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The former Honest-1 COO and industry icon shares how any shop can become a stronger leader

Rissy Sutherland's Top 7 Tips for Effective Leadership

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Rissy Sutherland is an auto care industry lifer, having grown up in her family’s automotive franchise business. Throughout her career, she has opened more than 300 auto care facilities and is perhaps best known today as the co-founder, former COO and current board of directors member of Phoenix-based Honest-1 Auto Care. Thanks to her work with Honest-1, Sutherland has risen to become one of the industry’s foremost experts in shop operations.

Suffice it to say, Sutherland has had ample leadership experience. She outlines her top seven leadership tips—and the ways any shop owner can reap the benefits.

1) Create a roadmap to business growth.

Above all else, Sutherland says the key to business success comes down to having what she calls a “road map”: a strategic business plan that outlines business growth for the year ahead. That plan should address profitability, financials, training, personnel development, marketing strategy, etc.

Sutherland says this should be created with the entire team, preferably over the course of a couple days at an off-site location, which removes distractions and ensures that everyone is focused.

“When you get outside the office environment, it changes up the dynamic,” she says. “You’re all on an equal playing field. Sometimes you need to get out of the day-to-day place, so just being in a new place makes people think a little bit more outside the box and become more open to new things.”

2) Share your vision in a way that everyone understands.

Beyond creating a strategic business plan, Sutherland says that you need to be adept at sharing your vision and making sure staff understands the goals at hand. First, identify your top five goals. Those should be specific, measurable, realistic and help retain current customers or attract new ones.

From there, the goals should be posted in multiple places in the shop, as well as communicated via webinar, email or an internal Internet system. Everyone retains information differently, Sutherland says, which is why it’s important to reach employees in a number of different ways.

Finally, don’t be afraid to share information with staff. It’s a misconception that you shouldn’t share numbers. In reality, every employee should understand what it takes to break even each day.

“People are going to manage the budget and the numbers, and they’re going to have a better view of what it actually takes to make everything go on a day-to-day basis,” Sutherland says.

3) Determine the “rocks” in your business.

Sutherland defines the “rocks” in a business as the challenges that need to be overcome in the next year, the next 90 days and the next 30 days. She says that determining what those challenges are and setting a timeline for resolving them is vital to making changes.

“Each week when we’re meeting, we talk about what we’ve done the previous week that helped accomplish what our overall goals were and we usually tackle a discussion on what was one of the biggest rocks for the last week,” she says. “For a shop, it could’ve been that we didn’t get out the last two cars last week. It’s feedback from everybody on what we could’ve changed to get two more cars out this week.”

Sutherland again emphasizes involving your team, as those working in the day to day of the business are the most likely to understand what the rocks are and provide feedback on possible solutions.

4) Foster a culture that makes employees feel valued.

To elicit valuable feedback, Sutherland says it’s imperative to create a culture that allows employees to feel comfortable sharing that feedback. One way to do so is by hosting employee appreciation events. At Honest-1, the team holds “team fun days” twice per year, which are chosen through a team vote based on employee suggestions. One event this past summer involved renting a house on the lake and going boating, for example. Whoever nominated the winning idea also got to choose either a day off or a gift card.

“Outside-of-the-box things like that create a more productive, motivated, happy work environment,” she says. “You’re not just doing stuff for the problems that are happening in the shop or in the office, but actually, what can we do to work together as a team and not against each other?”

5) Don’t let emotions tell you the problem.

When it comes to employee performance, Sutherland swears by “the three-month rule”: The three months after receiving training is the best an employee will ever perform.

That means that if you’re not seeing the performance you’re expecting from them within that time frame, you may want to move in a different direction.

“It doesn’t mean you can’t keep coaching them, but typically that is not going to work out,” she says. “People delay that reactionary time and it really holds them back in business. They keep hoping things are going to get better and they usually don’t.”

The reason that gets delayed, Sutherland says, comes down to letting emotions skew your decision-making process.

“There’s certain people, just in general, that you like working with more,” she says. “That’s going to skew how you view their performances. That’s just human nature. You absolutely need to be judging and evaluating people based on their objectives and what you’ve outlined their goals are. Measure based on that and not based on how you feel about it.”

6) It’s true—work on the business, not in it.

It’s a common refrain but Sutherland says the biggest mistake she sees shop owners make is still spending too much time working in the business. In reality, shop owners should be focusing the majority of their time on the development of their “people,” meaning both employees and customers. To have the time to do that, start by hiring and training great people.

“If I have the right people, I don’t have a concern about someone handling the day-to-day obstacles of the business,” she says. “Otherwise what do you end up doing? You end up dealing with that customer issue or picking up that part or going to do whatever it is that took you away from what your objective was that day.”

To start working more frequently on the business, Sutherland says some of the first steps to take are bringing on a manager, creating a strategic business plan, asking for feedback from employees on improvements in the business, and holding employees accountable.

7) Seek out mentors.

Even business owners need mentors, and Sutherland says that having mentors who hold her accountable, tell her what she doesn’t want to hear and encourage her through difficult situations has been key throughout her career.

When trying to identify potential mentors, Sutherland says she likes to look for traits in others that she would like to emulate and will then reach out or network to find ways they can work together. She also doesn’t limit herself to just one mentor; Sutherland has mentors specifically for franchisees, the automotive industry and personal growth. And surprisingly, she says that even people who may seem far too busy have been extremely receptive upon reaching out.

Finally, she notes that it’s natural to outgrow mentors and that the relationship will evolve into more of a mutually beneficial, sharing-of-information relationship. At that point, it may be time to identify a new mentor.

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