If you want to become the kind of CEO who bridges the gap between workers and executives, Gregory Jackson has some key words for you: “Dockers and loafers. Jeans and a shirt.”
In other words, lose the suit from time to time.
Jackson, founder, president and CEO of Jackson Automotive Management, which operates 10 car dealerships in Michigan, Ohio and Florida, didn’t learn how to lead his company in a board-room or behind a desk. He learned in the service garage, in the showroom and on the delivery truck.
When he formed Jackson Automotive in 1993, he set about learning the ins and outs of the dealership business by participating in the day-to-day operations of the company. He sold cars, helped make deliveries and worked the parts counter. He spent between three and four months working in every aspect of his dealerships.
Not only did the experience teach him how a dealership runs, it helped him create a bond with both his employees and his customers by breaking down the wall that sometimes exists when a CEO becomes too detached from what is going on in the field.
Jackson isn’t quite as hands-on nowadays, but every once in a while, he is still known to hang up his suit, put on some khakis and a casual shirt and spend time working in one of his dealerships. “It’s amazing the natural feeling people get for you,” he says. “When you’re sitting there talking with them and after three or four minutes, they’ll say, ‘You work here, what do you do?’ And you say, ‘Well, I actually own the place.’ It’s amazing how they feel about that, what that means.”
Jackson’s interactive approach to leadership has helped him grow Jackson Automotive into a chain of dealerships that netted more than $1 billion in sales in 2005. To Jackson, leading a company is more about relating to people than anything else.
Jackson’s first lesson on relating to employees: People want you to lead, not rule.
A CEO has to appear confident and competent but not cross the bridge to arrogance or aloofness. Jackson avoids detachment by getting to know many of his approximately 500 employees. The little things you can remember about those on the lower rungs of the company can really help get them behind you. “The one thing you have to do is not hold yourself out as the king,” he says. “You want to be approachable and personable. It’s just knowing a little bit about them, what is going on in their life. ‘How is your son doing with the baseball team? How is your wife’s illness, is she doing OK?’ Knowing something about the people you manage creates some personality and encourages people to want to help you out and help you learn.”
Jackson encourages others at his company to reach out, as well. The culture he has communicated to his employees is one of teamwork, of helping others out, even if it’s not in your department. “It might be a salesperson going into service and checking on a car, ensuring that everything is all right,” he says. “It might be me as a manager doing the same with an employee associate, talking with them, asking if we can help. It might sound a little clich, but it works.”
Jackson constantly reinforces his messages through e-mail and face-to-face contact. He relies a lot on communicating through his dealership managers, but every so often, he’ll call all of the employees at a dealership together for a kind of large-scale brainstorming session. “I give everybody a little sheet, kind of an ‘ideas for improvement’ sheet,” he says. “We ask everybody to write down the things they see, problems they notice, and what your solution would be to the problem.”
Jackson says that because some employees are timid about approaching the CEO and some might not believe their opinion really matters, it’s up to you to seek out their input and make it matter. “I think you just constantly have to request it from them,” he says. “Then, when they give you a suggestion, act on it. That doesn’t mean you always do it, but at least respond to them.”
If the company uses an idea, or an employee does a particularly good job, recognition is a must. Recognizing employees fulfills a need that every person in your company has, and Jackson says that a measure of recognition or gratitude doesn’t have to be grand it can be as simple as treating an employee to lunch or giving that person a small gift. “I just recently gave someone a leather notepad carrier that I got at a conference,” he says. “People are thrilled that you’d give something to them. It doesn’t have to be big. It’s just the recognition that ‘I did something well, and guess what? Somebody took notice.’”
Jackson says making those small gestures can easily be overlooked by a CEO, but it should be no different than how you might handle things at home. “If you’re married, sometimes you might forget how important it is to tell the wife you love her,” he says. “After so many years, it’s like, ‘She knows I love her.’ But sometimes, it’s just giving that recognition as opposed to assuming. The need to be recognized is part of the human hierarchy of needs.”
The right people
A company is like a puzzle that doesn’t come in a box. The CEO’s job is to enable people to find the right pieces and put them in the right places so that the finished puzzle meets the original vision.
But it’s not as simple as something that can be bought from a hobby store.
Jackson says fostering relationships in a company starts with a philosophy of open-mindedness with regard to job placement. You need many different types of people in different positions in your company, particularly if you deal with the public.
When considering a person for a job, Jackson says the management at Jackson Automotive puts a candidate through rounds of internal and external evaluations including psychological evaluations and behavioral examinations to determine if a candidate would be a good fit for a job and a good fit with the other employees he or she would be working with.
Even if somebody has worked in a department for years, that person will still go through rounds of evaluation when applying to manage that department. “Just because you are a great baseball player doesn’t mean you can manage a baseball team,” Jackson says. “Just because you are good at a task doesn’t mean you can manage others who do the task.”
One of the most difficult skills a CEO must learn is how to place dissimilar people in situations where their differences complement each other instead of clash. “Sometimes, you want different people together on a task because they can best accomplish it,” he says. “In other areas, you might want similar people. It’s situational.”
For instance, different employees might be able to handle different customers. Some customers need a softer touch, while some need to have the law laid down in front of them. “The customer is always right, but I think sometimes the customer needs to know when enough is enough,” Jackson said. “So you send in a softer person to try and soften the person up, but the customer is still not going to be happy, even though you’ve done right by them. So you send in a little more forceful person to tell the customer, ‘This is it. This is what we are going to do. Why are we still talking?’”
No company bats 1.000 with regard to putting the right people in the right jobs. But just because an employee is underperforming in one capacity doesn’t mean he or she needs to find a new line of work. It might be that he or she is fully capable of becoming an outstanding performer in another area.
It goes back to the rounds of evaluation Jackson Automotive puts job candidates through. A person who is a bad fit in one area could be re-evaluated as a potential fit for another. “If you have a broken piece of equipment, you don’t throw it out, you try to repair it,” he says. “You don’t throw it out until you realize that it simply isn’t going to work right.”
If other employees see management working with a problem employee instead of tossing that person to the curb, it helps to grow a positive feeling within the company. “I think that when the other individuals see you working with an employee, they feel good about that,” Jackson says. “They know that you’re not throwing away people and that you are doing right by that person.”
Jackson views poor work performance as a symptom, not necessarily as a disease. While some employees simply don’t take their jobs seriously, a great many with work performance issues have an underlying problem. Part of the employee evaluation system in place at Jackson Automotive looks at what is going on in the lives of underperforming employees. “We counsel them to find out what’s happening,” he says. “Are they just slouching off, is it something that’s going on personally, do they need additional training? That dictates what we do next, whether we need to send them for training or whether they need a little time off to deal with something personal. We try to find out what the problem is first, then we attack it from that standpoint.”
Jackson says he frequently uses a saying borrowed from a book by business mogul Jack Welch. “One of the things Jack Welch said was that if you are having a performance problem, you have to change your people, or change your people,” he says. “You either change what a person is doing, or put a new person in that job. We look at all those options.”
Jackson says he strives to make Jackson Automotive’s dealerships a comfortable place to work and to do business. To do that, he and his managers must work constantly to maintain customer satisfaction and employee trust, something that only happens with frequent communication and constant re-evaluation of people and policies. “Bankers and financiers lend you money, and so often they tell you, ‘I’m not investing in the company so much as I am investing in you,’” Jackson says. “To maintain that, you have to build relationships with your people, and you have to get your arms around the business. Not just the top level, but the nuts and bolts of it.”
HOW TO REACH: Jackson Automotive Management, www.prestigeautomotive.com