AKRON (Aug. 15, 2005) — Have you ever wondered why some employees would readily follow their bosses into the fires of hell?
The reason is a deeply rooted trust and respect that comes from knowing the owner or manager of the business is basically one of them.
In other words, the boss can motivate the crew more effectively because he or she has walked the proverbial walk and can therefore talk the proverbial talk. Beyond a certain point, it's difficult to impossible to motivate workers when they realize that you aren't anything like them. It's extremely difficult when the crew senses that because you're not one of them, you're asking them to do things you have never done—nor are likely to do.
Some regular readers may recall that I sold equipment for several years. I often encountered nosy bosses at tire dealerships and/or service shops who would quiz me about their competition. Pumping sales people for information on neighboring shops and dealerships was their idea of researching the local service market. Usually these owners or managers were vexed because they believed their competitors were outperforming them with less talent and material.
Some bluntly told me they thought their crew was underachieving compared with this competitor or that one. I couldn't admit it, but I usually agreed that the competitor's crew was better motivated. What's more, the biggest difference I often noticed was that the more-successful boss had really earned the crew's trust and respect. Everything about that boss' demeanor told you he had walked the walk, and it rubbed off on everyone else there.
He did not or would not ask anyone to do anything he wouldn't do. For instance, suppose the crew knows firsthand that the boss doesn't hesitate to come in early or stay late when the need arises. Therefore, they're much more likely to respond when he asks them to make the same sacrifice.
If he works hard at keeping everything from his own office to the front lot clean, the crew's much more likely to follow that cleanliness example out in the service bays. If he has been willing to get update training on topics that concern him, his workers are more likely to take after-hours classes too.
The examples could go on. But add up these individual worker's responses and suddenly the sum is greater than the individual parts—and you're outperforming your competition.
I can't always describe it, but the confidence, demeanor or disposition that comes from working in the trenches manifests itself in various ways. But it's always there. For instance, I scrubbed the bay floors for years every night when I closed up the service station. Last fall, I was having dinner with Joseph A. DePaolis, former tire dealer and past president of the old National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association. Suddenly we're comparing notes on this mundane topic.
During his early years with Firestone, the first thing Mr. DePaolis did to rejuvenate a needy tire center was to clean the joint thoroughly. Spend a few minutes with this fellow and there's no doubt that he did the necessary grunt work.
I saw this regular-guy demeanor in another executive, the late Alex Trotman, former chairman and CEO of Ford Motor Co. Mr. Trotman, who took Ford to record profits during the last decade, was a man who preferred clock-collecting to golf. But he earned immeasurable respect from me and my pals when he gamely changed the oil on a Ford Explorer for the camera on the television comedy show, “TV Nation.”
The show's creator, filmmaker Michael Moore, pulled a priceless but revealing gag, challenging the CEO of IBM to come out of his office and format a diskette on camera. He also invited the president of RJReynolds Tobacco Co. to show how to make a cigarette with the basic rolling papers and a handful of tobacco. But no dice—no appearances occurred.
However, Mr. Trotman donned a lab coat and nonchalantly performed a fundamental oil change for the film crew. He looked like he'd been doing it all his life, telegraphing the regular-worker demeanor I described earlier. He just looked cool and credible.
It's OK if you are someone who hasn't walked the walk of the rank-and-file worker. Just don't assume that you can motivate certain employees beyond a particular level of performance without the associated trust and respect. In that case, promote up or hire in a person who does.