One of my first lessons upon going into business for myself was that if I wanted employees to follow and respect me I had to show them that I was the real thing, that I was someone who knew what I was doing and one who would keep my word to them no matter what. That wasn’t always easy to do; first because in the beginning I wasn’t the real thing. I had never worked on a transmission till I opened the shop, and I had never been in a business in which I had any employees who answered to me or for whom I was responsible. Immediately prior to having my own transmission shop I was a one-man show doing brake jobs and tune-ups in customer’s driveways. I had to become the real thing very quickly. I was very fortunate to have learned a lot of what I needed to know from the first two techs I hired, from reading a bunch of repair manuals and from joining ATRA and picking other shop owner’s brains at our monthly meetings.

The first couple of years were an expensive learning experience, but I finally got the hang of it and was lucky enough to succeed, to stay in business for 25 years and to retire well. I credit most of it to my never-relenting commitment to my family, my employees, and my customers. It took a little while in the beginning for my employees to see that I was always going to be straight with them As far as customers went, my policy was, “Once I checked out the car and quoted a price; that was it.” There was no upsell ever. Even if I lost money on the sale I wouldn’t go back and ask the customer for more. I felt that if I had talked the customer into bringing the car in to get it diagnosed and get a price, after they did that, I had to stick to my word. The only time I would sell anything additional was in a case where we found something not part of the transmission but that could and probably would cause a problem with it later on, like a cracked flywheel, bad motor or transmission mounts, bad U-joints, a bad radiator, etc.

My goal was to build my business on the integrity of my word to everyone with whom I did business. After a while I did start to believe I was the real thing and started to speak with authority and lead both customers and employees to make the decisions I needed them to make.

Keep promises

It seemed like just about every time I hired a tech who had worked at another shop, during the interview, he would tell me about all the promises that had been made to him and not kept; things like raises, promotions, benefits, and new shop equipment. I was determined not to have people say those things about me. If, for example, I hired someone on a 30-day trial basis and told him if he did well he would be hired full time and given an appropriate raise; I made a big note to myself and put it up on a bulletin board that I looked at every morning so I couldn’t miss it or forget what I had promised.

Knowing that raises were something most business owners forget to give or forget they promised, not on purpose, but because we have no idea how quickly time goes by and are so focused on the main objective in business, getting the work out and the money in, that I made reminders to do reviews for raises every six months, whether those raises were in hourly rate or how much per flat-rate hour if they were on that system. I would hate it if an employee came to me and said that he had a better offer somewhere else because I forgot all about him and now it was too late for me to do anything about it. It’s bad enough that it would sometimes happen anyway because another shop owner would hear I had a good man and try to steal him away even if I was keeping up with his salary.

One of the important lessons I learned is that a leader has to look the part both personally and by the cleanliness and order of his or her facility. In our business it doesn’t mean wearing a suit and tie but it does mean being presentable. Keeping one’s self well-groomed and in a clean uniform when approaching a customer will give a positive evaluation of you right from the beginning. In my experience customers don’t easily follow the recommendations of someone who looks like he’s been sleeping under a car for the past couple of days.

Think, then act

A great leader thinks about the consequences of his or her actions before putting any plan into motion and that also includes thinking something through before opening one’s mouth. How does what I am planning or am about to say affect my employees, customers, and suppliers?

Integrity and honesty: To me those are two words that are interchangeable. A true leader acts with integrity in everything he or she does. Employees watch and take their cues from you. If they see you dealing honestly with your customers and suppliers they will very likely follow your lead, but if they see you cheating anyone out of anything they will think, “If it’s OK for the boss to do that it must be OK for me.” The difference though is that they probably won’t be doing it to a customer; they’ll do it to you.

An outstanding leader knows the value of self-control and exercises it as much as humanly possible. Nobody wants to work for or do business with someone who is continually blowing up. Maintaining one’s cool shows you are in control of your emotions and actions, and therefore, your business. You have to come to grips with the fact that you went into a business that’s a controlled crapshoot. Every day presents new challenges and ways to bring on anxiety attacks. You just can’t let that happen. You protect yourself from it by learning from your mistakes so they don’t happen again, by being willing to train the people who work for you, and most of all by convincing yourself that the business you’ve chosen to be in is not easy and never will be. It requires your constant attention and your knowledge and acceptance of Murphy’s Law. Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.

A great leader doesn’t lose his or her temper. They handle situations as they arise with one goal in mind. “Make it right.” Right for everyone; the customer, the employee and for themselves. Sometimes there is just no profit to be made on a job when something goes wrong. Oh well! It happens and hopefully you’ve priced the job well enough that you don’t lose a lot on it, but you have to accept that you win most of them but you are going to lose a few no matter how good you are or how well you’ve trained your people.

Learning experience

When something goes wrong, that’s when a great leader shows his or her stuff. Let’s say that a transmission built by one of your experienced rebuilders never makes it back to the customer. It has a major problem; either the same one it came in with or a new one that was created during the overhaul. How, as a leader, do you handle this problem with the employee? I can tell you one thing you better not do is yell at him or tell him what a stupid mistake he made or how he should’ve known better. If you do that you aren’t solving anything. You’re just making him feel bad and insulting him. That isn’t going to make him want to fix it or keep it from happening again in the future. It might make him quit though, especially if you make the fatal mistake of chewing him out in front of other employees; that’s just way too embarrassing for him and costs you your credibility with everyone there.

The right way to handle it is to make it into a learning experience. Tell the employee that obviously something went wrong. “Let’s take a look at this together and see if we can figure out what it is and what we can do about making it right.” Let the employee take it apart to find the trouble. Keep your hands in your pockets, as tempting as it might be to jump in and physically help; don’t do it unless you are asked. Once the problem is found make no comment other than asking the employee, “How do you think we can keep this from happening again in the future?” If it was his mistake or something he can control in the future and he comes up with the solution it’s a good bet it will never happen again. The fringe benefit to you is that you come off to all the employees like the cool, calm, and collected leader that you are.

Good leaders focus most of their attention on the critical aspects of the business a high percentage of the time. They work on what will keep the business profitable and enduring. With the only exception being a one-person shop, a successful automotive business is run and staffed by people who have been excellently trained and well taken care of so that when they come to work to produce their product or service they do so feeling good about it and equipped with the knowledge and resources they require to do it right.

Stay positive

Good leaders should never burden employees with internal company problems that might make them feel unsafe or uncomfortable in their jobs. For example, the owner who tells his techs that the business has financial problems is inviting trouble: first because he is making some employees think that they had better start looking for other employment and second because good, loyal employees might decide they want to help with the financial problems by cutting corners which does nothing but create bigger problems.

A really good leader always paints a positive picture of the current and future status of the business. At company meetings he or she will focus on the good things that are happening in the shop; things like planned promotional events, upcoming training programs, new equipment that will make everyone’s job easier, and plans for growing the business.

Finally, a good leader will never forget that everything he or she does is being scrutinized constantly by employees, customers and suppliers. So when you slip into your leader role in the morning you must remember to stay in it all day, even if and maybe especially if it is after hours and you are attending some event. You must take extra care to not drink excessively or let your hair down and say things you might later regret.

Being a leader is not easy. That’s why most people don’t want the job. They would rather follow. If you do have the job or plan to have it one day just be the best you can at it like you would with any task you take on.