Find Your Employees' Strengths

May 1, 2013
How to get the most out of each employee.

It’s an easy mistake, says Dan Stander, second-generation operator of Fix Auto Highlands Ranch in Highlands Ranch, Colo. And it’s a mistake he’s made too many times.

“You get a good employee,” he says, “and you go, ‘Wow, this person is great. They can do it all!’ And then you start to let them do it all. Then the problems start.”

If an employee is a great estimator, Stander explains, it’s tempting to have them help out in other ways—answering phones, blueprinting repairs, explaining work to customers. But with their added responsibility, suddenly they’re spending less time focused on their true job (estimating, in this case), and that task begins to suffer; it’s rushed, half-hearted, or flat-out neglected.

It all adds up to inefficiencies.

This isn’t an employee issue, though, says leadership guru Kelly Bennett. It’s about leadership. It’s about creating an environment in which employees are utilized to the best of their abilities, making everyone successful—the employee, the owner, the shop—and giving customers the service that keeps them coming back again and again.

Identifying employee strengths isn’t as simple as reading the “skills” section on a résumé, though. And putting those skills to the proper use isn’t all that easy, either. But nothing about being a good leader ever is, Bennett says.

“It’s about commitment and having the right approach to the situation,” he says.

The process starts with an employee-first mindset, and it ends with an efficient shop filled with employees who use their individual strengths to create a team working toward a common goal.

Employees First

In successful companies, the customer is not king. It goes against every business cliché you might’ve heard, Bennett says, but a customer can’t be served adequately without a quality staff of employees representing your business.

Simply put: Your employees need to be the priority of your company.

“You can look at companies like Starbucks and Southwest Airlines that have created these great ‘customer experience companies,’ and their focus is on employees first,” Bennett says. “I’ve seen way too many small business people treat their employees like crap and their customers like gold. That’s not right. If you’re treating your employees like crap, how do you expect them to treat customers well?”

This needs to be the foundation of your company-wide leadership, and it’s a starting point for bringing out the best in each employee.

Defining the Issue

Managers play checkers, and leaders play chess—the pieces moving in all different directions with specific purposes. A leader has to understand how each piece works with one another to make up the greater whole.

To do that, though, Bennett says you need to rethink the way you look at the words strengths and weaknesses. In reference to the work of author Marcus Buckingham, Bennett says that strengths aren’t simply things you’re good at; mistakes aren’t what you’re bad at.

“Strengths are the things you have strong skills in and things that you love doing,” he says. “And weaknesses are those things that make you feel drained, even if you’re good at them.”

Passion plays a large role in success. And no matter the skill of an employee, if they aren’t in a position to do tasks that make them feel empowered, they won’t succeed.

“You have to know how each of your people thinks and responds by getting to know them individually and working on that, so that they enjoy their jobs more,” Bennett says.

Identifying Strengths

Bennett’s first tip is to have employees take personality tests. Bennett does one-on-one business coaching, as well as group work, seminars, lectures and classes. A regular handout with clients is a copy of Tom Rath’s Strengths Finder 2.0, a book on identifying and utilizing strengths, and Bennett has them take the accompanying online personality test.

“The big thing is talking about those results,” he says. “What you’re doing is identifying who you are, your strengths and your desires.”

Bennett has also worked with shop owners who give employees surveys about their interests away from work. Items such as one’s favorite hobbies, family vacation spots, foods, restaurants, stores, etc., further help to fill in that picture. (Bennett also says this is useful in rewarding employees or giving gifts; you can personalize everything, rather than hand out generic gift baskets or cash.)

Tests only give part of the picture, though. Stander focuses an immense amount of effort on regular communication with employees.

With his clients, Bennett suggests taking each employee out for a one-on-one lunch—or for coffee—at least one time every quarter.

“I have three kids, and it’s amazing how you have a totally different dynamic of conversation with them when they’re by themselves, compared to with their siblings,” he says. “It’s no different with your employees. Not everyone thinks the same way, and this will help show that.”

X’s and O’s: Putting Strengths to Use

Bennett says to imagine you’re a hockey coach, and your best player is your goalie.

“And you look at them and say, ‘We know you’re a great goalie, but you’re no good at playing forward. We need you to play forward until you’re better at it. Then you can go back in goal later,’” he says. “That would be crazy, right? No coach would ever do that. It’s bad for the goalie, and it’s even worse for the team. Yet, we do that every day in business.”

Sell your strengths, and buy your weaknesses—that’s the key, Bennett says.

“When you have strengths, or you’ve identified your employees’ strengths, focus on those things they do really well, and put them in those positions to be successful,” he says. “Then ‘buy’ the weaknesses—have other people handle those areas.”

Stander says there’s a systematic way to approach this. In his shop, he began breaking down every process to its most simple, minute details. Then, he looked to see if those details matched the people who were in charge of them.

“You start to see things, like do we need our high-skilled estimator spending time talking to customers or doing data entry?” he says. “Or can we take those tasks and have them carried out by lower-skilled people? The bottom line is that we need highly skilled people focusing on those high-level skills.”

And by breaking down the processes, Stander is able to give each employee strict guidelines as to his expectations of them.

“It’s about giving people procedures to reach an outcome,” he says. “You can’t just say, ‘Here’s your desk, go at it.’ They need to know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and it should fit their strengths.”

It’s All in the Numbers

Stander knows how hard it is to shake up things in a collision shop. He sees it in other facilities through his role as the director of the Automotive Service Association’s collision division. He’s also seen it in his shop over the past couple of years, as he’s tried to shift people’s roles to better fit their needs.

“The thing to remember is that we don’t have all the answers,” he says. “I definitely don’t. And you don’t know what’s coming down the road. You can’t just sit there with a Magic 8-Ball on your desk.”

Instead, Stander says to focus on your bottom line, and all the numbers that lead to it.

That will provide a much clearer picture of how you’re doing in terms of leadership.

“You need to know where you can improve and where you need to guard against,” he says.

It’s about finding ways to be efficient, ways to make each employee’s strengths add up to company-wide success, instead of simply adding more tasks onto a successful employee’s plate.
“That’s what our job is as owners,” he says. “We need to find the ways to make everyone on our staff successful. Then, when everyone is successful, the company will be successful, too.”