Running a Shop

The New Golden Rule of Leadership

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In recent years, Tony Garris has witnessed a transformation within the collision repair industry. 

When it comes to leading a shop, The Golden Rule—treating others as you’d like to be treated—no longer applies. 

“I treat [employees] how they want to be treated, not how I want to be treated,” says Garris, a collision director in Dayton, N.J., with nearly four decades of industry experience. “You need to figure out what motivates each person individually—what’s important to them, what makes them tick. Each of them has a different personality and has different goals. And they can’t be treated exactly the same way.” 

Leading an entire staff with a blanket set of rules—while ruling with an iron fist—can point business leaders down a path toward problems. All too often, that form of leadership contributes to poor employee retention. 

“If you could take all the right personalities and put them together [on a shop staff], that’d be great, but that’s not reality,” says Paul Van Aken, who owns a shop near Detroit. “So, you have to spend time with employees and find out what each of their issues are, be empathetic to their needs.” 

The golden rule of leadership is evolving. However, it’s not too late for shop owners to pinpoint a leadership style that each of their employees will respond to. Using the following advice might just be a first step.

LEAD BY BUILDING TRUST  

Garris laughs at the notion: Over the years, he says, multiple managers have told him he’s too nice. 

Garris views things differently. As the longtime director of Dayton Collision Center (DCC), he simply knows he needs to be attuned to the employees he leads. He knows that, if he doesn’t work diligently to earn their trust, it’ll almost be impossible to implement any lasting improvements at his facility. 

As a result, he tries to get as close to his employees as possible, while maintaining a respectful, professional distance. That method has served Garris well, judging by DCC’s 98.5 percent CSI score, and its $4.5 million annual revenue. 

That said, he also admits it’s not easy. Society constantly changes and, as a business leader, it’s not always easy to keep pace. 

Nowadays, Garris notes, “you have baby boomers like myself, and you have the millennials, and then the next generation, Gen-Zers, that we have working together. And, each one of them you have to treat a bit differently.

“The first thing I noticed with young people coming into the industry” lately, he adds, “is they value their time a whole lot more than my generation. I’ve always worked long hours. The new generation, they come in on time and they leave on time, regardless of the amount of work that needs to be done. And I think older leaders like me need to just accept that.” 

At base, Garris tries to treat each staff member as an individual. But he builds trust throughout his staff in other ways, too, by taking the following steps. 

Lead with a personal touch. 

Garris’s expectations for repairs are consistent throughout his staff. Yet, the manner in which he interacts with employees can differ from person to person. 

On a daily basis, Garris tries to find out what’s on their minds, to the extent they’re willing to share. If an employee is eager to talk about sports, sports cars, or how to address an advanced driver-assistance feature on a car in the shop, Garris is eager to hear about it. In his experience, once employees understand that you value them, and aren’t just concerned with dollars and cents, they tend to become more invested in working as a team. 

Be brutally honest. 

Even when it’s uncomfortable, Garris strives to tell it like it is to his 14-person staff, which repairs 200 vehicles per month. 

“You have to be able to deliver criticism and set expectations for people, and sit them down and have hard conversations when you have to,” he says. “You don’t need to scream and holler; you just need to be honest. If somebody’s not doing their job, you have to tell them specifically. … ‘This is the expectation you should be meeting, and this is the timeline you need to meet.’” 

Allow occasional mistakes. 

Five or six times per day, Garris walks the shop floor, monitoring and talking to employees. Yet, he tries hard to avoid the perception that he’s always peering over their shoulders. After all, Garris knows his employees work best when they’re at ease. 

“Sometimes, you need to let things go wrong and let somebody fail,” he says. “Because they only learn from those mistakes, [especially when] you show them why things went wrong.”  

Be transparent. 

There’s a reason why Garris leaves the shop’s financial statements on his desk. He wants those who work for him to know he’s an open book, with nothing to hide. 

“If they don’t think you’re being honest with them,” he says, “they’re just not going to listen to you. They need to feel respected and understand that you really care about them. Then they’re going to do everything they can to give you their best work.” 

LEAD BY LISTENING 

In a split second, Kevin Lipscomb’s authority was challenged. 

Nearly 30 years ago and fresh out of high school, Lipscomb found himself a co-owner of a shop alongside his father, Jack. One shop veteran wasn’t too eager to be taking advice from a teenager.

“It was very hard, being an 18-year-old, telling a 49-year-old what to do,” recalls Lipscomb, currently the owner of Jack’s Collision Center of Bonita, in southern Florida. “He was like, ‘I’m not going to have some kid tell me what to do.’

“I was green. What I had to do to really earn his respect was learn the trade, go to classes. I made sure that I knew what I was talking about before I told [employees] how to do it.” 

Three decades later, Lipscomb has earned the respect of his seven-person staff. In fact, Jack’s Collision Center, which boasts a 4.8-star average review on Google, has in one respect become a shop owner’s dream.

“Right now, I don’t have any turnover,” Lipscomb says. “Right now, my shop basically runs on its own; I just come in and oversee it, and make sure we’re running on all eight cylinders.”

Above all else, listening to his employees has helped him attain success. Here are the key elements to his approach. 

Interact with employees from Day 1. 

During the onboarding process, Lipscomb makes it known that he’s deeply invested in a new hire’s success. That’s why he plays a key role in introducing him or her to the shop staff. 

“I get the whole team together and introduce them,” he says. “Because, unfortunately, people are jealous when new hires come in. They’re scared for their job, they don’t know this new person. So, everybody’s a little standoffish for the first few weeks, and that [new hire] has to really prove themselves, and all eyes are on them.” 

Because of that initial unease surrounding new hires, Lipscomb lets the rookies know that they can come to him at any time if they have questions or concerns. 

“I always tell [veteran employees], ‘Do your job and stay within your hula hoop. Don’t worry about anybody else; I’ve got it,’” he says. “You want to make sure that new person feels like you’ve got their back. Then, after two or three weeks, usually you’ll see them mesh right in.” 

Seek positive interactions. 

Another conversation from long ago still sticks in Lipscomb’s mind. Some 20 years ago, a painter fired back after enduring frequent criticism from his boss. 

“I would always tell him what he was doing wrong,” Lipscomb says of the painter. “And one day he looked at me and said, ‘You know what? You never say anything about the 99 cars that I do right. But you do complain about the one thing that I did wrong. And a thank you goes a long way.’”

Lipscomb didn’t appreciate being yelled at, but the more he thought about it, the painter had a point. He learned that, for some employees, shop leaders need to accentuate the positive.
Avoid hiding in your office. 

Each morning, Lipscomb circles his shop’s floor and greets each staff member. While doing so, he tries to take note of any employees who have an issue that needs to be addressed. If they do, he makes sure to carve out time to talk, one on one. 

“I had an employee recently that had a family issue and needed to talk to me in private,” Lipscomb recalls. “I didn’t say, ‘I don’t have time for you.’ I made sure I took the time for him and we sat down and talked. He had to leave for a couple weeks for an emergency. I told him how important he was to the team, and that we’ll miss him while he’s gone.” 

Ultimately, Lipscomb says, shop operators need to make their employees feel like they’re needed and that they’re integral to the business’s success. Doing so typically inspires loyalty throughout a staff. 

LEAD BY COACHING 

A few years back, Van Aken, the shop owner from near Detroit, struck up a conversation on the golf course. Paired with his hometown’s football hero, former University of Michigan halfback Ron LaBeau, he posed the following question: 

What’s more important, leading, or managing? LaBeau, then a CEO, answered quicker than a shotgun snap, declaring that great leadership was invaluable. 

Van Aken, who owns Paul’s Quality Collision, a Monroe, Mich., shop that brings in $3.3 million annually, agrees. 

 “Your success as a leader is completely dependent on the team,” he says, leaning on 17 years of youth and high school hockey coaching experience. “The biggest difference is, I could be more direct with hockey players. It was expected. Whereas, if you’re around a lot of different personalities and characters [in a body shop], you have to approach them in different manners.” 

By carefully coaching his 15-person staff, Van Aken has built a business with a 4.8-star average rating on Carwise.com; here’s how he leads his staff to success. 

Seek input. 

By seeking feedback from employees and offering them occasional reassurance, Van Aken—who has more than 40 years of collision repair industry experience—has forged a productive staff. 

“I like input, and when it comes to making decisions like designing processes, I need to know what kinds of challenges [employees] encounter,” he explains. 

“And everybody, whether they’ll admit it or not, needs a little bit of reassurance from time to time. When you do that and you talk to employees on a personal basis, I think they’re more willing to put more effort in.” 

Prioritize team chemistry. 

Van Aken provides breakfast from Bob Evans and holds hamburger cookouts for his employees for a reason: he knows a cohesive group is usually a happy one. 

That’s another commonality between coaching a hockey team and leading a staff at a body shop―things move smoothly when everyone’s united.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of bringing everybody together and having a ‘locker room talk’ in the middle of the shop,” Van Aken says. “Sometimes those aren’t happy talks. Sometimes it takes calling an issue out, recognizing the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. 

“But,” he adds, “when there’s any sort of chemistry between the teammates, that’s when they perform the best.”

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