone on hand who is actually going to say, ‘Come on Brian. We talked about this.’ and knowing I have work to do by next week’s call means this is work I can’t just put off. I can’t let that work take a back seat because that's what’s kept that progress moving forward.”
Thanks to AutoZone for sponsoring the 2021 Ratchet+Wrench Industry Survey!