Frank Porter wanted to get people more engaged in the key decisions that had to be made at Central Cadillac, but he found that employees and even department heads weren’t as eager as he thought to be brought into this circle of trust.
“They were used to funneling information up the chain and waiting for a decision to come down,” says Porter, the car dealership’s president. “It took a long time to embrace the fact that you’ve got all the facts there in front of you and as a department head, while you can certainly discuss it with me, I would expect you to make the decision.”
Central Cadillac was founded by Porter’s grandfather about 70 years ago and he was then followed by Porter’s father, who took the helm in the 1960s. His father brought an authoritarian management style to the job that was not a fit in any way with Porter’s personality.
Porter was surprised, however, that his attempt to bring collaboration and open discussion into the mix at the 75-employee company was met with such anxiety.
“I thought this would be something that would be a couple meetings and we would just sail out,” Porter says. “I thought this was what my department heads were looking for. I found that we had to change the entire culture, the whole way they had been brought up and managed up to that point. So no, it was not easy. I was surprised at how tough it was.”
The big hurdle to transforming the car dealership’s culture was instilling enough confidence in his leaders to be willing to make decisions without seeking out his help and advice.
“They wanted someone else to make the decision,” Porter says. “They didn’t feel at all comfortable sitting down with employees and talking through an issue and talking through a potential solution and getting their buy-in.”
Porter’s initial lesson to his leaders was that you can’t fear making a bad decision.
“If I make a wrong decision, I’m not going to get blasted for it,” Porter says. “That’s part of the learning process. Sometimes, wrong decisions are better than no decisions. Usually they are. It was a whole process that we went through with all the department heads.”
If you’re trying to transform a group of employees who haven’t had a lot of input up to that point, create situations where they can offer their feedback.
“We revamped our mission statement,” Porter says. “That was done by an interdepartmental group of employees that put it together and worked it. They came up with some basics as to how to guide our employee group in making decisions.”
Take part in those meetings, at least at first, and demonstrate and actively encourage people that it’s OK to offer their opinion, even if they don’t fit in with what the leaders at the top believe.
“You have to bring out in those meetings that it’s alright to discuss a problem,” Porter says. “It’s alright to criticize your manager. It’s the only way we’re going to move forward.”
Porter sees leadership as less about removing obstacles from his employees’ path and more about showing his employees how they can take part in removing those obstacles.
“I think we clear obstacles as a team,” Porter says. “If we’ve got things running in the right direction and if we have people who are self-empowered and working collaboratively within both their department and in the organization, I should be able to get out of their way and let them run. There are always going to be situations that pop up where you have to sit down and say, ‘OK, we’re faced with this issue. How do we best address it?’”
If you create a collaborative environment, your people will have more answers than questions about this concern.
“Give people an opportunity to have some control over their own destiny,” Porter says.
How to reach: Central Cadillac, (866) 733-1822 or www.centralcadillac.com
Talk about it
The only thing worse than leading an organization and not giving your people any control over their own destiny is misleading your people into believing that they have control over that destiny.
“There’s nothing worse than having the responsibility and no authority,” says Frank Porter, president at Central Cadillac. “In that situation, your people kind of throw their arms in the air and say it’s never going to get solved.”
One of the challenges for Porter at Central Cadillac was convincing his employees that he really did want to give them more authority and more power in how the 75-employee car dealership operates.
Success with this or any other operational problem often comes down to your willingness to sit down and talk it out.
“If there’s an issue that is more outside the framework of what they have experienced in the past, I might say, ‘Why don’t you get your facts together on that and let’s sit down and discuss it,’” Porter says. “We can talk through the situation and the issues. If they need more assistance in making that decision, there may be other resources I can bring to bear that would help them."