Managing the Very Talented Staff

Nov. 1, 2010
Managing the very talented is rarely easy.

For quite a long time, a shop owner in my area had what seemed like a revolving door for his estimators. They would come and go every few months. One who stayed awhile got friendly with one of the shop’s DRP coordinators and when he left, he opened his own shop and got that DRP. After such bad luck with estimators, when this owner did finally get a couple of guys who stuck around, he was reluctant to do anything that might alienate them. But when the economy started downhill, he asked them to help out with marketing, making calls, helping with mailings and even going out to write some estimates at a dealership. I don’t know if they agreed verbally, but I do know that they never helped out with the marketing as asked. How much pressure could he bring to bear on these guys without losing them? Here was a management dilemma.

It’s important to let employees know, when reductions must be made, that the manager is willing to share the pain.

It’s a simple fact that some people like to be managed. Others are more like cats—they resent the herding. When you come up against a situation like this where employees resist management direction, you wonder, Is management art, science or simply skill? It would seem a manager must be somewhat of a chameleon, changing strategy depending on each employee’s preference.

Share the Burdens

An employer’s ultimate stick is pay. He or she still holds the purse strings and can threaten to reduce pay or eliminate bonuses. But if the owner wants to hold on to the employee, a more balanced use of carrot and stick is called for. These days, employees often suspect management personnel of cutting their pay or laying people off just to fatten their own paychecks. It’s important to let employees know, when reductions must be made, that the manager is willing to share the pain.

A story that illustrates this so well concerns a priest in a small community where he was not only the sole religious leader, but also the principal authority in the community. Several weeks of unrelenting rainfall flooded the town so badly that many houses were damaged and a large part of the population had to sleep in a church at the top of a hill. Although the priest’s home was on the hill and dry, he vowed to sleep in the church with the people until every last home was dry and habitable again.

Sticking Points and Strategies

I had been in sales and marketing a long time before I got a management position. The first thing I learned was that a manager is often more of a servant than a boss. The manager is the one who has to make certain the employees have the equipment and supplies they need to do their jobs. The manager also has the job of settling disputes between employees and, quite frankly, smoothing over some egos.
I began to notice a few recurring themes. The biggest egos often came with the most technical expertise. I realized people who hate to be managed often consider themselves superior managers who have been misplaced in a subordinate position. I found that inviting their input on management decisions provided a level of respect that increased their cooperation—even when I didn’t find their input to be really useful and didn’t actually implement their ideas. What it came down to was if you show people respect, there’s a good chance they will accept a certain amount of direction and management.

Another practice that turned even receptive subordinates into management resisters was micro-managing. I became very cautious about micro-managing people. Long ago I noticed that ownership generally carries with it a higher degree of responsibility. Homeowners take better care of property than renters. I think people see micro-managing as a way of taking away their “ownership” of a project or task. Even though a subordinate may not carry out a job the way you would do it, granting him or her “ownership” of it seems to result in a more conscientious end product.

Strangely, I also found that as a manager, you even have to manage suppliers or they’ll manage you. The same approach that worked for talented techs seemed to work for suppliers, too: Show respect for their expertise and invite their input even if you don’t find it to be useful. Recognition and respect can go far in the management game.

Wise Idea

In the body shop world, painters, welders, bodymen and estimators with years of experience have a high degree of expertise. Many owners and managers have held these positions on their way up, and they rightfully know they have a vast expanse of knowledge, skill and ability.
The best trick in effective management may be conveying orders in such a way that your most talented pro thinks the idea was his or her own in the first place.

Tom Franklin, author of Strategies for Greater Body Shop Growth, has been a sales and marketing consultant for more than 40 years.

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