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The Magic Behind Making a Manager

“Working together is the most important thing we do. To accomplish this, you need good management. How can you find and groom a shop manager who’ll foster teamwork and create a productive environment?” – Brandon Mitchell, assistant shop manager, Elliott Chevrolet, Athens, Texas

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Author Patrick Yurek is the owner and president of Collision Consulting LLC (focusing primarily on DV appraisals – www.CollisionConsulting.com) and also owner of Arizona Collision Center in Tempe, Ariz. He has 35 years of industry experience and has held every position from sweeper to owner. Among his credits are several PPG certifications and GM technical certificates. He’s past president of the GM Service and Parts Managers Organization of Western New York and a court-certified expert witness. He can be reached at [email protected] or (480) 984-0800.

Good shop managers do exist – and can be found throughout this industry.

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But where are they? How do you know when you’ve found someone who could be groomed into your ideal manager?

Most really good shop managers have been involved – at one time or another – with automobiles. While some may know nothing other than working with cars, others have left the business and returned, or switched from mechanical repairs to autobody. Many grew up in a family business or had relatives in the trade and recognized their pride in a job well done and wanted to share that feeling.

Regardless of background, the best shop managers typically share at least one of the following passions:

  • Pride in restoring a twisted piece of iron to its previous beauty.
  • A sense of satisfaction in helping others.
  • The right attitude.

Good managers – those who are successful in the production department and with those they manage – have a positive outlook. They’re generally upbeat, optimistic people. This is important because managers with the right disposition and temperament can motivate others merely with their overall “aura.” Whether you realize it or not, miserable people (from managers to techs to your receptionist) negatively affect everyone they come in contact with, bringing down their morale. On the other hand, people who come to the shop smiling tend to brighten everyone’s day, making the workplace a little more pleasant for all the employees (and for the customers, too).

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The best candidate to groom into a shop manager is an energetic, eager-to-learn self starter with a dynamic disposition. These people are natural leaders whom others willingly follow. They lead by example, setting guidelines through their own actions. The people they manage almost automatically respect them and will, quite often, overlook any of their shortcomings in technical areas, even going so far as to help them learn.

Unfortunately, there’s no formula for finding the ideal candidate. While it would certainly be beneficial if he or she possesses an automotive background, the right person could study vehicles, books and other literature to learn the trade. Granted, acquiring the knowledge would take some time, but the right person would be well worth the investment in the long run.

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With all that said, you’re probably still wondering, “How can I groom someone with potential into a great shop manager?” I’m getting to that, but it’s crucial you understand this first: The grooming is important, but equally important is choosing the right person to groom. Not everyone is cut out to be a great shop manager.

People Management Skills Are a Must
While having the right attitude is essential to be a good manager, it alone doesn’t guarantee good “people management” skills. Most people dislike confrontation and try to avoid it whenever possible. In business, however, confrontations are inevitable. While every effort should be made to prevent conflicts and disputes through foresight and planning, situations inevitably arise that simply must be addressed and sometimes call for discipline. Tardiness, poor workmanship, oversights and poor housekeeping are a few examples of what a manager may have to deal with.

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The best managers can discuss these and other issues without coming off as the heavy, and they leave the discussion with everyone understanding why this situation needs to be prevented. The worst managers aren’t able to do this. Let me give you an example: I was once hired to be a shop foreman by a manager who courted me for three months. He had me convinced that he was a great guy – easy-going and willing to help all the employees improve. Within the first few days of my employment there, I discovered a front bumper wasn’t properly aligned on a customer’s vehicle that was scheduled for pick-up that day. The technician who’d done the repairs had to leave early, so I had to find another bodyman to re-align the bumper.

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“I know this was Bob’s job,” I said to the tech, “but he had to leave to take his dog to the vet. Could you do me a favor and pull in Mr. Smith’s Explorer to get the bumper aligned? I’m kind of in a jam because he wants to pick it up today.”

Simple enough, right? Imagine my surprise when I was called into the manager’s office an hour later and was told: “How do you expect to get any respect from the technicians if you go around asking them to do things? You have to demand what you want – don’t ask them for anything. Your position commands them!”

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I’ve always felt that in any business, success is a team effort. I was also “the new guy” (and a Yankee in the South), so I didn’t want to create hard feelings or animosity over something as trivial as re-aligning a bumper. I told the manager that I’d always believed in respecting my co-workers and that my methods of management lead to the same positive results as his, but without any animosity.

The next day, the same manager called a general shop meeting and belittled two of the technicians and one of the painters in front of everyone. He used words like “incompetent” and “useless,” creating resentment by all and, in my opinion, losing the respect of everyone present. (I quit that job after only four days.) A good rule of management is “reprimand in private, reward in public.” You gain absolutely nothing by criticizing someone in front of his peers.

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While this manager showed great numbers on paper, he had little, if any, people skills. He was a bully, managing the shop by “ruling with an iron fist” and getting results through intimidation and threats. Like beaten dogs, the employees complied out of fear, not out of the desire to please or make someone happy, or even because it was the right thing to do. His employees felt their jobs were in jeopardy. They didn’t work with him; they worked for him (or rather, they worked for a paycheck).

People management skills – the skills this particular manager lacked – come from training, practice and a full understanding of the other party. Some people, however, simply can’t be taught because they think their way is the only way – and the end justifies the means. They will never consider the other people in a situation, and that makes them ineligible to become “good” managers.

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The best managers treat employees as equals, recognizing that everyone plays an important role in the business. They view management not as higher up on the same ladder, but at the same rung on a different ladder.

This “equal yet different responsibilities” approach will go a long way toward ironing out conflicts within the shop. It speaks volumes to employees when a manager is willing to roll up his sleeves to help a detailer wash a vehicle scheduled for delivery or to grab a broom and sweep up so techs can continue working. I know a dealer principal who, while walking around the dealership, picks up small pieces of litter. Sure, he has someone on the payroll whose job it is to do that, but he doesn’t feel it’s beneath him to bend over and help out. A person might think the guy who owns the place wouldn’t do something like that, but this dealer doesn’t believe he’s on a different level – he just has a different job within the same company.

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Making Decisions – Sometimes Difficult Ones
Successfully managing the business is just as important as successfully managing the people. Unfortunately, employees are sometimes going to be less than thrilled about certain decisions a manager has to make. What can the manger do?

  • Help employees understand a decision – Though a manager’s decisions aren’t always going to be liked, they should always be understood. This is where earning employees’ respect really pays off. People know when they have a good manager, and a good manager’s decisions are less likely to be second-guessed by those affected. Any explanation should be short and business-focused, which helps it to be easily understood and leaves little room for individual interpretation.
    For example, if a manager calls a meeting and simply announces that he needs everyone to put in overtime, his decision might be met with grumbling and resentment. But if he explains that there’s a backlog of work and that customers are getting anxious – possibly considering another facility – the employees will be more likely to understand. Further explaining that customers going elsewhere means less work for employees and that the overtime will help to keep customers happy – possibly resulting in more future referrals – will go that much further toward their understanding, and ultimately, their willingness to assist.
  • Include employees in the decision-making process – Good managers also often allow those affected to participate in the decision-making process. Such roundtable discussions can be extremely productive, often resulting in employees with a better understanding of the business and a feeling of being “included.” But such discussions can become destructive if management ends up making an unpopular choice and those involved come away thinking their opinions and desires don’t count.
    Some circumstances allow for an “either/or” type of decision. In cases where two or more solutions are acceptable, it’s a smart idea to allow employees to decide. A perfect example is the overtime situation. If the work could be completed on the weekend or in the evenings, why not let the employees (those who are affected) make the choice?
  • Know when a decision is non-negotiable – Sometimes a business decision must be made that can’t be negotiated. These are the times when the manager must weigh the options and make the best decision possible. If business is slow and the manager has to lay off someone, there are several ways to go about the selection. Seniority can play a part, but what if the newest employee is the only painter? Another criteria that could (and should) be considered is productivity. If the newest employee is also the most productive, do you still lay him off and keep a senior, less productive employee? Including employees in a decision such as this would be more of a popularity contest than an informed business decision.
  • Think decisions through carefully – I’ve seen managers take several decision-making approaches. The worst approach, by far, is to let emotions get into the equation. If a manager lets the “heat of the moment” affect a decision, it will certainly be viewed as a knee-jerk reaction when a better solution is later found. A choice made out of anger or the personal like for an individual is seldom the best decision for the “team.”
    A hasty decision will also frequently backfire. Good managers need to have the ability to weigh options, calculate consequences and determine possible negative impacts. One of the most difficult situations a manager can face is the termination of an employee. How will this decision affect morale? Will it hurt production, and if so, by how much? How long will it take to replace the employee? Is there anyone already employed who will want the position? If so, is he qualified? These are but a few of the factors to weigh in this situation.
    Of course, there are times when a manager is left with no alternative but to terminate an employee regardless of future consequences. An employee found sleeping after receiving a warning cannot be continuously warned. An employee caught stealing has to be fired – out of fairness to the honest employees. There are times when action must be taken, and the manager must then work to not only replace the individual, but to prevent recurrences.
  • Stand behind the unpopular decision – Sometimes upper management or owners require changes that won’t be well-received. In cases such as these, the manager must be strong enough to pass along such messages without siding with those facing the changes.
    Adjustments in the hours of operation may not be favorably received, yet they may be necessary. This is another situation where a manager who’s earned the respect of the employees will fare better than one who hasn’t. “From now on, we’re going to start work at 8 a.m. instead of 8:30 and stay open until 6 instead of 5:30” is the message that needs to be delivered. Simply stating this forces something on employees that they may not want. But explaining to them the competition has extended hours and the shop is losing business – and the technicians, in turn, are losing money – delivers the same message, yet will certainly be better received. Adding that you (the manager) also have a family and life outside of work and the change affects you as well can soften the impact of the message. Remember, it’s a team effort that leads to success, and everyone is in the same boat.
    But this doesn’t mean the manager should complain about the decision if the employees do. Management must stand behind decisions – even the unpopular ones. Softselling unpopular orders can lead to loss of respect for the manager. The employees must understand the decision has been made from above, but management will strive to make the changes as seamless as possible, helping those affected to adapt. By being willing to share the pain as well as the subsequent reward, a good manager will earn the support of the employees through all decisions.

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Go Team Go!
Motivating employees can be a challenge. While workplace environment, type of work, personal pride, pay scales and many other factors contribute to a technician’s motivation, good managers have the ability to “pump up” team members. Everyone knows things go smoother when everyone pulls in the same direction. It’s the manager’s duty to create the desire in individuals to be team members and to want to pull in the same direction.

The role of manager is not just one of supervisor or boss. A good manager is also the “team leader.” A good quarterback leads the team to victory. A good manager needs to be the quarterback and the cheerleaders rolled into one.

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This is one area where the manager’s attitude is crucial. If the “team leader” appears apathetic – he simply comes to work for a paycheck – how enthused can the production staff be?

The ability to motivate can be “learned” in a formal setting such as a night course or self-studied through books available in various formats – from quick reference types to full-length hardcover “text book” styles. However, this again requires the correct “personality” from the beginning. The bully won’t succeed in this area without changing his ways. Neither will the individual who doesn’t truly care enough to become a better person. The type of person who’s never wrong is an example of someone who can never be successful at motivating. Pride, arrogance, the refusal to learn and the inability to recognize a need for improvement are some of the personality traits that will ensure failure in the motivational arena.

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Business Minded
Understanding the business of collision repair from all angles is key to successfully managing a shop. Beginning with the claims process and continuing through profit margins, all areas must be grasped to be a good manager. The best managers comprehend vehicles and repair methods, the refinish process, claims-handling procedures and numbers. Industry management is like people management because training and experience are both vital to success.

As with people management, training can come from formal classroom-style courses or from self-study books. A great deal of training is also available through paint manufacturers, and a little research may reveal that training is available at local trade/technical schools and colleges. These industry-specific management benchmarking courses have come a long way since ARMS – though the foundation and principles remain the same.

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A prospective manager can also be trained by an experienced manager, but only if the prospect has a comprehensive understanding of the business to start with. It’s also possible to learn some aspects from one individual and others from someone else. For example, a prospect can learn the repair process from a foreman and accounting from the office manager. While this can be effective, it may also lead to confusion since the office manager usually focuses strictly on numbers, while the foreman’s concern is on the quality of the repairs – often with little regard for the bottom line.

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For this type of dual training to be successful, the prospective manager needs to recognize the teacher’s specific area of interest. Realizing the foreman is production-driven and could care less about balancing the books while understanding that balancing the books is equally important as production from an overall business standpoint is critical. The trainee needs a general knowledge of Business 101 to understand why all aspects are crucial pieces of the complicated puzzle.

When I first started in management, I’d already read books and attended classes, but nothing could substitute the second manager I worked for. “Dick” had the patience of a grandfather and 30-plus years experience in the automotive field. He often asked me what I thought and would then council me on why I was or wasn’t making the best choice.

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Another person who had a major influence on me was a dealership owner. He believed in letting his management staff run their departments on their own. He’d praise good decisions and prevent bad ones from being repeated by suggesting alternatives. For example, I once had to write up a technician for disciplinary reasons. The tech had cut a few corners on a repair – he didn’t remove a door handle, a mirror or the belt molding. When I discovered this, I felt betrayed and angry. I did the write-up and included the word “fraud.” It was definitely true, and the owner stood behind my decision when the employee brought it to his attention because he thought it was too “harsh.” Afterward, the owner suggested that instead of immediately putting the incident in writing, it might have been better if I’d had a frank discussion with the employee. Had the employee at that point made excuses or not agreed to the terms set forth (if it’s on the estimate, it gets done or removed from the estimate), then I could have written him up. In retrospect, it may have been better in the long run to have had the discussion. The employee, while very dedicated to his job and the company, didn’t have the same cooperative spirit he’d possessed before the write-up.

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What made this dealership owner special was that all decisions were acceptable as long as they had been thought out. This doesn’t mean he allowed his managers to play with matches as long as they knew where the fire would burn. But as long as the decision wouldn’t hurt the business or its employees and the manager could learn and grow from it (even if it caused the manager a little pain), he’d let the decision stand. When there was a better way to overcome a situation, he’d help his staff realize what it was. And as long as it was a learning process, there were no penalties.

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For example, when the service department contracted with an advertising company that had a less-than-desirable reputation for results, the owner stood back and watched. It cost the owner money for the service manager to make this mistake, but he was certain the manager would learn from it. Following a few months of little to no increase in business, the owner suggested a different type of advertising campaign. He basically led the manager through the motions of making the choice and helped him realize where the breakdown occurred in the first attempt.

By allowing his staff to learn and grow, this dealership owner made a wise investment in his people. The turnover rate for management was considerably less than at similar dealerships in the area – and certainly his teaching method contributed to that.

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The Making of a Manager
While it’s possible a business may survive under average or poor management, good management is a must for a business to grow, become a market leader and be truly successful.

A good manager not only helps his employees become better at their jobs, he recognizes trends and adapts the business accordingly. He also knows – during an interview – whether a prospective employee will be an asset or detriment. A great manager, just like a Super Bowl-winning coach, will put together a winning team.

I’ve paraphrased the following from a Florida shop owner. He runs his business based on his father’s belief that “earning a decent living for your family and employees and being able to look the customer in the eye when met on the street” is the ultimate goal of a winning team – and of a winning manager.

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Writer Patrick Yurek has 22 years of industry experience and has held every conceivable position in a collision repair facility from sweeper to management. Among his credits are several PPG certifications and General Motors technical certificates. He was the president of the General Motors Service and Parts Managers Organization of Western New York until he relocated to the Charlotte, N.C. area, where he’s now the manager of the Griffin Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Toyota, Pontiac, Buick, GMC collision center in Rockingham, N.C.

Cool, Calm and Collected
While it’s difficult for anyone to remain businesslike at all times while in a work setting, a good manager will go out of his way to do so and to always remain professional – when he can’t, he removes himself from the situation until he regains his composure. This is why the ability to deal with stressful situations with a clear mind and a level head is of the utmost importance when considering a candidate for management. During the second interview (you should never hire anyone on the first interview), start the conversation with something simple like, “How was your weekend?” From there you can lead the conversation to find out how a person handles things when it comes to dealing with heated situations. I’ve heard senior management say things like, “I can’t believe an idiot this morning cut me off – he nearly ran me off the road …” in an effort to delve deeper into a prospective employee’s thoughts and actions regarding similar circumstances.

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Learning About Customers
Formal training, such as what’s given to some salespeople, can be beneficial to managers. Many courses help develop the interpersonal skills of an individual. For example, understanding your customers’ needs is fairly straightforward in this industry – they need to have their vehicles repaired. But what’s most important to them? Is it the quality of repairs, the turnaround time, the cost or something else? A good manager will get answers to these, and many more, questions during a simple conversation. But the ability to know what the customer desires is something not many of us are born with; it’s a learned skill. Another aspect focused on in many of these courses is overcoming objections. Average managers accept “no” for an answer without really listening to why the customer is declining. Learning to overcome a negative response is another learned skill.

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