Howes: From The Helm, Culturally Speaking

May 25, 2022

Becoming a transformative leader in your shop starts with identifying the type of culture you want to create for your team members and then creating a powerful mission to strive towards together.

An oft-repeated and perhaps fabled story about a janitor's chance meeting with President Kennedy during the early days of NASA: "What do you do?" the president supposedly asked the man pushing a broom during a visit to Cape Canaveral. "Well, Mr. President, I'm helping to put a man on the moon."

Now, this meeting may or may not have actually taken place. But there's a good reason it's one of the most commonly-repeated management tales: it illustrates the idea that a workforce motivated by a strong sense of higher purpose is essential to building a strong culture. 

How Did We Get Here?

When I first spoke with Ratchet+Wrench editor Chris Jones about what he's like to see in this column, he mentioned leadership, which delighted me. Leadership and close cousin culture are near and dear to my heart and something we've worked very diligently in our own business. 

If you are reading this column, you likely already know how to fix cars, and chances are we know how to do it very well. It's something in our innate nature. We feel comfortable around mechanical things. They are consistent and repeatable. Managing people, however, proves for many of us a bit more of a challenge than managing a car repair. 

It is in leadership and culture, in my observation, that the most significant challenges and yet the greatest opportunities lie for us as modern shop owners. And yet, shop culture is one of those things that is so infrequently spoken about and likewise so seldom taught. 

Culture Wins

So, let's talk about culture. You can't be everywhere at once. Nor can you effectively micromanage your business and still have a life. At least not for long. The only way to do that in your absence is to create a culture that inculcates your values and goals. In your absence, the business continues to operate while respecting your goals, values, and performance standards. I often share a simple definition of culture: "What happens when you aren't there." 

Every shop has a culture, and your company's culture always determines success, regardless of how effective your strategy may be. Culture is created by what you tolerate and the behaviors you encourage. Culture is simply the rules, the ethos, and the values of your organization. In a self-governing culture, the team members share a common vision and will internally self-regulate each other to honor that vision. 

A famous Peter Drucker quote says, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." Don't confuse strategy for culture. Strategy is about ideas, and culture is about people. You need people to implement a strategy. You can have the best ideas in the world, but if you don't have people who buy into and execute that strategy, you'll fail every time. In fact, this is one of the prime reasons many businesses fail to move forward and keep repeating the same problems. They may have changed strategy, but they never changed the culture. 

Looking Back to Look Forward

In my father's day, generally, an employee went to work for a company and stayed there for their career. In today's workforce, it's not enough to offer a job. We must also provide a career and a sense of purpose. We ideally have our team buy into a shared mission statement. Team members (we use that term rather than employees) want to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. 

So how do you bring about that change, and how do you develop that positive culture? The answer is slowly. Change in a business is like steering a big ship. You need to make a series of small changes to affect the destination. Human beings are creatures of habit. We tend to feel comfortable with the status quo, even when we know we could do better. So when you start making changes, you need to do it slowly, apply one to two changes, measure the result, make sure the team sees it, get buy-in, ask for input, and then repeat the process. 

Begin With the End in Mind

Author Stephen Covey shares that "Everything is created twice, once in your mind, and then in the real world." In other words, we have to visualize what we want to see and what the outcome looks like before we can design the path to take to get there. 

Someone once told me that GPS software works backward, from the destination to your current location, which is a great analogy. So, like the GPS software, we need to visualize what an empowered, strong shop culture looks like—I call it the "end state." Role models help, but you likely know what a perfect shop would look like in your own head. 

I'll share our shop "end state"—"Modern building, workshop with white epoxy floors and white walls, with a blue stripe (company colors). Waiting rooms that look like a comfortable lounge. Clean, professional, organized, profitable, engaged team members. The workflow is busy but not rushed. Late model cars with clients who smile a lot and say "Yes." Team members who are growing both personally and professionally, a solid outreach to our community."

Write that down, be specific and visual with the smell, touch, sounds, or anything to make it real for you. Don't hesitate to sketch, draw, cut, or save photos of shops you admire. Spend some time and refine it—take a few days, after all, this goal will last for years. You'll shift and refine it further, but you need to know what you are working for. This is your vision, so dream big.

What's Your Mission Statement

Ok, got that? The first thing to start your change, now that you know your end state, is to clearly articulate your business purpose. If you ask 10 shop owners what they do, nine of the 10 will say, "I fix cars." But like the janitor in the opening paragraph, we need to consider that we do more; much, much more. We need to define that in a positive, inspiring way. And we need to do that with our team members. This must be a shared vision, not only for buy-in but being in the proverbial trenches. They'll likely have ideas and directions you haven't thought of. They will help you build your culture.

Bricklayers or Cathedral Builders

So how do you engage team members? Simple. Ask questions! Another story. A construction architect observed three workers on a scaffold and asked, "What are you doing?" The first bricklayer replied, "I'm laying bricks." The second responded, "I'm repairing a wall." But the third replied, "I'm building a cathedral to The Almighty." See the difference, the empowerment? Do you want to be bricklayers or cathedral builders?" 

British serial entrepreneur—and personal hero of mine—Sir Richard Branson has a great quote "A business is simply an idea to make other people's lives better." With that in mind, rather than "I fix cars," consider the mission statement "I provide safe transportation solutions." Or perhaps the statement we recently adopted at our business, "We provide exceptional care for cars … and people." Whatever it is, bring in the higher purpose, and not just in what you share with clients. You need your team to experience and believe it themselves, just like our janitor friend at NASA. 

So, this sounds like work, right? Based on our own experience, I can promise you that it is well worth it. Ultimately, bringing team members into the conversation, and lending them a free hand in helping design the culture, unleashed the untapped power of our people. They are inspired by a sense of purpose. We have experienced heightened employee retention and engagement, satisfaction, and loyalty, and have driven our employees to strive for peak performance. I hope that you'll consider it.

About the Author

Bruce Howes

Bruce J. Howes is the owner and founder of Atlantic Motorcar Services, a multi-location European specialty shop in Wiscasset, Maine. He is a 35-year veteran of shop ownership, with a fondness for process maps, literary quotes, and Ernest Hemingway books.

Bruce also works in emergency medicine as a second career and is a nationally registered Advanced Emergency Medical Technician (A-EMT). He serves as a board member at the Maine Maritime Museum and various local nonprofit organizations.

A strong advocate for continuing education, as well as peer-to-peer coaching, his shop recently established a dedicated in-house training center for technicians and shop owners, and hosts a new technician apprentice program. He can be reached at [email protected].

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