How I Went to Buy a Car and Got a Lesson in Great Leadership Instead

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Aug 8, 2014

When I walked into the MINI dealer to buy a new car, the last thing I expected to find was a great example of leadership, but that is exactly what I found.

It took a while for my early observations to draw the conclusion that the secret sauce of this dealership was the Sales Manager.

This busy, almost chaotic dealership was full of energy and organized. We were approached immediately by a salesperson who was quick to tell us that this was her first week, and she’d just moved from Pittsburgh.

Great management makes a great experience

After a little hometown sharing (I grew up in Pittsburgh), she showed she knew her stuff. Turns out she transferred from Pittsburgh MINI.

What she was unsure of were some Florida-specific/dealership-specific processes, so she checked periodically with the Sales Manager. That’s what got my attention. He gave her the information she needed, but let her work; he didn’t hover as I might expect with a new employee.

Long story short, we spent two days with her, traveled to a remote site to see the car I was interested in, bought the car, talked through my misunderstanding about the car’s equipment, and through the whole time, he let her do the work.

As I sat on day two waiting for all of the paperwork to come my way, I kept reflecting on what a different experience this was from what I expected.

Rob, the Sales Manager, was ever-present but not overbearing – for all of the employees, even those outside of sales. The answers I got from everyone gave me a sense of trust that they were all playing straight. I’ve never been able to say that about buying a car, house, or any other big ticket item.

What was making this place tick?

When they brought my new car into the showroom the next day, the detailer was still walking alongside polishing my car. The sales person introduced me to the detailer as “their best kept secret.” He beamed and shook hands.

I needed to find out what was making this place tick, and asked Rob if he would be willing to allow me to interview him. I explained that I do a lot of writing about leadership, and I would love to get a sense from him about how he leads this sales organization.

He was a bit reluctant, and said he didn’t know what he could offer, but I assured him he would have some great input. He finally agreed and we met.

I learned quite a bit, and I suspect he would tell you that he didn’t tell me anything of interest. But let me share what I heard.

1. He leads with his own moral compass

I asked him how he made difficult decisions. His comment: “I have to put my head on my pillow at night and fall asleep so I need to try hard to do the right thing.”

He believes in the corporate statement “honesty and integrity” above everything. He realizes he is lucky to be in an organization whose values match his own.

2. He takes his role very seriously

I asked about the scope of his accountability.

While he has sales staff as direct reports, he considers everyone in the dealership his responsibility; essentially, he believes he owns the customer experience.

3. He respects his team

He parks in the back with the team – even though company policy says he could park out front.

I asked him why. He said that he doesn’t want the team to think he has special privileges.

4. He allows himself to be vulnerable

I asked what types of training the dealership offers for leaders. His answer surprised me; he said that the performance management program was a lesson in leadership.

After I recovered from the shock of a leader actually finding value in performance management, I asked him to elaborate.

He said that they have been doing “reverse performance reviews” – in other words, his team reviews his performance – for three years. This year, the team had gained enough trust to provide some pointed but helpful feedback.

He was proud that they trusted him enough to share the feedback. He also said that he can’t always change that behavior, but now that he knows how they feel, he can explain why he acted in a particular way. And this has opened dialogue with his team.

5. He is attentive to the hiring process

MINI is a unique brand, and Rob believes that his sales people have to embrace the quirkiness. He prefers sales people with experience in selling high-end condos and expensive jewelry, to those with car sales experience; they get that MINI is a culture.

He advocates a strong hiring process to ensure that new hires embrace the values of MINI and of the dealership. He uses multiple interviews with various stakeholders, and listens carefully to the feedback on each applicant.

He says that the few times he’s made a bad hire were times when he became desperate and neglected using the process. What he wants to do is to create an environment where potential employees really want to work there, and work hard to get the job.

What a concept!

6. He is a reflective learner

He said that he always tells his team to “learn from everything, make the good better, and turn the bad around.”

It was evident as we talked that he embraces this principle himself, and reflects on what happened in order to always make it better.

7. A legacy of leadership

Tom Bush, the founder of the dealership group in Jacksonville, FL, set a high bar for leadership. His legacy of taking care of his people certainly came through in my experience with Rob and the MINI dealership.

I sheepishly told Rob when we started the interview that I didn’t expect great leadership from a car dealership, and he laughed and said, “That’s why I’m still here, and I wouldn’t be selling cars anywhere else.”

My bottom line

I study and teach leadership. If I were to take any one thing from this experience of learning from Rob the Sales Manager, it would be that leaders can learn leadership anywhere, from anything, if they really want to.

It doesn’t take expensive training workshops or development and action learning programs; the lessons are all around us if we take the opportunity to see them, learn from them and grow.

Thanks, Rob, for a great lesson in leadership and for a quirky new car. Quirky in a good way!

This originally appeared on the ….@ the intersection of learning & performance blog.