Motivational mechanic Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2007

Gordon Stewart once wanted to find the secret to building a successful, motivated work force. So he hired a consultant to show him the way.

He paid the consultant $15,000 to unlock the mystery of what truly gave employees a sense of accomplishment and gratification at work.

“I wanted to give my employees something,” says Stewart, the president, CEO and founder of Stewart Management Group Inc., a Harper Woods-based auto dealer operator with five locations in Michigan, Florida and Alabama. “Not just something I wanted to give them, but something they wanted.”

He thought the secret was in compensation, perhaps a new retirement plan or better health insurance.

But when he asked the consultant to get to the bottom of it, the consultant gave him a blunt reply.

“I’ll never forget it,” Stewart says. “He said he could save me $15,000 right now and tell me the answer before he ever met my employees.

“I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘Respect and recognition.’ To which I said, ‘Aw, baloney, do the survey.’”

Hours and hours of research and $15,000 later, Stewart had his answer.

“The No. 1 priority among employees was not increased wages or increased benefits,” he says. It was respect and recognition.”

Stewart says it was an expensive lesson to learn. Without the support of management and a feeling of accomplishment, your employees will never feel like they have a home in your company. If employees feel detached and underappreciated, so will your customers, and that, Stewart says, is the road to ruin for any company.

Ever since Stewart paid $15,000 to find out just how important respect and recognition are to employees, he has made it a priority to build a motivated, enabled work force at Stewart Management Group.

Uncommon thinking

Stewart says motivated employees pave the way for good customer service, and if you want motivated employees, you have to be willing to play to their strengths.

At Stewart Management’s dealerships — which garner approximately $300 million in combined annual revenue — that means finding a home for both high-performing, high-volume salespeople, and those who might not have as much of a knack for moving units at a brisk pace.

Stewart says that he has a place for salespeople who aren’t schooled in high-pressure, volume-oriented sales tactics. If anything, he says he values an ability to connect with people on a personal level more than he does traditional sales tactics.

“We prefer to hire people who are new to our business,” he says. “That way, they don’t come to us with any bad habits. Then we try to provide them with an environment that allows them to progress to whatever level they are comfortable with and at which they can perform sufficiently.”

It’s important to remember that not everyone enters your company with the same level of ambition or the same goals. Some salespeople can’t, as the old saying goes, “sell ice to an Eskimo,” but Stewart says the units they do move are important because each sale represents a customer relationship formed or strengthened.

“People have pressure to perform and push to the top,” he says. “But some people don’t want to push all the way to the top. The system we have allows for that. We depend as much on the steady performers as the exceptional performers. We welcome that type of performance ... and put them in a position where they don’t have to worry about their jobs every month.”

That doesn’t mean that Stewart is content with mediocrity from his employees. He says he wants all of his employees aiming for the top floor. He simply tries to spread the message that, even if you aren’t a star salesperson and don’t have that level of ambition, you still have a place in his company.

If your company is only set up to accept a certain kind of performer, you run the risk of limiting your company’s capabilities because you won’t be able to keep many workers who don’t fit your narrowly defined definition of the “ideal employee.”

“There are certain triggers that might strike your fancy as you’re interviewing people to realize that it might be a good fit,” Stewart says. “But it’s as important to make sure that, that individual is going to fit well in to the organization as it is to make sure you are going to be happy with them. If you’re not happy with them and they’re not happy, you haven’t gained anything.”

That’s why, during the hiring process, Stewart tries to make sure that not only do his company leaders gain an understanding of the person being interviewed, but that the person being interviewed gets an accurate picture of the company.

“We try to be very explanatory during the hiring process of letting people know what the situation is and what they’re asking to be a part of, so we have a good chance of forming a long-term relationship.”

Living the culture

Stewart has a favorite saying when it comes to a company’s culture, and how it can either motivate or discourage employees: “The way you interact with everyone, both customers and employees, defines what is really your culture.”

In other words, your culture isn’t what you say it is; it’s what your employees think it is.

“Many companies have a statement of what their company culture is and should be,” Stewart says. “Sometimes, (the CEO) actually believes that because I said it, that’s what it is.

“My philosophy is that your culture is more defined by how you treat employees and how they, in turn, treat customers. It’s actions more than words that really dedicate what your culture is.”

For Stewart, it comes back to respect and recognition. He says you won’t gain respect as a leader unless you show respect for those who are supposed to follow you. You do that by actively and frequently acknowledging the contributions and accomplishments of your employees.

Again, he says it’s in the actions. If you aren’t communicating with your work force, you can’t expect your employees to latch onto your culture.

Action is the hard part. Stewart says many business leaders can come up with a grand vision for their corporate culture but getting it to take root is all in the legwork you are willing to perform.

“Respect is easy; recognition is the hard part,” he says. “If we have a weakness, it’s on the recognition side. If you’re not careful, you begin taking superior actions for granted because people do them so often and repeatedly, and the danger is failing to acknowledge them on a regular basis. There is no foolproof answer on how to do it, but there is always a strong need for it.”

And loyal, culture-absorbing employees can’t be bought. While prizes and money are a nice gesture and a concrete way of reinforcing your messages, bonus checks don’t necessarily make employees bleed the company colors.

Stewart says that goal-oriented bonuses become a kind of checklist for many workers. What truly gets people motivated is recognition in front of their peers.

“You can offer a bonus for a certain performance, and the person hits it and they get the compensation, but all it means is they hit that one goal you set,” Stewart says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean the performance was super, it just means they hit that certain level where you were willing to pay extra. For some people, that is sufficient. But everyone loves recognition, especially in front of their peers.”

Stewart doesn’t have a reason as to why it works that way, but he says the proof is in the pudding, and he strives to recognize employees at every turn.

“Mine is not to reason why, but to do or die,” he says. “I know it’s needed. It’s just a necessary part of doing business. You can’t live without it.”

Above all else, a culture needs continuity to survive. Stewart says a leader’s words need to follow his or her actions, every time, in order for employees to develop the deep cultural connection every CEO seeks between the workers and the company.

“You must project an unwavering degree of commitment to your corporate vision,” he says. “Your employees must be communicated with in whatever fashion necessary for your particular situation so they never have to wonder how to behave or react in a given situation.

“Imagine a shortstop on a baseball team. With a runner on first and a ground ball hit to him, he does not have to stop once he catches the ball and decide what to do with it. He knows that if it’s a hard-hit ball, he has a chance at a double play. If it’s a slow grounder, he knows he has to hustle to get the runner at first.”

The same concept applies in business. Stewart says that when any employee in your company has the ball hit to them, they have to know where to throw it, whom they can rely on for solid team-work. If everyone in the company has had the culture communicated and reinforced to them consistently, that person should feel comfortable going to anyone.

“The same shortstop concept applies in the business world,” he says. “If you want a consistent culture, every employee must know what is expected of them in almost any given business situation.”

Letting employees speak

Even if you do the world’s best job of internal communication, Stewart says you must acknowledge that your employees aren’t human sponges and won’t simply soak up what you are saying without developing opinions or ideas on how things could be done better.

As the company leader, he says you should welcome employee feedback, even if it is critical.

“If you really want employees to have a two-way street for communication, you must constantly solicit the action,” he says. “You must also take care, if you do that, to not dismiss certain thoughts or ideas too quickly. Nothing stifles that type of communication quicker than embarrassment. Trust builds over time, and that type of communication is something you earn as an employer. It’s not a birthright, unfortunately.”

You can announce that you have an open-door policy with a megaphone from the roof of your headquarters. He says it won’t mean a thing, until employees see what type of reaction awaits the first few co-workers who get up the nerve to come before upper management with an idea or concern.

“You cannot announce an open-door policy and expect it to happen immediately,” Stewart says. “Employees will carefully watch others attempting to bridge that gap. If they see a modicum of success, they will believe in the policy over time. This is another area where consistency is a virtue.”

No matter how you do it, Stewart says the only way you and your work force can truly bridge the communication gap and begin trusting each other is if you work tirelessly to keep the lines of communication open and active in both directions.

He says having a company spread across a large geographical area is no excuse for poor communication. Your company’s future relies on the effectiveness of your communication culture. Face-to-face communication can be an unrealistic endeavor at times, but you still need to find the means and the time to reach your work force.

“With businesses that have operations in several states, such as ours, face-to-face communication can be difficult,” Stewart says. “But that’s no excuse. E-mail has become a wonderful way to communicate. Phone calls are even better, if possible. But any form of communication is better than none at all.”

HOW TO REACH: Stewart Management Group Inc., Gordon Chevrolet Garden City,