Military leaders know the time to train a second-in-command is before the battle, not during it. If you are an owner or manager who lacks a capable assistant officer, now's the time to start grooming that person. This oversight is much more common in smaller tire dealerships and service shops than large ones. Unfortunately, many bosses only relate the need for a stand-in to infrequent and well-planned absences, such as vacations.
In some cases, the boss copes by allowing the proverbial inmates to run the asylum. The crew muddles by for those three weeks every August when the boss is gone. Sure, it's a chaotic time, but the owner figures that if the building's still standing when he returns and the workers haven't frightened away too many customers, it's OK.
One of the reasons businesses are often underinsured is their owners haven't personally experienced the misfortunes other tire dealers have-fires, floods, break-ins, etc. Owners tend to rationalize away these risks by telling themselves, ``That stuff only happens to other people!''
Similarly, the hardy owner who never misses a day of work doesn't see himself enduring a lengthy hospital stay. If he's blessed with a great family and good luck, the last thing he expects is a personal tragedy taking him away from the store for weeks at a time.
If you do decide to cultivate a stand-in, benefit from the following observations.
Examine your troops for soldiers who show leadership qualities. Although leadership is a topic unto itself, recall several points I have stressed in previous columns, such as: Leaders lead by example.
So the person you select for a stand-in should be someone who lives the examples you (I hope!) already have set for promptness, courtesy, personal appearance and overall professionalism.
If your assistant officer practices these virtues, the crew's more likely to heed his commands when you're away.
Some bosses instinctively choose an understudy they believe is the brightest person in the crew. But regardless of how bright this person is, he or she must be a people person first and foremost. Sometimes the smartest person on board is also the brashest, most brusque or most impatient of the lot. Giving this ``closet Napoleon'' the reins while you're gone is usually an invitation for mutiny.
I've seen bosses brush this off by saying, ``He's in charge for three weeks, so he'll get the work out by bossin' those guys around-period!''
Historically, what can go wrong will when the boss is away. So the stand-in needs all the cooperation he can muster to keep the store running smoothly. A heavy-handed style-particularly from someone who just days ago was a peer-breeds resistance and rebellion rather than cooperation.
A quick litmus test: If you have to keep this fellow's ego and mouth in check while you are present, he's not the best choice for a stand-in.
What's more, savvy owners agree gut-level instincts on trust usually are accurate in these situations. Another litmus test: If you ever hesitate for a moment on the issue of trusting this person, he's not the top candidate.
Fight the urge so many bosses have to turn the responsibility over to workers who are mirror images of themselves. Double check your list of required skills for a stand-in. Behaving just like you should not be one of them. Give the stand-in the latitude to be his own man. If he's suited to the job, he'll enjoy the greatest success simply by being himself and no one else.
Familiarity breeds contempt, so the more you see of yourself in this potential replacement, the more likely it is that friction will occur between you.
Let the candidate for stand-in experience a ``baptism of fire'' well in advance of your departure. Allow the person to make his own decisions (within your guidelines) when dealing with obstinate customers or tardy suppliers. Letting him make his own mistakes is the only way you'll see what he's really made of-not to mention if he learns from mistakes.
Always level with the staff about your intentions. Tell them that because their colleague Joe has earned the privilege of trying out for substitute manager, he'll be working X-hours per week at the front counter, etc.
Equally important, emphasize in Joe's presence that if the tryout doesn't satisfy you or Joe, it's not a failure. Rather, you try to provide opportunities for growth. Although every worker isn't suited for every opportunity that arises, neither employee nor employer knows until they try.
If Joe's tryout is successful, remind the staff that during your absence, Joe's word is law. Urge them to extend Joe the same courtesy and respect they give you.