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How Clayton Frech succeeds by building stronger leaders at Safelite AutoGlass Featured

8:00pm EDT July 31, 2012
How Clayton Frech succeeds by building stronger leaders at Safelite AutoGlass

Clayton Frech loves customer service. He loves it despite the fact that his first job was managing a dormitory salad bar at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“It was the worst job in the cafeteria other than maybe washing dishes,” Frech says with a chuckle. “But you learned quickly and within a year, I was one of the assistant managers and I started managing my own team.”

That passion for stepping into a tough situation and not only making the best out of it, but finding a way to thrive in it, would serve Frech well years later when he was asked to get things turned around as division manager for the Southern California division of Safelite AutoGlass.

Sales had been flat for the three years prior to Frech’s arrival in 2009, and that had fostered a work environment that didn’t have a whole lot of energy.

“In that kind of slow to no-growth environment, there aren’t a lot of new stretch assignments,” Frech says. “There’s not a lot of need to develop new talent.”

Frech wanted to start developing talent and get people excited about serving the customer and energized about the opportunity to become a leader in the Safelite organization. Doing so was the only way he knew to get Safelite on the map in Southern California with potential customers and boost the division’s mediocre sales volume.

“I love the service side of things and I love thinking about the underlying people and operations processes needed to ensure that the service delivery is excellent every time the customer walks through the door,” Frech says. “While I’ve changed industries over the years, this is what I’m most passionate about.”

When Frech brought up the idea of providing leadership and customer service training to employees, he didn’t get the response he expected from his general managers.

“I was thinking about whom my managers are going to be in two or three years and what skills do those guys need because I want to start grooming them,” Frech says. “And my managers said, ‘Well, the guys who are running the business right now need some of this too.’”

So Frech changed course and opened the training up to existing leaders as well the leaders of the future. And he set out to create a program that would give them the skills they needed to make Safelite a company of choice for its potential customers.

Lay the groundwork

Frech was fortunate that Safelite’s headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, had put together a leadership development program that had already proven to be effective at grooming leaders and improving customer service.

It would provide a template to work with in developing a curriculum for the Southern California division. Frech knew he wanted the training program to balance learning about leadership principles with the functional side of being a manager.

“We weren’t teaching them how to do their day jobs,” Frech says. “We were teaching them the intricacies of people management as well as the softer side of leadership. To put it another way, in terms of conducting a performance review, there’s the nitty-gritty functional things you just need to know about how to do it and do it correctly.

“Then there is also the side of what do we expect out of our people. Is it just that they are able to put a windshield in correctly? Or do we expect them to have a good attitude? Do we expect them to bend over backwards for our customers? It’s a balance.”

As the curriculum was hashed out, it was decided that the first training course would take place over the period of a year. But in both cases, Frech says one of the keys to success is often a willingness to remain flexible.

“You have to be rigid and flexible at the same time,” Frech says. “If you don’t put dates on the calendar, it will never happen. So getting the dates on the calendar and planning it and forcing everybody to make it happen is critical. But then it’s trying to listen to your people and be flexible when you really need to make a change.”

An agenda was provided at the beginning of the training to give participants an idea of what to expect, but caution was taken to not reveal too much.

“They never really knew exactly what we were going to do,” Frech says. “So there was an element of knowing and an element of surprise. But it was a healthy balance.”

As for the participants in the Safelite training course, everyone who was already a manager would be required to take part. High-potential employees who had a strong desire to one day become a manager would then submit applications.

“The main thing we looked for in the applications was a vision of where they wanted to go with their careers and if they could articulate that vision, even in a limited way, and really show that they were hungry, engaged and willing to learn,” Frech says. “For us, it didn’t need to be that polished perfect application. It was more, is there desire in there?”

There were 50 slots filled for the first course, with about 75 percent of high-potential applicants accepted. Those who weren’t chosen were put on a list and a point was made to give them more opportunities to stretch themselves in their work. They would also be given strong consideration when future training courses were offered.

As for those who were selected, the excitement was high.

“They had never been through anything like this before,” Frech says. “So the general mood going into the classes was excited and positive.”

Make it worthwhile

Since it was something new, Frech did indeed feel a lot of energy about the leadership development course that was about to begin. It was now up to him and his team to make sure the students weren’t disappointed.

“In every class, there needs to be an aha moment,” Frech says. “The content of the class needs to be compelling enough so they are searching for that aha moment. They are really paying attention. That’s probably the most important thing.”

Frech wanted employees to focus on gaining knowledge and getting better at their jobs. There would be no grades and there wouldn’t be a final exam at the end of the course either.

“The main emphasis was on them reporting back in some way and using the knowledge they gained as part of the discussion,” Frech says. “That’s how we reinforced the homework. At the end of the day, the classroom is only so good. You’ve got to be in the field and learning on the job. That’s where the vast majority of learning is going to take place.”

Frech and his team sought to make the classes interesting by bringing in people who could offer compelling lessons to the trainees.

“We brought in high-level speakers from other parts of the organization, some in person and some on conference calls,” Frech says. “We toured facilities together. We just did a lot of different things and tried to keep it fun.”

While there was thought to bringing in outside help to lead the course, Frech was confident he had the resources in house to train people the right way.

“For us, the basic goal of this effort was to take an hourly technician and turn them into a team leader/store manager of five to 10 associates and to be able to lead those associates to their optimal performance and capabilities,” Frech says. “We weren’t trying to take on the world here. We were just trying to develop a new generation of managers with some idea of what it means to be a manager and what it means to be a leader and have expectations.”

As the first year drew to a close, it became apparent that employees had gained a lot of knowledge about managing people.

“But it didn’t provide any insights into the business and how we want to run the business and where the opportunities are to improve the customer’s experience and the customer’s journey,” Frech says.

So a second class was scheduled to begin a year after the first one ended. It would focus on the customer journey and all that went into providing great service.  

“We got experience at the distribution center and an understanding of the supply chain and at our warehouses where the glass is stored and shipped out to our technicians,” Frech says. “We spent time with the technicians and talking about their perspective and then we spent time doing the glass and talking to customers, real customers, on both ends of the process. We talked to them at the beginning when they’re making the decision and at the end when they’re deciding if they are happy or not.”

Frech says the two-year plan of first learning to be an effective manager, then learning about customer service, was not exactly how he had it planned. It just happened to work out that way.

“It’s a pretty good one-two punch the way it ended up, but I’m not going to take credit for some grand vision,” Frech says. “If we take care of our people the right way and they in turn take care of our customers; that’s the heart and soul of what we do and of our strategy.”

Provide a path

Frech made no promises to employees who took part in the training program in regard to raises, promotions, bonuses or any other incentives.

“The implicit deal that we struck with the associates was if you can adopt the learning in your life, you will be much more viable for a promotion,” Frech says. “It’s got to be a two-way street. You can train people, but how much training goes in one ear and out the other?”

You’ve got to stoke the flames of self-improvement in your people and create an environment where they see the potential opportunities ahead and get excited about going after them.

“That’s what I talk about with my people. Are you on a journey of self-improvement? What are you working on? If they do all those things and start stepping up and taking more responsibility, that’s when I’m more comfortable to give raises and promotions,” Frech says.

“If they can start on the journey and show that they are really genuinely improving, the opportunities are going to be there for them. It doesn’t mean you win every opportunity or you get everything. But that’s the commitment that has to be made.

Frech’s division has since been expanded to include all of California and now encompasses 566 employees. Since the training began, 20 promotions have been issued and 16 of the people who were promoted took part in the training course.

“So that’s 80 percent,” Frech says. “That probably keeps them motivated. I don’t tell them who has been promoted out of their peers, but they know. It’s really worked to give them visibility with myself and the general managers as well as with their peers and has really moved their learning along.”

How to reach: Safelite AutoGlass, (877) 800-2727 or www.safelite.com


Think about what your people need.

Make sure that you’re not wasting anybody’s time.

Give employees a reason to get excited about what you’re asking them to do.

The Frech File

Born: Bethesda, Md.

Education: Bachelor of arts in economics, University of California, Santa Barbara; MBA, University of California, Los Angeles

Who has been the biggest influence in your life?

Steve Miggo, senior vice president of operations and human resources at Safelite. There are a lot of bosses in the world, leaders in the world, who don’t always appear to have a caring or kind manner.

Steve is the kindest, most genuine and caring guy and he’s 100 percent focused on building the organization in that same vein. He was one of the folks I interviewed with when I was thinking about joining Safelite.

His leadership philosophy was just so perfectly aligned with how I have always wanted to lead. It’s almost like a homecoming from a values and leadership philosophy standpoint.

Who would you most like to meet?

I would probably say Jack Welch. The reason I say Jack is he spoke at our annual leadership conference back in 2011. And he talks a lot about people and talent development. He talked about how he evaluates his managers along two criteria: performance and values. This has really had an impact on the way to look at managers.

It’s easy to discard values if you get performance, and he made the point that you absolutely can’t do that because in the long run, it’s not sustainable if managers do not share your values or have your values. I think about that all the time and it’s one of those things that has stuck with me. It’s so simple.