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Groom Employees for Management

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Phil Quiles, owner of Crawford Auto Construction in Chicago, wanted more time for himself, and he needed a new general manager to oversee the shop’s daily operations. He took his time to interview several candidates, knowing it’s a high-level job that can’t be held by just anyone. Quiles finally took a gamble on one candidate from Arizona who he thought had the intelligence and interpersonal skills to do the job.

Quiles paid for the new hire’s airfare, and even supplied him with $7,000 in cash up front to help make the move.

Things didn’t turn out as expected. Quiles says the new manager was extremely selfish and lacked personal integrity. He made daily decisions with self-serving interests and changed rules to his benefit. He wasn’t the type of person the shop needed and the relationship only lasted five months.

Quiles went back to the drawing board, and finally did what he should have done all along before wasting months of time and a heap of cash. He selected an existing employee to groom for the job—someone who had already gained his trust and demonstrated the management traits he was searching for.

That route, Quiles recalls, was much more successful. The shop has been running smoother than ever under that same manager for several years.

That’s a situation that every shop operator can learn from. Although it’s possible to find solid managers through a stringent hiring process, sometimes the best fit is right under your nose. You just have to know what characteristics to look for, and how to groom them for new leadership responsibilities.

Groom from Within

Finding managers from within your business is generally a better decision than hiring an outsider, says Sabrina Clark, owner of collision industry consulting firm Sabrina Clark Consulting. Hiring outsiders with unproven skills can be a big gamble—they may have habits that don’t mesh with your business operation or values.

“The best results come when you have a person who you’ve already worked closely with in the past,” Clark says.

That’s because they already have a solid grasp of your shop’s culture, policies and procedures. And they might even have established familiarity, relationships and respect from the rest of the staff—something that can take years for a newbie to develop. Overall, existing employees tend to transition into management roles more smoothly.

“If you have someone who started out as a technician, estimator or detailer and worked closely with you through some of the ‘lower’ aspects of your business, they see how you want everything done,” Clark says. “By the time they get to the management point, you can be comfortable that they clearly understand how everything should operate.”

Find the Right Fit

Of course, not every employee is management material. The job requires more than just being a hard worker, so you’ve got to choose wisely to ensure you’ve got the right person to lead the organization.

There are a few things to look for that will help indicate whether your management prospects have the necessary characteristics to oversee daily operations.

Time Management. There are many variables in body shop environments that are difficult to keep straight, Clark says, such as handling parts vendors, insurance companies and customers while holding employees accountable. Good managers must have great organizational skills, be able to reserve appropriate amounts of time for each duty, and delegate tasks accordingly.

Assess how the employee manages their regular job, Clark suggests. Observe whether the employee finishes tasks on time, proactively allots time for paperwork or follow-up calls, keeps a calendar, or maintains a daily “to-do” list. Those are a few ways to indicate whether they have excellent organizational skills on a micro level that could improve their management abilities.

“If someone takes time to do these things on their own without their boss telling them to do it, that’s a good signal that they understand time management and organization is important,” Clark says.

Education. Managers don’t need to be experts on every department within the shop, but they should have general knowledge as to how each department operates. If possible, look for individuals who have attended a formalized auto body training program. Those people are more likely to have been exposed to a variety of training, particularly estimating and production management, and have a proper knowledge base to do the job.

An educational background also typically indicates better accountability and attention to detail, Clark says.

Communications Skills. Managers should be equipped with proper verbal and nonverbal communications skills with various types and demographics of people to establish professionalism, handle negotiations, and resolve conflicts.

Promoter of Positivity. Quiles looks for managers who are good internal communicators. He wants managers who respect everybody, and sincerely care about the overall welfare of the company. He keeps an eye out for staff members who constantly treat others with fairness and sensitivity.

Desire to Innovate. Quiles looks for people who are capable of developing and initiating new business-building ideas. Managers should be able to listen to and acknowledge other employees’ ideas, and not be afraid to experiment with new things.

Likeability. Managers don’t have to be best friends with the rest of the staff, but they should be able to get along with employees, Clark says. That builds trust, relationships and a positive culture throughout the organization.

You don’t want to select someone who is condescending or negative toward other staff members, Clark says. They should be approachable and promote open communication throughout the company.

The Training Process

Start the grooming process once you’ve identified the ideal candidate for the management track. Remember, there is a lot to learn before you can comfortably hand over the management reigns. So allot plenty of time because Clark says it often takes at least one year to get a staffer up to speed.

Take that person under your wing by implementing an organized shadowing process. Designate time every workday to explain and guide your manager-to-be through the following responsibilities and activities:

Marketing. Owners handle most marketing initiatives in independent operations. They visit insurance agents, maintain dealership and fleet accounts, attend chamber of commerce meetings, and join networking groups. Owners should pass those skills on to their protégé, Clark says. Take the employee along to future meetings so they can learn the ropes and get exposed to business networking situations.

Production. The manager should be trained on all of your shop’s critical key performance indicators, including how to measure, track and monitor performance. They should have a thorough understanding of production reports and how to analyze the numbers in order to identify problems and improvements.

Sales and Finances. Managers should learn all of the financial history and performance of the business, as well as daily, weekly and monthly sales goals. They need to understand all of the various financial records—such as budgets, profit and loss sheets, balance sheets and cash flow statements—and know how to decipher the information.

Accounting. Managers should be trained and given password access to various business accounts, such as payroll, vendors and bill paying.

Operational Oversight. Quiles meets with his management prospect three times per week to discuss issues in the shop, including operational and employee challenges. They discuss how the manager feels and whether he sees any necessary changes to make. That allows the prospective manager to get accustomed to making observations in the shop, brainstorming solutions, and implementing productive change.

Leadership Training

Many people groomed for shop management have been in the industry a majority of their career, but never went through formalized leadership or business training, Clark says. It’s a good idea to have them attend specific leadership courses and seminars to learn how to effectively supervise, coach, motivate and provide feedback to employees.

She says there are several training opportunities available through post-secondary schools, third party organizations and industry-specific events. For example, technical and community colleges nationwide have courses geared toward the collision industry, as well as general business and management-related classes that people can enroll in individually. And there are countless management seminars that managers could attend through paint companies, the Automotive Management Institute (AMI), industry associations and trade shows.

Quiles, for example, sent his management trainee to a class focused on how to deal with difficult people successfully. Quiles says the class, which he paid for, allowed the trainee to become a better leader much more quickly than any guidance he could have provided directly.

“As much knowledge gained in the management arena as they can get is helpful,” Clark says. “That definitely helps them become more successful managing the shop.”

An Ongoing Process

You might already have a solid manager in place, and be hesitant to start grooming a replacement. Keep in mind, though, that managers could leave your shop any moment through an unexpected injury, illness or job offer. That would leave you with a huge void that can’t be left unfilled too long.

Always have a successor in mind, Clark says. The management grooming process never ends; constantly have someone in the pipeline moving up the ranks toward a higher-level position should one become available. Once one manager is trained and takes over, start over and work someone new through the same process.

“It’s smart to have a plan that allows someone else to step in quickly,” Clark says. “That’s the best way to keep your business rolling all the time.”

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