It was 1989, and Adams swept floors, took out the trash and enjoyed the time he spent with his father in the Shawnee, Kansas body shop. One day, the owner of the shop, John Weaver, put his arm around Adams and told him that if he wanted to run his own business one day, he would should him how. They became business partners in the mid-1990s and Adams is now in charge of the day-to-day operations.
Autobody News spoke to Adams about how he has changed his leadership style over the years, and the effect it has had on the culture at Weaver’s Auto Center. The body shop owner has incorporated a servant-leadership philosophy and set of practices in his business and said it was the best decision he ever made.
According to the Center for Servant Leadership, “A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong… The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”
Q: What prompted you to make changes at your shop?
A: I was talking to a great friend of mine—Dale Opeka who owns a couple of shops in PA—during a Twenty Group meeting in 2008. I was going through a difficult patch in my business, like we all go through from time to time, and he recommended that I call Kevin Wolfe from LeadersWay.
Dale told me that I needed coaching. What I thought of as coaching was Little League. I told him that I didn’t need someone cheering me on—ra ra ra. I was hesitant to even call Kevin at first but Dale was really persistent and I finally contacted him. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. Kevin helped mold me into the person I am today and I am forever grateful for that.
We spent about a year on the phone focusing on personal development. I started reading a lot. I was one of those statistics you hear about people who never read another book after graduating from high school—that is until I started working with Kevin. He taught me that I had to exercise my mind. He had me start on a journey of understanding different concepts and challenged me. He also held me accountable as my coach. After about a year of working together, he came onsite and started helping me see some of the things we needed to do in terms of team development and collaboration.
Since implementing changes at the body shop, Tony Adams said it has helped increase the volume of cars repaired.
Q: What types of books did you read and how did they change your mindset?
A: They were all universal to leadership and understanding what that is. The first book he had me read is the One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey. I still recommend it to people. It’s all about how we as leaders take on other people’s “monkeys” and we think we are trying to help.
I remember in 2008 when I started working with Kevin, he said that I needed to read this book. I picked it up and it sat on my desk for a couple of weeks. Finally, it was a Saturday morning and I started reading it and the only difference between me and the guy in the book was there wasn’t a golf course across the street outside my window where I saw my employees playing golf while I was inside doing all of their work!
I began learning and understanding the different principles and philosophies around servant leadership.
Q: Can you tell us about the different types of leaders and how you have incorporated servant-leadership philosophies into your business?
A: I learned about three types of leaders: “do for,” “do to” and “do with.” I was the “do for” type. I didn’t want my employees to work late and be here on Saturdays so I would do the work for them thinking that I was helping and protecting them. In this type of situation, at some point in time you get frustrated and irritated because you are the one who is doing all the work. Then you get mad and become a “do to” manager and say, “I’m not going to do this work anymore—you do it.” Afterwards, you feel bad about doing that and then you go back into that “do for” model. It’s a vicious cycle.
It’s one of the things that Kevin really helped me understand and was one of the points of that first book when the manager meets the monkey.
Afterward, I had several people in the office read the book. I wanted to make sure everybody understood where I was coming from and start addressing cultural development. If you take the word ‘cult’ out of culture without the negative connotations, at the end of the day what is a cult? It’s a group of people who are connected to a common leader, a common belief system and speak a common language.
One of the first things we started working on was developing a common language. I couldn’t just come in and say, “OK, I’m not doing this for you anymore.” Instead, it was becoming comfortable saying, “If I have to do this for you, then I don’t need you,” and not coming from a place that was threatening by any means. It was understanding and sharing with employees that, “It’s not my job doing it for you; that’s why we hired you.” It’s a trap that I think a lot of managers and leaders get into.
The place we want to be is “do with.” Let’s do this together and make sure you understand it before we just throw you in to sink or swim. We also learned the importance of having clear, written expectations of our employees and communicating those expectations. I realized that if I don’t know what to expect of my employees, how will they ever know?
As owner of the company, I’m here to support the three leaders in the office, service department and collision center. I want to make sure they have everything they need to succeed so they can do the same thing for the people they serve and operate in the servant-leadership model.
Q: Can you explain the difference between managing and leading?
A: In the past, I used the words synonymously but clearly they are two different things. Management is about doing things right and leadership is about doing the right things.
Managers are all about protecting the status quo and making sure that we always follow profit. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for growth, development and ingenuity. However, leaders recognize they are there for their people. They ask questions like: How do we grow? How do we get better? Instead of saying, “just follow this process,” they ask, “Is this the right process to follow?”
An industrial management style, which I had been using, is managing by fear, “I say jump and you ask how high?” The leadership style of the 21st century is about growing and supporting people and operating from a servant-leader mindset.
Ultimately, I became passionate about that journey of self-discovery and I decided I wanted to do the same thing that Kevin did with me so I went to Coach U and received my coaching certificate and I’m now a certified coach. I like to teach and help other organizations with some of these same kinds of concepts around clarity and expectations and how to have difficult conversations.
Q: It sounds like these learnings changed the way you conducted your business. Can you tell us how it affected the shop and the reaction from employees?
A: Absolutely. It started with me. One of the hardest things I think for people to understand, at least with leaders at the top of their organizations, is that it’s always a leadership issue. Very rarely is it a people issue although I’m not saying that organizations don’t have some employees who have some bad behaviors.
The biggest pill I had to swallow was my ego and recognize that I was the problem. It wasn’t my people who were the problem. It was me.
Once I became clear on that, I had a conversation with everybody—sometimes daily. I told them, ‘This is the direction that we are going to go as a company and I know there are people on my team who are not going to be here as we continue to move forward. I don’t know who those people are and I certainly can’t imagine losing anybody on my team but I’m not going to negotiate on what I want and expect. Some people are just going choose along the way that they don’t want to be part of this journey. And that’s ok too.’
For the employees, I think it was a mixed emotion of happiness and frustration. Some didn’t like it because there are people who take advantage and like a manager who does everything for them. The superior performers on the team loved it because they could see some of those poor performers out there and were glad that I was holding people accountable.
The first major shift was understanding that we are an employee-first organization. My employees come first. I want to make sure they are happy, healthy and full engaged. If they are, they are going to be in a better position to take care of our customers. If our customers are happy, healthy and engaged in what we are doing in our business, then profits and revenue follow that. The way it impacted our organization is the teamwork we have now. It’s not uncommon to come into our business and see three or four techs working on one car at a time. It has become a culture of collaboration and working together. They are making good, strong friendships within the organization. It’s not every man for himself. Everyone is after one common goal. We’re not just after the almighty dollar; we’re after something bigger.
Q: How has it helped with the financial performance of the business?
A: I’m in a position now where I can do the kind of volume that takes most of my competition twice as many and sometimes three times as many administration staff to be able to do the same thing. If I can do something with one person that takes you two or three, you can’t compete against me and my operating costs are going to be less.
We all know in this industry the profits are shrinking and administration work is rising. We now do things from a standpoint of how do we put people in positions of strength instead of always trying to fix what’s wrong with them.
Q: What is your advice to other shops looking to make a change?
A: Start reading, learning and understanding that there are different ways to lead and talk and communicate. There are many books on the subject. Our brain is a muscle just like any other muscle in our body and it will atrophy when we stop using it.
When I go visit other shops and clients who I work with, it’s almost always the same thing. First and foremost, people are operating on assumptions rather than clear expectations. Number two, it’s always a leadership issue.
I often recommend hiring a coach. Many shops will hire someone to market their business, to come and learn lean processes and how to revamp your administration scanning and filing. Why wouldn’t you hire a coach to help you with what you don’t know from a leadership perspective?
We’ve learned a lot along the way about servant-leadership, behavioral science and having clear expectations. All these pieces have helped us create the culture we have now. The biggest thing in leadership is having the right heart and coming from the right place and understanding that you need to be there for your employees.
Tony Adams is featured in the book The Secrets of America’s Greatest Body Shops, written by Dave Luehr with Stacey Phillips. It is scheduled to be released in early 2017. For more information, visit www.bodyshopsecrets.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.