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Empowering Staff Through Self-Assigned Training

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Tony Adams remembers one particular employee who became a model worker after some key training. 

But it wasn’t I-CAR or ASE training—it was going back to school. Two credits away from finishing his college degree, Tony Adams, owner of Weaver’s Auto Center in Shawnee, Kan., says it became “mandatory” that his employee close out his education—and Adams would help pay for it.

Inspired by his own commitment to management training, Adams realized that in order to grow his employees into better industry professionals, they needed to achieve happiness in their personal lives that translates the proper attitude to the workplace. Thus, he introduced a new policy: “If there’s a training class you want to take, we’ll pay for it.”

“If I’m choosing my own path towards becoming a better manager, shouldn’t my employees choose their own paths as well?” Adams posits.

The inspiration came from reading the leadership book Gung Ho! Turn On the People in Any Organization by Ken Blanchard, but the approach also echoes a compelling strategy detailed by another bestselling guide.

“The better everyone feels here, the better the customer experience we’ll be able to deliver at the end of the day.”
—Tony Adams, owner, Weaver’s Auto Center

Turn the Ship Around!

When one of Navy officer David Marquet’s sailors didn’t follow the proper procedure on the U.S.S. Santa Fe, leading to a failure on the nuclear-powered submarine’s Fairbanks-Morse diesel engine, the sailor could have lied and caused the crew to spend hours trying to fix a problem that wasn’t there.

Instead, that sailor simply stated he was in a hurry and forgot to pull a pin. That honesty, Marquet says, stems from a system of allowing his employees to define their own paths, which the Navy officer explains in his book, Turn the Ship Around!

“I’m working with sports teams, fast food restaurants, hospitals, schools, churches,” Marquet says. “The more I talk to these people, the more I’m convinced that we’ve all got the same problems, which is: ‘How do I create an environment where my people feel like they’re doing something important? And they come to work enthusiastically?’”

Marquet eventually transformed his ship from one of the worst-performing submarines to one of the best by using many of the same strategies he describes in his book. In this case, Marquet believes that employees choosing their own training is a critical step in not only their personal growth, but in their commitment to the business they work for. 

Mandatory vs. Voluntary Employee Training

Training is, of course, an essential component of the collision repair industry. From technicians to human resources to management—there are always new techniques and strategies and bits of knowledge to consume.

But there’s a difference between requiring training and voluntary effort, Adams says. His employees have required I-CAR and ASE training, but, after his own training, Adams knew it would be more empowering for employees to request their own training classes and paint their own destinies.

“I’ll say to them, ‘We want you to pick one thing you want to work on,’” Adams says. “If you’re a car wash guy and what you want to really do is learn the parts department, then why aren’t we helping to lay some groundwork? Everyone should be taking training classes that maybe don’t pertain to what they’re doing today, but six months down the road could be building towards the future of our employees.”

Adams implemented the system very loosely, simply telling his employees that if there is a class that will contribute to either their industry knowledge or personal well-being, he will pay for it. He asks his employees what they’d like to work on at daily meetings, and he lets all new workers know about his system.

Adams does, however, believe in setting limits. He hasn’t outlined a system of how much training an employee can ask for, but he says he makes it clear that the reasoning for requesting training must be pertinent and specific.

“I’m not going to pay for somebody’s college degree,” Adams says. “I’ve done a good job of conveying how this can be beneficial to my employees and what an opportunity it is for their personal growth, so nobody has tried to take advantage of me or anything.”

Beyond Collision Repair

Inspired by the employee’s improved work ethic after finishing off his college degree, Adams realized that “training” went beyond the mandatory training technicians perform at every auto repair shop. He not only encourages his technicians, but also his management and human resources employees to request classes that could improve their personal lives, thus translating to improved work attitudes.

“If somebody came to me and said, ‘I really would like to take some cooking classes with my wife and we never got around to doing it,’ I’d want to go do that for my employees because I think that helps make them better people,” Adams says. “The happier and healthier they are in their personal lives, the happier and healthier they’re going to be in their professional lives.

“The better everyone feels here, the better the customer experience we’ll be able to deliver at the end of the day.”

Adams discovered, as Marquet preaches in his book, that by empowering employees in their personal lives, the demarcation between management and staff evaporated and employees began to correlate their own personal happiness with going to work every day.

“A lot of managers think that if they look the other direction, somebody is gonna walk home with a wrench in their back pocket,” Marquet says. “Other managers understand that their employees like solving problems. They’re naturally curious, they naturally want to do something that matters. They want to improve themselves and make their lives more interesting. 

“We should say to our employees, ‘I will support you on your life journey, and since we have resources that you helped me create at work, which is money, we’ll help you make the time for this.’”

“As a leader, I take care of the people around me and I make decisions. That’s what you want everyone doing. Everyone can be a leader.”
—David Marquet, author, “Turn the Ship Around!”

From Followers to Leaders

Adams regularly spends time thinking of ways to empower his employees, and the most tried-and-true method so far, he says, is allowing his employees to become leaders—and allowing them to choose their own training is a huge part of that.

“It’s about empowering your people to make decisions,” Adams says. “There’s too many moving pieces in business today. I tell my people frequently, ‘I’m not smart enough.’ I can’t write all the estimates and close all the tickets. There’s just no way. There are way too many moving pieces.

Marquet preaches that allowing your employees to dictate their own training is a key step in creating a team of leaders as opposed to breeding followers who have little personal investment in the company. 

“Some people think the definition of a leader is somebody who runs around with a big chest and tells people what to do, which is not what my definition of a leader is,” Marquet says. “As a leader, I take care of the people around me and I make decisions. That’s what you want everyone doing. Everyone can be a leader. You want everyone making decisions, but you don’t want everyone to be doing their own thing. That would be chaos.” 

In the end, Adams’ mission is to create a team consisting of leaders, not followers. A team of followers would simply take orders from management, he says, while a team of leaders would work for the common good and be united in taking the company in the right direction.

“I’m a firm believer in the servant leadership philosophy,” Adams says. “I am here for my people, not the other way around. I know a lot of leaders don’t think that way. Basically, they think their people are there for them so they can go do what they want to do when they want to do it.

Instead, Adams says that a leader’s outlook should be the other way around, which benefits both the staff and the owner.

“I’m here for my people. I’m here to support them, train them, coach them, develop them, and help them realize their full potential. Because if I’ve done that, then that’s my ultimate path to freedom as an effective  business leader.” 

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