Get out of the office Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2008

If you’re a manager at Village Ford Inc., Jim Seavitt wants >your cell phone number.

The president and owner of Village Ford Inc., an auto dealership that earned $95 million in 2007 revenue, says the cell phone should be his primary way of contacting his managers. And if you are a manager and he rings your desk, you had better not be there to answer.

“If I call your office and you’re in it all the time, that means you’re not walking around,” Seavitt says. “So give me your cell number so I can call your cell while you’re walking around and you can get out of that office.”

Seavitt says an effective leader is a visible leader who keeps employees in the information loop and values their opinions.

Smart Business spoke with Seavitt about how he builds bridges between management and employees and why doing so is critical to the success of any business.

Stand up and get out. You want to be out there; you want to be sure that you’re visible to your employees. It’s so easy to get into that comfort zone, to get on that damn Internet and just be content with phone and e-mail.

Sometimes, it’s a struggle to keep yourself visible. We’re spread out here in three different buildings, and sometimes getting across the street can be like trying to get to a whole other state. You really have to force yourself to get up and get around.

People need to know you’re there, that you’re just not up in your office or playing golf, that you are actively involved. Every day, I make it a point to walk through the entire dealership and stop and talk to people. It’s the touch point.

If you were to walk in and take a tour of my dealership with me, I’d venture to say that 80 percent of the people would ask me, ‘Jim, how’s it going?’ and know that I’d know them and they’d know me pretty well. That leads to my whole philosophy, that if your employees like what they do, if they like where they are, like the people they work for, more than likely, you’re going to have great employee morale, which will translate into customer satisfaction.

There have been a number of surveys I’ve seen where people always think pay is at the top of the employee satisfaction list, but it’s not. At the top of the list is being in on things. How do you let employees be in on things? I have a lunch once a month with 15 to 18 employees, so that by the end of the year, I’ve had lunch with every employee.

I call it ‘Lunch with Jim.’ They all come upstairs, go to a meeting room, we buy them lunch, they ask questions, and I give them a state of the nation where I give them an update on the economy of the nation, because a lot of them don’t keep up with that.

I tell them what is going on with Ford Motor Co. and what is going on with Village Ford. That way, they feel like they’re in on things.

Understand why you’re communicating. Employees need to have the feeling that they’re helping, that their opinions count, that they know what is happening at their company. As I said, pay is important, but more important is the fact that they know what is going on, that they feel they have control over their destiny.

Even now, with Ford Motor Co. laying off people by the scores, by the thousands, my people have a very good feeling of where they stand. They know the way that we are going to scale our business down, and we’ve done it mostly through attrition.

They know what we’re doing about health care, how we’ve had to change the plan three times here. You can imagine how that touches people and what would happen if you didn’t give them a heads up on why things are changing and what is in it for them.

When I’m communicating, I’ll tell my employees 90 to 95 percent of what I know. There is a point that has to do with the financial part of the dealership that I can’t tell them, but it’s pretty doggone open. If we didn’t turn a profit for the month, I’ll tell them.

To give a related example, we’re redoing our showroom in a couple of areas. Our waiting area needed to be done. I knew what was going to happen. People tell me, ‘I’m not going to get a raise, but Jim is putting new stuff in the showroom.’

So I had to let them know why I was doing that, where that money came from, that it was money I put into the dealership that goes toward capital repairs and improvements, and that it’s different from operating profit. I explain that to them in detail so they understand it, so they get a better feel, and it improves their comfort level.

Hire managers to help you communicate. Select good department managers, give them good direction and encouragement, and get out of their way; let them take responsibility and lead. That’s my leadership style with my management team.

With my employees, I believe in management by walking around. I have 187 employees, so it’s all about getting out there, walking around every day. You need to be walking through the shop and walking through the office, walking on the showroom floor, getting to know your people.

HOW TO REACH: Village Ford Inc., (800) 331-4909 or www.villageford.com