Apr 26, 2022

You Can’t Teach Positivity: Ashley Sowell on Building Shop Culture

You Can’t Teach Positivity: Ashley Sowell on Building Shop Culture

High wages don’t always translate to worker retention.

There, we said it.

You might have raised your labor rates and upped your techs’ pay considerably over the last year, but if you haven’t provided a good working environment for them to earn that pay in, chances are you’ll lose them to a shop that will.

That’s why we were so excited to sit down with Ashley Sowell, President and Co-Founder of Integrity Fleet Services. We’ve talked to Ashley before about leadership and how she handles marketing for her operation. We were struck by her emphasis on how important shop culture is—you can be a great leader and do great marketing, but if you don’t have a good environment at work, well, that’s eventually going to poison your entire operation.

Needless to say, Ashley is big on keeping shop morale high. She believes that a lot of workplaces probably start out with good intentions: they want a close-knit crew that wants to be there. But over time, she says, a lot of workplaces lose that mentality. “Once you hit 50+ people, a lot of labor laws kick in,” she notes. “[Executives] start worrying about protecting the company…we start to lose names, and become numbers.

“As a business owner,” she goes on, “I never want to get there. It should not matter how many employees you have—you should never lose people’s names.”

She notes that it’s basically an employee’s market right now, which means shops need to work all the harder to attract staff and keep the ones they have. “I can’t think of anything I look for in a company more than culture, because that’s my day in and day out, everyday,” she says. “And I don’t want it to be crappy.”

Here’s how Integrity does that.

Understand that the industry (all industries) have changed and you must change with it.

While Ashley zeroed in on the commercial repair world, she was quick to point out that just about every industry has wildly shifted from its origins. By and large, people are no longer spending decades as an employee of one business. And businesses, perhaps, are not treating employees the way they once were.

Some of this may be down to employment laws and how they force companies to look at workers differently. Some of it is likely down to good old supply and demand.

In the commercial repair world in particular, this has led to “People basically naming their price,” she says, “and business owners are having to comply if they want employees.”

Except that’s often difficult for the smaller shop owner. Small businesses in general have trouble keeping pace with larger establishments and big conglomerates; they just don’t often have the capital required to splash out the highest wages.

That leaves building an environment more people want to work in.

Emphasize teamwork.

The way Ashley looks at it, whatever an employee puts into their work is probably what they’ll get out of it.

As an employer, she sees it as her duty to make sure each member of her staff has what they need to succeed in the workplace. Often, that comes down to building up a team of tightly-knit individuals who are always ready to lend each other a hand.

“Most employees—even myself—I don’t want to be somewhere that I’m a number, or I don’t matter,” she says. “Generally, employees who love what they do and love their people and have a good working environment tend to be more productive, and work harder, because they like what they do. When people work well together, it becomes less me and more we.”

Becoming a team also means being there for your employees. Ashley maintains an open-door policy: while she hopes her techs and other staff are comfortable enough to go to their immediate supervisors with problems, she’s also made it clear that she is available to assist them in case they need help. Yes, she’s still in charge, but she’s in this with them, rather than separating herself constantly.

This also means that shop leadership isn’t above certain tasks. While this may not happen as much in a repair facility, all too many industries see their leadership falling out of touch with daily work as they pursue other tasks. Sometimes, that can lead to executives feeling they’re too good for the daily drudge work. They may even forget how to perform it.

Understandably, this can really poison an environment.

The takeaway: don’t be that boss. A willingness to pitch in and help goes a long way. “I’ll pick up a broom if I have to,” Ashley says, because even if you’re running the shop, you’re still part of the team.

Onboarding is everything.

At some point, a new employee will sit with each department so they can see who does what and how it relates to their daily work. Seeing the company as a whole prevents siloing.

With that said, training is particularly difficult in this industry. Everything tends to be GO! GO! GO!–especially if you’ve got a roadside repair arm—and you can’t just pause to patiently train someone. “We’ve had to develop different ways to [train and onboard],” she says, “because during the day, it’s almost impossible.”

Recognize people.

We won’t say repair work is a thankless job, but it is largely behind-the-scenes. That’s why internal recognition amongst peers and shop leadership is so important. “Employee of the Month”-type programs show staffers that they are valued by their peers and their leadership.

Recognizing people extends to the company as a whole. When Integrity has a good quarter, they pack up their team, rent out a venue, and have a good time. Celebrating is a big deal, especially in times like these.

Look for signs of discontent.

Part of maintaining a good workplace is spotting the warning signs of a discontented staff: the disengaged, whispering employees who might be good at their jobs but destructive to a group. “One toxic person can destroy an entire company,” Ashley says. “You can’t teach positivity.”

It’s not hard to separate out the so-called bad apples from the employee who’s genuinely having a bad day. Look, everyone has days where nothing goes right and they’re grouchy and just want to go home and stuff their face with pizza. But if that person is having a bad day every day, then it’s a mindset issue. They are dragging their problems to work with them, and those problems are casting a pall over everything and everyone.

Everyone around them is going to feel the tension—heck, you’ve probably felt it from time to time when you walk into a room occupied by an unhappy person.

It doesn’t just spread to employees, though. It can hit your customers. “Customers are already having a bad day when they call,” Ashley points out. This is bad for any business, but think about it from the repair shop owner’s perspective. Your customers are calling because their vehicle is broken. They don’t want to talk to someone who sounds annoyed or bothered. “You can control the customer’s day,” she says, “or change their whole day, by making them feel that you’re trying to help them.”

If you’re letting a sourpuss answer the phones or deal with customers, you’re going to see a decrease in said customers. Think about it: would you keep going to a palace that isn’t treating you right?

Communicate, communicate, communicate.

We’ll conclude this piece with a word we’ve screamed from the rooftops before: communication is still key. All too often, we assume the party we’re communicating with is clairvoyant in some way and will pick up on the things they need to do better.

This is, unfortunately, not how humans operate, because…well, most of us aren’t mind-readers. That means shop owners and managers need to use their voices or words and let people know when they’re doing well—and what they can improve. An employee’s performance review, for example, should never be a surprise, whether it’s good, bad, or centered entirely on reducing coffee consumption.

With that said, communication also goes both ways.

When Integrity conducts performance evaluations, it provides the employee being evaluated with their own form to fill out. They tell the company what it could do better and how it could help make their jobs easier. It’s a fair exchange of information: “Here’s what we need from you. What do you need from us?”

Ashley describes it as useful for the employee, but also a good check on the supervisor and the company. “We need to hear that voice, and get that engagement, so we can make sure we’re keeping that positive culture and transparency,” Ashley says. “It opens up that communication.”

After all, communication is what makes the world go round. It helps you build a team that emphasizes trust, and employees who trust you are more likely to stick with you in the long run. You may not be able to teach positivity, but you can cultivate it—and by doing that, you’re creating a workplace culture that will attract talent for years to come.

Suz Baldwin