Taking the Lead: Seven Traits of Great Leadership in Shops
Leadership is a tricky thing.
The last two years have been challenging for repair shops. Technicians are performing an essential service, which meant they came in to work every day, even at the height of the pandemic, to make sure big rigs could still take to the roads safely and keep our supply chain moving.
However, techs don’t exist in a vacuum. All businesses have a hierarchy, but the buck stops at the shop owner.
We got to wondering: what does it take to lead a shop in good times and bad? And could we distill that philosophical, hazy definition of “leadership” into a few tactics to keep in mind?
Well, folks, we set out to try. In the process, we ended up talking to a few leaders in our neck of the woods:
- Ashley Sowell, President of Integrity Fleet Services
- Patrick McKittrick, CEO of Fullbay
- Jacob Findlay, Co-Founder of Fullbay
Their comments and thoughts were useful and, dare we say it, a little inspiring. They range from remaining level-headed and communicative to making information-driven decisions, and while they’re all directed at repair shop owners, we honestly think a lot of these tips are good practices for any business.
Good leaders set the right tone
A leader is largely responsible for workplace morale, especially in a small operation. They understand that the image they project is what their employees are going to pick up on.
“The leader is responsible for the values and culture [of a shop], and hiring in support of those two things,” Patrick says.
Your shop is not just you. It stopped being just you when you hired people. You’re now a group, a crew. And your people need to come first.
“People are our biggest asset as a company,” Ashley says. She sees employees as a mirror of their leader, and the more effort you put into them, the brighter that reflection will be—and the better your shop’s culture will be. “Their morale, the culture,” she goes on, “they’re the voice. Anything you can do as a leader to motivate, to invest in your team, to show you care, is important.”
Good leaders are level-headed
It’s easy enough to remain cheerful, or at least calm, during good times, but all leaders face challenges once in a while. That’s where you separate the true leaders from those who want to be leaders.
Popping off and lashing out at people might help you feel better in the moment, but all it’s going to do is shake faith in you. Think about it: if your boss is screaming and throwing lamps in their office, are you going to feel comfortable approaching them for, well, anything?
Every business, at some point, will go through a rough patch. It can be difficult to see a positive outcome when things appear to be falling apart. That’s where a good leader becomes all the more crucial. Your whole job, at that point, is to help people see the light at the end of the tunnel. The way you react to things is going to impact how they feel about their livelihoods and ultimately how they act.
Remember, if your team thinks there’s no future for themselves, or they’re unhappy, that’s going to trickle down to vendors, to suppliers, to customers.
Good leaders know what’s going on
“One of the most important ways to remain calm and steady,” advises Jacob, “is to not let emotion govern your decision-making.”
As an operation gets bigger and busier, it becomes easier for an owner to fall out of touch with what’s going on in the bays. It’s understandable to some extent; part of leadership involves delegating and trusting those that you hired to get their jobs done while you do things like grow the business.
But a shop owner needs to keep an eye on everything happening.
Let’s return for a moment to a shop’s values and culture, which the leader sets and the crew reflects. “As you grow,” Patrick says, “you can’t underestimate the importance of those things. It’s easy to have a good culture when it’s you and one tech, because if the two of you get along, you’ve got a great culture. But as you grow beyond your first hires, you have to pay attention and do things that create the right culture, and identify when that isn’t happening, so you can make the right changes.”
Call it “making data-driven decisions,” or “having all the facts” if you like—but when you don’t know what’s happening in your shop, you aren’t capable of making informed decisions. If your team doesn’t have confidence in your ability to turn things around, they’re not going to see a future for the company—or themselves at the company.
Good leaders are leaders in good times and bad
It’s true: lots of stories about leadership espouse that person who leads a team through a hard time. But while the story of being led to safety while under heavy fire is popular around the campfire, it’s often what a leader does when times are good that ultimately has the biggest impact.
You see, those halcyon days are when you should be leveling up your shop. Patrick explains it this way: “When things are going well,” he says, “that’s a time when you need to do things to take care of your employees—they’re part of building the business.”
In a way, you’re spending the good times shoring up your foundations against the bad.
Taking care of your employees means different things to different shops. It could mean “raises for all,” though that’s not always the case. The good times—the quiet times—are the perfect opportunity to implement tools and systems that will make peoples’ lives easier, or hire an office manager or a parts assistant.
In other words, put on those storm shutters before a hurricane hits!
Good leaders listen
If your employees have an idea or an issue, do they feel comfortable bringing it to you? Or do they suffer in silence, letting their discontent slowly seep into other staff?
If an employee feels the need to tell you something, listen to them. Try to understand where they’re coming from. And whatever you do, don’t belittle or poke fun at them.
We shouldn’t have to say this, right? Unfortunately, the plethora of “Horrible Boss” stories are evidence to the contrary. “The more successful [our employees] are, the more successful we are,” Ashley says. “If you [belittle an idea], you’re ensuring that employee or team member will never feel like you heard them, and they’ll never suggest it again.”
Be the boss that listens to their employees. Even if their problem isn’t immediately solved, feeling heard makes them feel like part of a team. They’ll feel respected, valued, emphasized with, and that’s a huge step toward a better team dynamic. They’re part of the whole, not just someone crying out into the void. And when people feel like they’re part of something, they’re happier and motivated to do better work.
Good leaders communicate
There’s a lot of research around what motivates people at work. Things like money, colleagues, and snacks all factor into it—along with the desire to be part of something that’s going somewhere.
Withholding information from your crew is a quick way to cut your operation into us and them. That divisiveness becomes all the clearer when you do share information, often in the shape of “Well, profits were down, so we need to make some cuts.”
Don’t push divisiveness on your team. Instead, share your goals for the company. Show your staff the information and data you look at every day.
This feels counterintuitive to some bosses, many of whom want to shield their people from bad news. But letting them in on what’s going on makes them part of your shop as opposed to standing just outside it.
Good leaders celebrate the wins
All of us have probably experienced that job or boss who only ever spoke to us when things were going bad. We probably don’t remember those times too fondly.
“It’s easy to point out when things are bad,” Ashley says. “It’s even more important to acknowledge when things are good, and when people are doing well.”
You’ve no doubt noticed that many of the seven traits we’ve discussed overlap or at least flow through one another. Celebrating the wins is a bit of a callback to setting the right tone and building an environment that lifts people up instead of squashing them down.
This one is easier to implement overall. Just say thank-you to people. Praise people. Call them out when they do a good job. Offer high-fives and thumbs-ups. Your shop would not run without your employees. You know this—they should, too. By showing your sincere appreciation every day, you’ll be on your way to a shop defined by good leadership and a happy culture.
Just remember not to stop there. Good leadership may be at the core, but things like good salaries and benefits become a natural extension of that leadership.
We hear snacks are cool, too.