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Three Inspiring Books to Become a Better Leader

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Whether it’s from formal training, going to a movie, listening to a podcast, or talking to a colleague or mentor, learning to become a better leader can be achieved in a variety of ways. And one of those ways just might be from a good book.

From ideas about culture and people to processes and operations, books can be a source for business improvement. Three top shop operators share their favorite reads that helped shape the leaders they’ve become today.

The Book: Whale Done!: The Power of Positive Relationships by Ken Blanchard, Thad Lacinak, Chuck Tompkins and Jim Ballard.
The Leader: Phil O’Connor, owner, POC Collision

Whale Done! begins with one seemingly irrelevant question: “What do your people at work and your spouse and kids at home have in common with a five-ton killer whale?” As it turns out, the answer is more than you think, says Phil O’Connor, owner of POC Collision in Saco, Maine.

“This book was basically saying to accentuate the positive. So, when an employee or your child does something good or right, compliment them on it,” he says. “I remember that we had Chuck Tompkins speak at our 20 Group meeting with Mike Anderson, and [Tompkins] compared it with the way we treat puppies: When they pee outside for the first time we get all giddy and speak in a high voice to reinforce the good behavior in hopes that it will continue.”

Whale Done! was written with top SeaWorld trainers and explores how positive reinforcement techniques used with orca whales can have a similar effect on our relationships at work and at home. “Many times either our employees or children do something right and we never give them notice or credit but when they do something bad or wrong, we harp on them and make an issue out of it,” O’Connor says. “I read this book when I had young children and starting my businesses and really taught me to congratulate things that they were doing correctly.”

Furthermore, O’Connor says it taught him to be more tolerant of mistakes and not to harp on those. While this doesn’t mean those mistakes should be ignored or go uncorrected, O’Connor says he’s more careful in his delivery. The result is increased productivity, more trusting relationships and a better shop culture.

“To this day I make sure I compliment employees every day to reinforce what they are doing right,” O’Connor says. “This was very hard for me beforehand because I was the guy that would just say, ‘Do your job.’ I look back at that now and see that it’s kind of old-school thinking.”

The Book: Feel the Fear… And Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers
The Leader: Jim Shreve, collision director, Waikem Auto Group

Earlier this year, Shreve unexpectedly received the news that he would have to undergo quintuple bypass surgery, which would require him to be out of the dealership in Massillon, Ohio, for 12 weeks of recovery.

The news shocked him, he says, and that shock turned into fear of going back to work. He worried that the stress of the dealership had caused some of his health problems, and that going back would exacerbate those problems.

During his recovery, Shreve—a voracious reader—read numerous books, including one that he says was not only one of the best he’s read in a long time, but also helped him overcome his fear. In Feel the Fear… and Do It Anyway, Susan Jeffers offers techniques and concepts to help readers identify what they’re afraid of and why, how to move from feeling like a victim and how to stop negative self-talk.

“The message is, stop being afraid of what you can’t control. Turn it around from a disadvantage to an advantage,” Shreve says. “She had a really good quote in there that I wrote down: ‘By re-educating the mind, you can accept fear as simply a fact of life rather than a barrier to success.’ That really hit home with me. How many of us do that? It’s about redirecting your thoughts, getting a different thought process and not letting the day-to-day humdrums beat you up so bad. When you have a bad day, there’s some positive everywhere.”

Shreve says that quote stuck with him so much that he reread the book almost immediately and began to take steps to overcoming his fear of returning to work.

“I had to accept the fear that it’s OK to come back to work. I can still work. My heart is stronger than a 20-year-old’s now. I had to overcome that barrier,” he says. “I had to reprogram my mind. I’m not ready to retire. We’re going to move forward and keep going.”

Shreve started by going back to work part time, before eventually transitioning to full time. What he found, he says, was that not only was there no reason to fear going back to work, but that the collision center had run more than smoothly in his time away.

“With me being out for so long, these guys really had to jump in,” he says. “That was a leap of faith and a big goal for them and they did a tremendous job.”

The Book: The Game of Work by Charles Coonradt
The Leader: Joe Martin, regional director, Gerber Collision & Glass

Joe Martin says the message of Game of Work can be summed up in one simple question: Why would people rather go ice fishing in the middle of winter and freeze their butts off to have fun than to go into work for a day? “Why would you put yourself through that?” he asks.

It’s about environment and culture, and Martin says that same feeling can be created in the shop.

“The environment you create [at work] with having fun and getting competition involved basically makes the employees feel like they’re not going to work,” he says. “They’re going to win and to play a game.”

That’s the premise behind Coonradt’s book, which offers tips and strategies for creating a more enjoyable work environment by introducing the element of competition. The book suggests using a key matrix to identify the top key performance indicators to be tracked in a given business. For Martin, that’s cycle time, closing ratio, billed hours per day and customer service numbers.

“Find the key metrics that you believe are important to your business and have competitions with those,” he says. “Put goals in place and see if you’re winning or losing today. For us, perception is everything. You can either have the mindset that you hate your job and nobody cares or you can be part of a team that’s going to win.”

Because he’s the regional director of an MSO, Martin says the shops are able to easily compete against each other. But even if you’re a single store, he says, you can still have competitions by setting benchmarks and competing against yourself. The keys to a proper competition, he says, are accurate information, timeliness and proper rewards. He shies away from cash and instead likes to buy lunch, concert or Disney World tickets, tools, gift cards or iPads.

The result of implementing the ideas from Game of Work has been significantly less micromanaging, he says.

“People are taking the pride or responsibility to not be last,” he says. “You don’t need to be all over them. They’re driven. Those stores that were underperforming would get to the top faster. Those that were at the top would have to be careful and not get complacent because someone is always working harder to catch up to them.”

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