For the first few years of my career, I worked as a machine test engineer and spent many long, hot, but enjoyable days with dealer salespeople and technicians, and their customers, in the vast pine plantations of the Southeast United States. On one occasion, I worked with a forestry equipment dealership in South Carolina to help resolve a customer issue — too much pine straw building up inside his machine.
By the time I left, I had an impression of sustainable teams and the consistently outstanding results they produce that’s stuck with me for the past 20 years.
This article contains tips to help you recognize the degree to which your team is sustainable and four actions you can implement today to drive improved sustainability.
Ben and Jane – communication is key
I arrived at the dealership at 7 a.m. on a Monday and saw the seasoned salesman I was to travel with engaged in animated conversation across the counter with the recently hired (as I would later learn) parts specialist.
Jane – a local young parts specialist and recent grad of Coastal Carolina University – was sharing with Ben – a seasoned iron peddler from Michigan’s UP – details of an oil and filter order from a new customer.
Ben excitedly grabbed the order, put everything (including me) into his pickup, and off we went to make the delivery before going on to our pine straw customer. In the 5 minutes it took for Ben to deliver the order, he sold the new customer an attachment and scheduled a demo for a new feller buncher for the following day.
An incredible outcome, to say the least, for Ben and the dealership. And it all started with a quick lead conversation between two colleagues that morning. But there was much more to their discussion than I initially assumed.
The leadership at this dealer, perhaps unknowingly or unintentionally, prioritized resilience, diversity, and engagement for their teams as a method to drive great results.
During the next 20 years of my career, as I worked with and visited dealers worldwide and eventually ran a dealership for Nortrax, I came to realize the incredible value of the sustainable team and the outsized results they can generate.
What is a sustainable team?
The more time I spent with dealer principals and general managers, the clearer the picture became about the attributes that separated dealerships with exceptional results from those that struggled to maintain their dealer status. Those on the exceptional end of the spectrum usually weren’t micromanaging key performance indicators, weren’t “motivating” their team for better short-term results, and weren’t squeezing their customers for more margins.
What they were doing is running their business with the use of sustainable teams.
I define a sustainable team as a resilient, diverse, and engaged group of people who consistently produce above-average results.
Team resilience is the capacity of a group of people to respond to change or disruption flexibly and innovatively. In the dynamic and fast-paced environment of an equipment dealership, the ability to react quickly to customer needs and changing circumstances without burning out the team is essential.
In my experience, resilient teams communicate better, both among themselves and externally with customers, using informal communication channels. They are purposefully built (using behavioral science) and led as a team. They have aligned goals focused on the customer’s success (for example, Ben and Jane’s dealership prioritized response time), and each person on the team understands their role and what is expected of them. But they also have a good appreciation for the roles of others, thus promoting a high degree of accountability and adaptability as a team; they’ve got each other’s backs.
Team diversity refers to the differences between individual members of a team that can exist on various dimensions like age, nationality, religious background, functional background or task skills, sexual orientation, and political preferences. As Adam Smith (famous 18th-century economist) said, “We are but one of the multitude …” and we are more alike than we realize, though the diversity of thought that comes from a team with a variety of backgrounds can do the following:
- Generate unique and innovative solutions to your customers’ problems
- Open up new recruiting channels as you grow your business
- Solve problems faster and more reliably (groupthink is a problem when everyone has the same background)
- Open up new business opportunities into those markets and communities with which your diverse team members associate
Team engagement occurs when your people are committed to their work and act positively in their role to further your company’s success. These folks know what you expect and how they contribute to the goals of your business.
In addition to clear expectations, engaged employees have a clear learning and development plan, a clear path for career progression, and a clear understanding of how you compensate them.
4 actions for sustainability
Fifteen years after my original visit to the forestry dealership in South Carolina, I returned and was happy to see Jane as the parts manager. Ben had long since retired, but the dealership was still going as strong as ever with great market share, profitability, and engaged and happy employees. Building a sustainable team takes time and commitment, and it can be hard to know where to start.
Here are four steps to get you going
1. Know yourself.
It all starts with you. As the leader of a sustainable team, the degree to which your business succeeds is directly attributable to your efficacy as a leader.
The most successful dealership leaders …
… have a clearly defined and prioritized value system and communicate it to their team.
… understand their behavioral and leadership styles and adjust their style accordingly to engage
and lead their team to success.
… have a plan and communicate it. Not everyone is going to have a five-year strategic plan
with milestones and key deliverables. But at the very least, you need to paint a compelling
picture of the future and share it with your team. Where do you want to go and why?
Action: Complete a personal DISC assessment to understand your behavioral-based leadership style, and if you haven’t already done so, write down your top five values in order of priority.
2. Deepen relationships.
Team members that communicate openly and understand each other and their respective roles are better prepared to respond creatively to your customers’ needs.
Action: Provide an opportunity for a few of your employees to cross-train with a colleague, first in their own department and then with someone in a different department (e.g., a salesperson with a tech). This need not be a big time investment; a couple of hours of cross-training goes a long way toward cultivating reciprocal understanding and fermenting a relationship. Observe how these individuals engage with each other after a few weeks; if it’s positive, open up this method to more of your staff.
3. Hire smarter.
The general approach to recruiting is to hire people that look and sound like you. That’s a sure-fire way to end up with a team that looks the same, thinks the same, and produces the same level of acceptable results year over year. Your biases predispose you to look for and find comfort in the similarities you have with others, even though it’s the differences that will drive your business toward greater levels of performance and profitability.
Action: In addition to thorough job descriptions and structured interviews, use behavioral assessments (in conjunction with knowing your own behavioral style) to identify and assess how the candidate will fit on your team. A great starting point is the DISC Assessment and DISC Team Builder tools. (I recommend you do this activity blindly; that is, by removing identifying details from your candidate’s résumé, application, or assessment).
4. Clarify expectations.
In my travels and work with recent clients, I continue to be amazed at how few dealers have established clear goals for their people and how many attempt to focus on too many activities, projects or metrics at once. If you try to do everything, you’ll eventually accomplish … nothing.
In my experience, clarity in expectations, alignment around a common goal, and an increase in accountability are accompanied by higher levels of employee engagement.
Action: Follow the path of one of your dealership goals all the way down to an individual contributor. For example, say you want to increase your overall profitability by 2%. What exactly will a technician in your dealership do to contribute to this goal?
Sustainable teams drive sustainable results. The business of equipment distribution is capital- and time-intensive with a long horizon for profitability. You’re not in this for the short haul. The fact that you are in this business implies that you value a sustainable business model and therefore need sustainable teams, like Ben and Jane’s, to generate outstanding results and long-term success.