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Russ Hotchkiss runs an All Tune and Lube shop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but one of his most successful employee promotion stories actually comes out of another business he runs.

That is a fire and security provider called Proshield. He says that around 15 years ago, the manager at the time was not doing well. It hurt revenues, and that underperformance spread to other leaders at the business.

“They just flat out weren’t getting the job done,” he says. “We’d have meetings about what they needed to do and where our bar is at.”

But there was one entry-level employee there who paid attention to others’ mistakes and gained skills as a result. That employee would eventually become the star manager, and that person remains with the business today. The process wasn’t quick. Hotchkiss needed to be sure he had the right person and allow him to prove himself.

Your staff is most often the best talent pool for promotions to bigger roles. They have the base of knowledge and the relationships at the shop. But business leaders aren’t always sure what route to take, especially for competitive promotions. Operators need to create the right process for the “audition” phase and make sure that the employees who don’t get the promotion aren’t left with bad feelings.

Hotchkiss has been through that. In addition, Claudia St. John, president of Affinity HR Group and longtime quick lube industry partner, offers tips and best practices for any operators who are looking to place their talented staff members in the right places.


Set clear criteria.


This is a task that operators need to do before announcing a new open position in order to avoid headaches later. An operator can work alone or with a leadership team to write down the criteria that’s needed for the position, and they should be thorough. 

The hard skills—knowledge about the service process and technical prowess—are going to make the list. But be sure that you’re clearly defining soft skills as well. That will pay off later when you have to explain to a losing candidate why he or she isn’t the right person for the job.

“After that, it’s an easier conversation to have, not just with the successful candidate, but also with the unsuccessful candidates, to be very clear about why the promotion didn’t go to you, but we really appreciate the effort,” St. John says.

Hotchkiss was in a good position in his case, because he had a young employee who was a go-getter. But he was short on experience. In fact, the new employee had no knowledge of the specialized fire suppression field.

“I didn’t promote him right away,” he says. “I wanted to see how he would perform since he’d seen what they weren't doing.”

This test run phase requires a bit more attention and care from leadership, but it separates the hungry employees from the pack. That phase lasted about a year. Hotchkiss says that this new employee picked up on what the old managers were doing wrong and found better ways. It was a strong response—and a strong audition for the managerial role that the employee eventually won.

“He started out not knowing anything about fire suppression, but he’s now the only other guy in the company other than myself who is licensed in every aspect of that business,” Hotchkiss says.


Identify behavioral skills.


Operators know that they want a manager who is a people person. In the lube business, that’s often the top criterion.

“How do they work with other people?” Hotchkiss says. “I don’t mean just in the shop, but out and about. Can they get out there and talk with fleet clients or bring in a new fleet client?”


The Rule of Thirds for Promoting 

Choosing the right employee for a leadership position should be based on three equal parts:


One third of decision based on experience

One third based on how they get along with others

One third based on behavioral testing

 

That’s a great start, but once you get into the process of speaking with applicants, describing the requirements, and breaking down those soft skills for others, it becomes less easy to define for each person. St. John strongly recommends behavioral testing services to help operators explain what she calls “leadership competencies.”

“I think one thing that's really important for owner operators to realize is that being really good at your job does not translate directly into being a good leader or manager,” she says. “So you need to look at that skillset.”

St. John says that behavioral testing should account for a full one-third of promotion decision making. You might uncover skills or traits that you hadn’t considered before.

“It gives you data and a language and a framework to talk about soft skills,” she says. “For example, is it your ability to communicate empathetically with others?”


Let others down respectfully.


Having a competitive atmosphere for an open leadership position is a healthy sign for your business. Hotchkiss promotes positive competition in all his businesses. And when one person eventually gets the job, that’s reason to celebrate. But operators need to make sure that there aren’t bad feelings among other employees that might cause someone to leave.

    “If somebody puts their hat in the ring, they’re vulnerable,” St. John says. “To put your hat in the ring and then be unsuccessful could lead very quickly to disengagement and losing that person.”

    The first task is to speak to each of the losing candidates one on one before the promotion is announced company-wide. Each employee deserves that level of respect, St. John says.

This is why it’s important to define that criteria early. When this time comes, you’re able to speak to the employees who didn’t get the job and point to clear skills that are lacking. Frame it as an opportunity to help those employees brush up on those skills.

“While the selection was based on a number of criteria to come up with the hire, it always creates an opportunity for others to create better skills, and nobody’s perfect,” St. John says.

That shows that not only is there still an important spot for that person at the shop, but that the company is invested in their development.


Set up the winning candidate to succeed.


Hotchkiss has one auto shop employee who started at an entry-level position and took off like a rocket.

“I got one who’s 19 now, and he started as a lube tech as a senior in high school,” he says. “He’s one of my best guys.”

The employee had skills and drive, but the success was due in part to Hotchkiss putting training opportunities in place. He says that he helped the employee get into training courses through partners like True Brand, Napa, and AutoZone. He’s now a year and a half into being a technician on the repair side and is one of the best earners.

At a quick lube, new leaders (especially shop managers) can be thrown into the day-to-day mix quickly. Make sure that you’re accustomed to the challenges that come with those first few weeks on the job. It’s not just in the technical skills. All of a sudden an employee is now in charge of their peers, and that can bring social challenges to the shop.

“When you get promoted, all eyes are on you,” St. John says. “Everybody's watching you, especially those who didn't get the job. So be very mindful about walking the talk. If you are expecting certain things from people, you need to demonstrate that in your behaviors.”

Work closely with your recently promoted employee to make sure they’re getting the support they need and the buy-in from the entire team. At that point, a good manager will take over from there.

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