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On Becoming a Servant-Leader

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I just returned home from Chicago—Lombard, Ill., actually!—and, the second annual Ratchet+Wrench Management Conference.

I was there as a presenter as well as an attendee.

As a presenter, I was on the agenda twice: once, talking about the importance of ensuring your business is as profitable as you can make from the moment you open your doors, so you have something to sell when it’s time for you to close them. And, for basically an uncensored, unscripted, hour-long, extemporaneous visit to the convolutions of my mind: a visit to my world.

But, this column isn’t about my presentations.

This isn’t about the great team I work with at Ratchet+Wrench, either: Bryce Evans and his team; our publisher, Chris Messer; and our president, Jay DeWitt. It isn’t about how through all their hard work, contagious energy and diligence, they managed to catch magic in a bottle twice in creating another high-energy, high-level event, attended by some of the industry’s finest shop owners and presented by many of the industry’s finest educators and shop owners “in it to win it,” just like you.

All I’ll say about that is if you weren’t with us, you should have been! But, you don’t have to stress; we’re doing it all again next year!

This column is about the session that closed the conference, a session I was unable to attend in person. It was presented by Aaron Stokes, a multi-shop operator, and I was able to view the presentation in the video section of Ratchet+Wrench’s Facebook page.

It was a one-hour “how-to” exploration of how to go from struggling with one shop to owning six without allowing the process—the journey—to consume you.

I’m sure Aaron would agree that there are some things in that presentation, particularly the mistakes he made at the very beginning of his odyssey he would not encourage you to emulate. But, overall it was a powerful exploration addressing some of the critical areas of our industry that cry out for change: a deeper understanding of who we are, what we do and how we see  ourselves; how we should reconsider how we perceive our roles in life, business and, perhaps most of all, in our industry.

I won’t try to paraphrase or explain what Aaron had to say. I’m not going to put words in his mouth, either. I couldn’t do it justice. So, I won’t. What I will do is spend a few minutes sharing what I believe is the single greatest imperative Aaron has left all of us with.

Aaron has challenged us—all of us—to understand the very nature of who we are and how we define ourselves. He suggests that in all too many instances, we are chained to the ancient definitions and false self-images of who we once were at the expense of who we might yet become.

He said what I’ve been saying for years—what we all intuitively seem to know—that we are mechanics who learned to be technicians (or, who were forced into the transition!); technicians who learned to write service; service advisors who one day found themselves managing the chaos they were immersed in, and who ultimately wound up owning the circus they performed in … all while trying to survive.

In the chaos and confusion, we missed a critical step in our own evolution and that missed step is responsible for more pain and misery than anyone could ever adequately recount.

We never made the connection between running a business and seeing ourselves as businessmen and women. Businessmen and women realize that who they are transcends what they do, or, perhaps, more importantly, what they did! They understand they can’t do everything that needs to be done within the business. They understand that they shouldn’t even if they could! Their role is to ensure everyone else knows and understands what their roles are. Their single most important responsibility is to see that every one of their associates is trained to recognize the “why?” of what they have been tasked with, so they understand why the policies and procedures that have evolved exist. Then they can figure out how to handle the exceptions they are certain to encounter when they come up.

Every good shop owner—every good businessperson I’ve ever met—understands the nature of service. Almost without exception they realize serving is a calling, their calling. In more ways than one, it’s their ministry.

All of you realize the relationship you share with your clients and the responsibilities you have accepted when you were called to serve them. I’ve experienced it myself and witnessed it throughout the industry!

To become a leader who serves, a servant-leader, that calling, that need to serve, must be expanded to include everyone in your organization. All the people who have bound their futures and their prosperity to yours.

They have placed their trust in you just as you must trust and depend on them; and, so it becomes your responsibility—OUR responsibility—as individuals and as an industry, to serve them as well.

We do that best by presenting them with a clear path forward to a better, more prosperous, more predictable, less chaotic future. We do that by presenting each of them with the educational opportunities they need and/or want to excel: to excel at their current position or to grow into a future position within your organization.

By accepting a new and different understanding of who you are, you will find yourself better able to serve the people with whom you work, the people who have chosen to work with you. By serving them better, they are likely to serve your clients better. And, by serving your clients better, your business will grow, limited only by your energy and imagination.

By understanding and embracing this call to service you will learn to lead and by becoming a servant-leader, you just might find yourself called to new opportunities and greater success.

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