What's Holding Back Your Managers? - Management
Construction Equipment Distribution magazine is published by the Associated Equipment Distributors, a nonprofit trade association founded in 1919, whose membership is primarily comprised of the leading equipment dealerships and rental companies in the U.S. and Canada. AED membership also includes equipment manufacturers and industry-service firms. CED magazine has been published continuously since 1920. Associated Equipment Distributors
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What's Holding Back Your Managers?

Written By Bill Sitter

Article Date: 02-01-2005
Copyright (C) 2005 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.

And how to fix it.

Recently, Construction Equipment Distribution asked me to research and report on a huge issue: How to overcome managerial weaknesses that are holding back companies in our industry. The first task was to identify the most critical areas of weakness for managers and potential managers. Then, we needed to locate solutions: How are equipment industry executives overcoming these shortcomings for the benefit of the developing manager and the good of the company.

I conducted a survey of 27 CEOs, COOs, general managers and other senior managers from dealers, manufacturers, rental companies and related service firms. What follows are the key issues our industry’s executives have found are limiting the success of their managers. Following each, we “define” the issue and then reveal the “solutions” these executives say really work.

1 Career Development

According to the industry executives, career development is the #1 issue holding back their managers. They defined it this way:

  • Many managers, especially newer ones, are not sure where their careers are headed, or even where they’d like them to go.
  • Managers, even long-tenured ones, are leading too many employees who don’t really know their jobs well, and/or have not been trained to be pro-active.
  • Sales representatives and managers who lack confidence are ineffective.
  • Managers who feel “weak” focus too much on themselves, rather than on the team and the company’s success.
  • Some younger managers have no company loyalty and are far too quick to change companies for relatively small salary gains.
  • Limited formal education and/or experience limits advancement.
  • New managers attempt to control people with “positional” power and fail to develop and lead.
One CEO from the Northeast said: “Our future leaders absolutely must fit our company’s style and culture. We are totally team focused, and we openly communicate goals and performance. It is a challenge to find these traits when hiring.”

The solutions:

The managers responding to the survey use the following strategies to address these career development issues.

“We use mentoring with an emphasis on career options and developmental steps for career growth,” said one. “Yes, it’s time-consuming, but it’s vital to building a dedicated leadership team.”

Another manager says “developing a culture and business processes in which managers spend quality time at branches and work hand-in-hand to train and model best practices” is very effective. This company mixes this with “liberal cross training (to build a versatile/lean team)” and uses quarterly performance reviews for reinforcement.

A training program such as “Versatile Sales Person” with role-playing and self-examination of personality types has produced results for one company: “Increased self-confidence and a much less intimidating view of the outside world equals more profitable sales.”

“Trust building is essential to team building,” said one executive. “This takes ongoing effort and requires active communications and negotiated team decision-making. Shared risk-reward scenarios shift the focus to customer satisfaction. Managers must learn to place trust in the hands of team members – we want no ‘Lone Rangers’.”

Top leadership must communicate career growth opportunities and instill long-term loyalty by showing that the organization really cares about the manager’s future.

“Education requirements are connected to our initial hiring position specification; however, ongoing education is a shared responsibility of the potential manager and the company,” said one respondent. “We use in-house soft skills training for supervisors and augment with appropriate software.”

Outside training for a large West Coast dealership has focused on sales programs, mostly provided by their OEM. “One-on-one mentoring works best, for us.”

Several companies reported excellent results from mentoring: “Mentor-ing by experienced leaders is essential,” said one. “We teach that the more important managers act – the less important/effective they become.”

One CEO’s leadership team uses an extensive screening process to include internal and external interviews. Test results aid in the selection process and are used as career development tools for managers hired from the outside to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses.

Managers are encouraged/pushed to identify and appropriately terminate poor performers.

One general manager said, “It’s great to have empathy, and we heartily believe in development, but constantly ‘giving someone another chance’ hurts the company. We are a business, not a correctional institution.”

2 Lack of Strategic Thinking

An inability to “see the big picture” is another key concern for executives as they consider the success (or failure) of their managers. That lack of strategic thinking was defined this way:

  • Lack of understanding of what our business is really all about. A failure to see how all the pieces of the business equation fit and need to function.
  • Most managers grew-up in their departments and focus totally on running that specific area, without recognizing the impact company-wide.
  • Immature managers avoid risk and operate only in their comfort zones. This hurts them and the organization, because it limits growth.
The solutions: One company found coaching is key to developing strategic thinking. That coaching involves steadily expanding the managers’ horizons and forcing them out of their comfort zones. Growth comes as future leaders tackle new areas of responsibility.

“We find new hires with military leadership backgrounds often come to us with the ability to think strategically,” said one executive.

“We use a combination of outside training resources,” said another, “but our greatest impact comes from the top of the organization, which must continually reinforce our goals and operating parameters, and drive key strategies. Astute future leaders will quickly catch-on.”

Hiring future leaders who will think and act strategically saves a lot of training effort and money. So, put extra effort in the selection process.

“We start by clearly explaining goals for each area and for our organization,” said one respondent, “and progress to showing just how each person and department should work collaboratively for team success – which we describe as reaching strategic objectives. We consciously activate scenarios to pull people out of their comfort zones and force ‘big picture’ thinking.”

3 Interpersonal Skills
Another shortcoming common to ineffective managers are poor interpersonal skills. This is surprising, since all of our businesses thrive or die on people-to-people relationships.

This is how the executives characterized poor interpersonal skills:

  • Simply stated, poor people skills hold back otherwise talented managers, and hurt our dealership - if not solved, and solved fast.
  • Some managers fail to delegate. They have trouble relating, so they try to do it all - and they can't. They need to delegate and hold others accountable, but that requires self-confidence and people skills.
  • We have some managers who relate pretty well up and down, but have trouble relating to their peers.
The solutions:
One multi-state dealer said they use AED's educational resources plus Dale Carnegie training and outside speakers to improve their managers' people skills.

Another large distributor said they make extensive use of AED training on people skills - both seminars and home study programs.

A rental company stresses people skills in their hiring process and mentoring of future leaders by experienced managers. Annual reviews include an open discussion of strengths and weaknesses, and courses of developmental action. The goal is to create an environment in which great people, with excellent interpersonal skills, advance to the top.
 One Western company urges its managers to work out peer problems with open and frank discussion: "This collaboration strengthens the team and removes negative stress, as folks focus on solving common problems."

4 Communication Challenges

Clear communications are a problem throughout the business world: the equipment distribution industry is not immune:

  • Managers fail to communicate vital information on a timely basis, even to fellow team members.
  • "Sometimes our managers are too quick to blame another department for a reported customer problem."
  • Weak managers are often less effective communicators.
The solutions:
One CEO is using outside consultants to facilitate communications. He favors an approach that identifies various communication styles and develops protocols for consistent and appropriate conversation. "This is
a long-term investment, but the team's record-setting results speak for themselves."

One CEO at a large dealership in the Northeast says he works personally on communication techniques with his managers, and includes role-playing, formal training, and regular reviews. 

The general manager at another dealership uses a "Benefit of the Doubt" training approach: "When customer problems are reported, it is unacceptable to blame another person. The first step is to gather facts, and then work with appropriate managers to solve the problem. This improves teamwork, builds trust, and definitely enhances communication across the organization. Everyone wins."

Many executives echoed the response of this respondent: "We find if we hire well-educated people, their communication skills are much better developed. Hiring right is essential." 

As part of one Midwest dealer's team training, they stress and reinforce pro-active communications and trust: "Information sharing is not dangerous, it engages and empowers.

5 Customer Service
Good customer service is essential to the profitability of both dealers and manufacturers, and it's a common shortcoming of weak managers. Respondents said poor customer service manifestes itself this way:

  • Too many managers have limited experience handling customer service issues and conflicts.
  • Some managers lack a true sense of urgency and a less than ideal positive caring and serving attitude toward our customers...who hold the keys to our survival.
  • Managers lack creativity when approaching problem solving. We need leaders who will take ownership of processes and projects - and get results.
  • We find managers over-promising and under-delivering on customer service.
The solutions:
A COO for one large multi-state distributor said they emphasize mentoring, from the vice president level down, including training that focuses on communications and conflict resolution.

Another executive said, "Hiring criteria should include a search for ‘creative energy' and a can-do attitude. Look for examples of how the candidate attacked problems and followed through."

In addition to mentoring, one CEO trains managers by giving them ownership of a project to enhance problem-solving skills.

 A general manager for a dealer in the Southwest uses individual personal development goals that are supported by group and individual training and reinforced by linkage to a bonus programs. He has also beefed-up hiring standards by personally doing a final interview to ensure his managers are hiring top talent and are not afraid to hire the best because they feel threatened in their own jobs. He insists on "hiring and promoting the best." 

To keep managers from over- promising, one CEO focuses on organizational planning and structure. "We want all departments to understand their roles, processes, and the capabilities of the organization," he says. "Then it's logical to focus on priorities, make realistic commitments, and deliver on customer promises."

An executive with a Southeast dealership directs his mid-level managers to get out in the field and find out what competition is doing, especially in the product support area and then, to be creative in ways to generate new, profitable revenue streams.

"The hiring process should probe for creativity," says one respondent, "and for examples in which change was embraced and the candidate made something happen."

Other Issues
Several executives said weak decision making is a consistent obstacle to managerial development. Some managers fail to act quickly and/or to take challenges head-on; others are hesitant to admit their shortcomings or lack of knowledge. This issue, respondents said, is best addressed with outside training, team building programs, and effective mentoring.

Executives expressed concern at the lack of planning and organization skills they find in some managers, as well as the inability to appropriately involve subordinates in these processes. While there seems to be no quick remedy for this trait, mentoring and coaching can provide a model for effective planning, good organization skills and team building.

Many managers lack a grasp of how various actions, including their decisions, impact the company's bottom line. As a solution, one CEO provides "Finance for Non-Financial Managers" courses and supplements with in-house training on the company's financials. 

A general manager at one large dealership forces each branch manager to prepare and present a comprehensive quarterly financial report to peers and superiors. Information is shared and suggestions are offered for the benefit of all.

Here, too, mentoring and training are key. In concluding his latest book, Stephen Covey provides the following nugget on leadership: "People are whole people - body, mind, heart and spirit. As a person engages in the sequential 8th Habit process of finding one's own voice, making the choice to expand [his/her] influence by inspiring others to find their voices, ... [he/she] learns how leadership can eventually become a choice not a position, so that leadership, the enabling act, is widely distributed throughout...while we manage or control things, we lead people."

I agree. As leaders, we must embrace the task of helping future leaders be all they can be and to optimize their gifts and talents.


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