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Grooming In-House Management Candidates

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Finding quality management candidates is a challenging task for any business. Aside from having the desired experience and leadership style, managerial newcomers will need to learn the ins and outs of the business very quickly, including its staff, customers, culture and procedures.

Industry management coach Kelly Bennett says there are a variety of reasons that it’s preferable to groom a management candidate from within your existing staff, rather than look for an outside hire.

“My first choice would definitely be to hire somebody as a manager from inside,” he says. “This is a relationship business, and people want to walk in that door and know that person standing at the counter. If it’s a service advisor that’s being groomed for a manager, at least … they still have a relationship with the customers.”

Whether your goal is expansion or stepping back, especially if retirement is on the horizon, Bennett sees infinite benefits to adding a manager rather than somebody in another position to help a business grow.

“If they could get past hiring a service advisor and actually get to the point where they could hire a manager, that’s when they could really run the business successfully, because they are not an essential employee to the business,” he says. “People who do really well in our industry are the people who get to the point where they do hire a manager—that’s when it opens up the doors to the point to be able to grow that business larger.”

Finding the Right Personality

To evaluate your current staff members for management capabilities, Bennett advocates looking for personality over experience, as some people are business minded, while others simply are not, he says.

Looking for potential candidates who have a desire to advance their careers and manage something, however small, could be solid clues that one of your employees has what it takes to grow into an effective, happy manager. Observing everyday small-group dynamics can also offer valuable insight into which employees have natural leadership tendencies.

While there are many personality tools available, Bennett has had success with the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment as a means to find out what individual staff members enjoy doing, as well as skills they have a natural aptitude for. The key, he says, is not just finding what people are capable of doing, but what they truly will enjoy doing on a long-term basis.

Illustrating his point, Bennett asks, “Do you want to hire somebody to manage your business who is good at management, or do you want to hire somebody who doesn’t like it?”

As an introductory step, he suggests talking with employees to find out what interests them, with a goal of discovering if they are excited by the idea of being in control of financial, marketing or facilities needs, as a few examples, in addition to fixing cars and talking to customers.

“There are people who love what they’re doing, and when somebody loves what they’re doing, they’ll get better at it and better at it, because they love it,” he says. “I would want to find somebody who maybe isn’t satisfied in the job they’re in, but they’re still doing an OK job with it, and not being disgruntled, because as a manager you’ve got to do a lot of stuff that you don’t like doing, but you have to do it.”

Once interest and the right demeanor are in place with a potential candidate, Bennett suggests starting to work one-on-one to uncover specific skills that will be useful in management situations, for example, like being able to tell when somebody is lying to him or her during a job interview.

Getting Grooming Started

Once you have determined to start formally grooming a management candidate, Bennett suggests sending them to a management training class and, when they return, sit them down and let them talk without interruption about their experience.

By listening, an existing owner or manager can find out if the employee was interested in the financial portion, marketing, leadership or anything else. The alternative, of course, is if they found the information boring or intimidating.

“I love seeing somebody go to something that’s far beyond them to see if they will rise to the occasion,” Bennett says.

Grooming an employee is not just a process for them, but also for the owner or manager trying to serve as a mentor. Bennett says that existing managers need to make a detailed plan for the training process, and also be careful to minimize natural “control freak” tendencies.

Giving candidates certain responsibilities without managerial interference builds trust, he says, by giving them the chance to exercise their own decision-making ability without the worry that they’re going to be reprimanded if something goes wrong.

“The first thing is … don’t be a micromanager,” Bennett says. “If you’re going to ask me to do something and I’m going to make a mistake and you’re just going to give me a really hard time about it, are you going to let me make my own mistakes?”

An ideal test would be leaving town for a week, leaving the business in the hands of your manager-in-training. In that situation, he recommends resisting the urge to call, text or email to check in on the shop, if possible.

“I know some people who go on vacation for a week and don’t make one phone call, and I see some people that are at a workshop for a day and phone the shop a dozen times a day,” he says. “Some people will rise to the occasion, do a better job and take it more seriously if you literally turned your business over to [them] for the last week and didn’t even call.”

A Long Process

An hour south of Toronto in Burlington, Ontario, industry coach and shop owner Rex Sarson has recently begun grooming his 30-year-old son, Todd, for a managerial role at the family’s Stop N Go Automotive Centre. Sarson said his son previously showed little interest in joining the family business while he was working at a nearby body shop.

After growing tired of his job, Sarson’s son came to him and said that, if he was going to work for anybody else, he wanted to work for his dad. The news came as a surprise, but he gave his son two initial assignments to gauge his commitment.

“I told him there are two things he needed to do,” Sarson says. “One, he needed to learn the software system that we’re currently using and, two, to take training on how to be a service advisor.”

Todd and another employee went to a week-long training course that included significant one-on-one and role-play training focused on customer interaction. The pair came back to the 10-bay shop “unbelievably changed.”

The biggest change was Todd’s new philosophy on dealing with customers. He also returned with a new mantra to service vehicles from a preventative maintenance standpoint, rather than simply fixing broken components. That mindset shift, Sarson says, resulted in lasting changes to the business, professional growth for Todd, and revenue growth for the company. 

In the five years since beginning the transition, Sarson is still technically the company president as his plate fills with training and other duties outside the shop. He has gradually transferred duties to his son, while encouraging him to take additional management-focused courses and join a local 20 Group; he wanted his son to interact with business owners who have different ideas than what he has worked to impart over the years.

“Whether I’m teaching a regular employee or my son, I try to set a path of learning where we need to go and let them make mistakes,” Sarson says. “If I can let him make decisions, whether they’re right or wrong, it gives him the opportunity to make the decision. … He’s got to do it for himself.” 

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