Leadership : Accountability as a Trump to Skill

Brian Canning's first foray into the automotive industry was as a Goodyear service manager in suburban Washington, DC. Over the next several years, he enjoyed a successful management career that ultimately led to his overseeing several stores and then the entire sales region. Currently, Canning works as a leadership and management coach with the Automotive Management Institute (ATI), where he interacts with shop owners and managers in the automotive service and tire industries. He adds that he is a passionate student of leadership in all of its forms.

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Very well aware of the pathetic state of training out there, I would try to make the point that accountability is far more important than knowledge or skill. Somewhere along the line somebody has to be responsible and accountable to the results and training, knowledge or experience does not overcome this necessity.

My point would not be to decry training but it would be to caution against seeing training as a cure-all for misbehaviors that are currently affecting your operation. Sending a bookkeeper who suffers lapses in accuracy or attendance to become a CPA will undoubtedly up her skill level but by itself does not change her behavior or work ethic or make your expectations any more important to her. She does not feel responsible, she does not feel accountable and training is unlikely to change that. In the automotive world we see technicians attend training classes with a genuine effort toward updating their skills, but this knowledge only rarely results in improved efficiency or productivity. We spend time and efforts reinforcing the selling process with our sales people, provide them with great point of sale material and phone training and accept their excuses that it is slow or that nobody is buying. Knowledge and skills are improved but the status quo is very much intact. If you are not asking for better I promise you will never get it.

Too often I see business owners who spend little or no time training and keeping their people ahead of the skills curve. No matter the quality of the leadership, no matter the motivation and skill level, they will fall behind the industry and its trends. These are the guys who will try to survive on repairs when the market is trending strongly toward maintenance. My point is that training and keeping our people’s skills up is very important but not the most important thing we could and should do.

As part of our Owners and Service Advisors courses we routinely call the shops represented in class as mystery phone shoppers. This is a universally painful exercise with virtually everyone getting to see the reality of what customers are experiencing at our counters. We hear our customers being treated rudely, of impatience and inattention and it is very rare that there is a genuine attempt to set an appointment or otherwise get the customer into the shop. It is astonishing how poorly we are treating our customers or potential customers but even in our reactions to this, we are missing the point. Leadership and accountability are the issues here and though training might be an outcome, somebody needs to become responsible to the result, somebody needs to set those standards of excellence and somebody needs to make sure we are living them. Could that somebody be you?

I have had the good fortune of working with some of the most successful shop owners in North America. Among this very elite group I see a genuine effort toward excellence and a clear understanding of what it will take to get there. Even among these owners, who have great facilities, the very best equipment and the best people in their various markets, I see problems with accountability. With training and our setting expectations for excellence, it is entirely reasonable for us to be upset when we are falling short of our goals and to demand better. If we have managers we naturally expect them to manage and lead. If we have sales people, we obviously expect them to sell. If we have hourly employees, we expect them to be efficient and productive in filling up those hours. Again, I would not decry training, but I would demand that we perform in the aftermath. Even in this group, we struggle and too often settle for something less than the excellence we had intended.

It is not really one of those chicken or the egg things in that we cannot demand anything of our people until we have adequately trained them and gone to the trouble of setting expectations. I think to this point, most of us do a pretty good job. The problem arises here when in asking for great, we are getting something less and don’t know what to do. As long as we can hang our hat on our expectations as being realistic, we need to make sure we are getting all that we have asked for and hopefully more. In hiring managers we need to be careful to get people who will deliver the goods.

By description these people need to be driven leaders and somebody capable of taking the ball that you hand them and run with it. If we have to beg or are constantly having to reassure them, we’ve got the wrong person or someone who is confused about what we are asking for. Fix them or move on. Too often we hire based on experience alone and not temperament and a willingness to be accountable and in charge. This is far from a perfect science but for me a willing leader is a great place to start. From time to time you may have to rein them in but getting them to move will generally not be the problem.

Never forget; leaders need to lead, everyone is accountable to the result and excellence is the natural result of accountability.

© Copyright Brian Canning 2007

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