Walking the walk Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2008

Knowing all the ins and outs of your business can give you a big advantage in gaining the respect of your employees, says Frank A. Walker.

Walker has been working at Walker Ford Co. Inc. since he was in high school, starting in the body shop and working his way up through the ranks. And he says that experience of learning different aspects of the business is a key to being a more effective leader.

“I think on-the-job training is more important than anything, any books you could read about the business,” says Walker, vice president and general manager of the car dealership, which posted 2007 revenue of more than $70 million. “You have to really be involved in the business.”

Yet, even though he’s familiar with every aspect of his business, he can’t do it all himself, and he has to delegate and trust those around him to continue his success.

Smart Business spoke with Walker about how to share responsibilities and take the blame and how to surround yourself with good people.

Delegate. You’d better be able to delegate. That’s why you need good people. My dad taught me one thing. He said you can be the best manager in the world, the best owner, (but) you better surround yourself with good people — it makes you look better. If you surround yourself with bad people, it makes you look worse.

Some things you can’t delegate. Then, there are others that you can delegate. When I can delegate, I do delegate. It’s a chain of command. It runs down from myself to Mary, my controller, and then with the department heads.

The best thing is to let them run their department. That’s what they’re here for. If you don’t trust them or you don’t think that they can run their department, then they shouldn’t be working at the company. So, it’s a lot of trust involved.

If you hand something off to somebody else and they don’t get it done for you, then you’ve got to re-evaluate that person — what you are going to give him from now on in that aspect. But, you better be comfortable giving it to somebody.

Now, if I hand off something to somebody and they drop the ball, I always say, ‘You put this one on the front burner.’ That means, ‘That’s important; get it done.’

I constantly follow up, though. I don’t wait. I’m kind of like a hyper person. I run fast. This is a high-speed business. It changes every day.

So, basically when you have somebody that you hand off to and he drops the ball, I have them come into my office and shut the door and tell him why I’m disappointed and let’s not let it happen again.

We all make mistakes. But, my motto here is, ‘Let’s not make the same mistake twice.’ It’s better to have that employee behind closed doors because it demeans that person in front of other employees, and it’s very embarrassing.

Take the blame for failure. I’m not afraid to take the blame at all. I think you should take the blame for all failures because if you are at the top and you have people that are failing underneath you, then you haven’t given them the tools or the leadership or information they need to succeed. So, you have to take the blame for that because it all starts at the top and works on down.

I was taught one thing. When you make a mistake, stand right up and say you made the mistake. But, when you are right, go all the way with it. You have to take the blame. If somebody fails in your company and you have given him all the tools, all the instruction, everything he needs to succeed and he fails, then you have to take the blame for it. Because that person, either he wasn’t the right person in the company or he didn’t get everything he needed.

That’s why you have to stay close to your managers. You have to feel the pulse of your managers. You’ve got to think what they think and know exactly what they are doing all the time.

No one likes to lose or fail, but when it happens, you learn from your mistakes. You pick yourself up, you brush yourself off and then you try to do a better job. It makes you a better person. It’s a learning experience, and you learn from failure.

Promote from within. When you bring somebody in from the outside, it’s like Ford Motor Co. did awhile back. They brought people in from Westinghouse, and they stepped on people that were there for a long period of time, and those people abandoned ship and went over to Chrysler.

It’s the same way with a dealership. If you bring somebody in from the outside or is not familiar with the way you run a dealership ... you’d better be able to have some thick skin. Because, what happens is, the employee resents him, and he ends up leaving anyway. So, you try to make sure you promote from within if you have the people there that can do that.

[You need someone with] strong character, [who] does-n’t mind working the hours. This is a very stressful business. You better be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. You better be able to multitask.

HOW TO REACH: Walker Ford Co. Inc., (800) 329-1788 or www.walkerford.com