Leadership Boot Camp
Five people shuffle into a room, gather around a circular table, and take a seat. Then, someone walks in, sets down a tray of 12 donuts right in the center, and walks out without saying a word.
If you’re at that table, what do you do?
Here’s the catch: No matter what, David Rogers says, you’ll choose wrong.
“Should you have one? Should you not? Are they for you or someone else?” he asks. “You don’t know because nobody told you. If you eat it, you're wrong. If you don’t, you’re a fool.”
Now pretend it’s not a table of strangers, but instead a group of technicians on the shop floor. And instead of a plate of donuts, there’s one employee who’s not pulling his or her weight, and the others don’t know how to react. Do they complain to the boss? Make up for the slack themselves? Yell until they get their way?
Essentially: What foundation has been laid by the leader?
“It all goes back to expectations you’ve built,” says Rogers, president of the industry consulting firm Auto Profit Masters and COO of the $3 million Keller Bros. Auto. “How well am I living by the example I’ve been asked to follow?”
Chris Cozad’s employees would know what to do. And that’s largely because Cozad—a shop owner who has become a standout, recognized model for leadership at the Automotive Training Institute—is a visionary who’s chosen to focus on the big picture and empower her team to succeed. She keeps her team and operation small, which only maximizes her impact on individual employees. They’re invested in her vision from day one because she’s set a course for her shop, outlined expectations, and carried herself with a caring, democratic aura that’s infectious.
There are KPIs that track productivity, salesmanship, customer service, profitability—but how do you measure your performance as a leader? It’s difficult to gauge how well you’re leading your team, whether your employees feel inspired, whether your vision is being realized. And until you’re ready to evaluate yourself and the role you play as the CEO of your company, your team will aimlessly drift without a captain to follow.
Luckily, there’s help. The two leadership experts in this article have mapped out a program that, from beginning to end, provides a blueprint for anyone looking to become a more effective leader. In fact, Ratchet+Wrench can prove the visionary leadership styles championed by Cozad and Rogers work because of data culled from the 2018 Ratchet+Wrench Industry Survey, which is sprinkled throughout this story.
So this is where you turn everything around, Rogers says. Your team is done wondering what direction it’s heading; you’re no longer allowed to sit idly by—it’s time to step up and pave a road to success.
Stage 1: Prep Yourself
Back in the 1980s, the automotive industry had a terrible reputation for ripping women off. “Everybody has a horror story,” Cozad says, detailing why she felt inspired to open Alternative Auto Care, an open venue where she sought to connect with customers and ease out the stigma that had plagued the industry she loved.
To this day, 35 years later, Cozad’s small $500,000 model is still thriving in Columbus, Ohio. Her message is so inspiring and widespread with her five employees and community that, in 2015, she won the Automotive Training Institute’s Humanitarian of the Year.
And that’s all because, before she started to lead, Cozad says she evaluated herself—her ideals—and established a vision. And according to the Ratchet+Wrench Industry Survey, a “visionary” leader is the most effective kind of leader (See Survey Data: The Four Kinds of Leaders).
“It’s more about what you’ve done before opening day,” Rogers says. “The planning, the self-study, the policies and processes you’re willing to create, and then being able to set clear expectations on the first day.”
Whether you’ve just opened up your shop or you’re a veteran looking to set a new course for your team, there’s always room for change. But before you can stand in front of your employees and try to explore those new avenues, you’ll need to do some prep work, Rogers says.
So, grab a pen and paper, and then ask yourself these questions:
- In one sentence, what is your vision for the shop?
- Where would you like your team to be one year from now?
- How do you want to be perceived by employees?
- How do you want to be perceived by the community?
- What type of environment do you want employees walking into each day?
Whether it’s a document you keep to yourself or a handbook you write for the entire team, the answers to those questions should outline the way both you and your employees should conduct themselves, Rogers says. Craft philosophical guidelines for yourself to live by, and policies employees must follow that abide by your vision.
By knowing the image you wish to portray before walking into the room, you’ll be able to embody an ideal kind of leader.
Stage 2: Step Into the Leadership Role
Sure, you can have a handbook to give out to employees. And that document could outline everything you wish to accomplish, the precedent you hope to set.
But until you’re ready to have a conversation with your team, to set the tone, to walk the walk? That “plan” will be nothing more than just a document.
“When it comes to the best kind of leader, it’s about self-awareness and a willingness to be accountable to your team, your clients,” says Rogers. “It’s about empathy, integrity, and understanding it’s not about who is right, about what is right.”
Basically, there’s no single way to ensure you’re an effective leader—there’s instead a checklist of items to follow on your way to becoming one.
1. Build a two-way street.
The technical aspects of the onboarding process for new employees can be laid out in written form. But for a new employee to truly feel at home in a new work environment—or for any current employee to follow your lead—Cozad says you need to be open and empathetic with them.
“It’s important to build relationships based on two-way conversations,” she says. “I want to hear from them, about them, their life, their interests, their history. And I share that about myself and build that relationship.”
In short, “people want to be heard,” she says, and that even extends to your customers. Because of Cozad’s vision for a shop that acts as a safe space for both customers and employees, she practices the two-way-street method with anyone who walks through the door.
By extension, that energy carries into her shop, where employees are open with their boss. They also feel empowered by the safe space she’s cultured, as her staff consists entirely of female employees.
2. Hold yourself accountable.
As someone who’s coached shops for the last 20 years, the story has become all too common, Rogers says.
“They keep trying to hire that right person, and don't understand why the shop continually struggles, why they have the same issues over and over,” he says. “When you get past all the frustration and finger-pointing, you find that real issue that everything starts at the top.”
Until Rogers stepped into these shop owners’ operations, they never once took the moment to evaluate themselves. They were too busy wondering what was wrong with everyone else to realize that those employees were never set in the right direction in the first place.
“Until you're willing to really study yourself and hold yourself accountable. You can’t make rules you're not willing to follow,” he says. “You can’t tell your employees to not do side jobs, and then let your buddy in front of everyone. Nobody wants to follow a hypocrite.”
Essentially: “You can’t hire the right people—you need to build the right culture.”
3. Brainstorm ideas with your team.
Just a few months ago, at her weekly crew meeting, Cozad and her crew evaluated the shop’s brake inspection process, which everyone was doing differently from vehicle to vehicle.
“By the end of the meeting, we decided to take more detailed steps during pre-service inspection and work through that,” she says. “That was a technician’s ideas.”
In addition to being a visionary leader, Cozad exudes touches of a democratic leader, as well. She’s found that one key to receiving buy-in from employees is empowering them to offer suggestions, and then to implement those suggestions when they’ll improve processes.
4. Be an objective leader.
Great technicians are hard to come by—everyone in the industry knows that. With an employee shortage plaguing the industry, a tech that can push 150 percent efficiency is a beacon of hope.
But what if that tech shows up late twice per week? What if he or she doesn’t get along with half of the team? What if this individual constantly undermines your authority?
Do you say anything? You don’t want to upset your star tech, right?
“Whenever emotions get involved, be it fear or frustration or even joy, they cloud our thinking and allow us to make poor decisions,” Rogers says. “When your own heart isn’t on the line in the moment...it’s easier to arrive at a more objective point. What would the result be [if I disciplined this employee]? And what’s the best way to construct a foundation to lead us there?”
Nobody—including yourself—should be an exception to the rules. Craft a disciplinary process that everyone must follow. By remaining an objective leader at all times, you can set a precedent for how people should conduct themselves, and construct an environment where everyone is an equal.
5. Be the face of your shop.
It’s one thing to have a vision of building a safe space for automotive repair customers and employees—it’s another to convince the entire world you’ve achieved. But as the winner of ATI’s Humanitarian of the Year award, Cozad has proven that talking the talk and walking the walk have entirely different consequences.
“Everything we do is under a microscope. And when you work in [auto repair], there’s emotion involved,” she says. “It’s critical that our choices in how we interact or get involved reflects the same values we have identified as our business. You can’t say you care about people and then not care about schools in the area.”
By getting out into the community and showing she cares, Cozad embodies the safe space she wishes to create for her employees. She donates her time and money to area organizations and schools, hosts fundraisers at the shop, and appears on local news stations to offer car maintenance tips. As a result, her staff is inspired to join in the philanthropy, as well.
Stage 3: Evaluate Yourself
Once your plan is in motion and you’ve fully integrated yourself into the leadership mold, how do you know it’s working? Being effective is about more than planning and philosophizing—it’s about results.
Luckily, there are a few ways to check yourself as a leader and hold yourself accountable.
1. Enlist a mentor.
When asked, “What’s the toughest thing about being a leader,” Rogers just sighs.
“What day isn’t tough to be a leader if you’re doing it right?” he responds. “In those moments where you’re faced with your own folly, when you realize your situation is of your own creation, that’s when you're alone.
“That’s why you need a mentor.”
Whether that mentor is an industry consultant, a business coach, an area business owner or even the local pastor, Rogers says one of the most invaluable assets to you as a shop owner is someone who will constantly hold you accountable for your actions and critique you as a leader.
Find someone who has proven his or her success and has great experience managing teams, who is willing to help guide a wandering, aspiring business owner. It can even be a two-way street in the form of 20 Groups or other peer networking groups, where non-competing business owners evaluate each other’s operations.
Regardless of who fits into the mentor role, be sure it’s someone who can relate to your specific duties as a business owner. For instance, if you’re looking to inspire your team to embrace technology, someone who runs a business with constantly changing tech can likely offer proper guidance.
2. Read a good book.
Next to Cozad’s desk in her small office is a bookshelf filled with reads that, over the years, have intermittently slightly tweaked her leadership style.
Which has been key, as Cozad is 35 years in and her employees are nothing like the ones when she started. Everything from expectations about an employer to body language changes from generation to generation, and sometimes a good book can help keep your current.
“It’s important to not get stuck where you are,” she says. “You’re always continually evaluating and learning. With technology always changing, our industry is about a commitment to learning.”
As a standout option, Cozad recommends QBQ! The Question Behind the Question (by John G. Miller), which is about how to build a culture of accountability and get employees invested in your company’s growth (some of her employees have even borrowed the book from her office).
“Instead of saying, ‘I don’t like the way Chris does A or B,’ or, ‘I don’t like the sway this is handled,’ they should say, ‘How can I make a difference? Do I have suggestion I can make?’” she says.
3. Build your own personal KPIs.
While there aren’t necessarily KPIs that track leadership, there are certain numbers that can tell you a lot about your performance as a leader.
“Sometimes you can’t tell the impact you’ve had on an employee until years after,” Rogers says. “But there are steps to take while they’re in the shop.”
Just like you’d do with your technicians and service advisors, here are a few metrics to track and set benchmarks for:
- How much employee turnover is there?
- How many employees have been promoted?
- How often are employees achieving bonuses?
- How dedicated are employees to training?
- What’s your employees’ general mood at work?
All in all, evaluating those stats will let you know if you’re driving them to perform as a leader.