With more family businesses then ever seeking succession through the next generation of family leadership, a change to a multigenerational management structure is occurring with regularity all over the country.  Owners are counting on the seasoned professionals who have carried the day to day operations of dealership management for the past 20 plus years through a conservative approach.  Their experience and reliability are depended on to continue selling cars, maximize margins, and maintain customer relationships. At the same time, many dealers understand the industry is changing and as they groom successors, are capitalizing and embracing a move to a modern approach to dealership management that focuses on innovative selling, advertising, managing and capitalizing on the customer experience.

As this generation of successor candidates emerge, they often find themselves caught in the middle of the “way it has been” and “where we want to go”. It becomes a true challenge of maintaining conservatism and innovation.  Who are successors supposed to be as they work to gain respect, earn trust, perform at the top of their class while continuing to be humble.  The goal is to be the best so there is no doubt he or she is the next leader of the organization, but the task at hand is to fly under the radar to not step on the toes of those currently in charge.  It is a daunting, nearly impossible and often very frustrating task for all involved. Unreasonable expectations accompanied by a general lack of functional and productive communication between the two sides generally leads to extreme frustration.

“…they often find themselves caught in the middle of the “way it has been” and “where we want to go”.”

The divide generally starts with facts: successors tend to be young, innovative, ambitious, and headstrong. When it comes to the family business, they generally have a deeper understanding of the family side of the business do to the mere fact that they have a familial relation to the owner/mother/father which has given them a different perspective of the business.  In contrast, the steadfast managers generally have a “let’s get to work” and a bottom line approach to performance based upon measurable statistics. Thus, more than ever, successors ability to understand the situation at hand, work to understand all sides, navigate conflict, and develop management relationships is critical to successors developing out of the middle.

The first challenge to successors in the middle is to recognize the situation.  Managing in the middle is very much like being in a game of dodgeball.  You stand there against an opposing team trying not to get hit with a ball, while all of your teammates are also trying to keep from getting hit. It is a game where the only benefit of being on a team is in hopes the guy next to you gets hit before you do.

Similarly, in business, managing in the middle is just as ineffective. It creates behaviors that make us less effective and ultimately keep us from upward movement or growth that we desire. We often get pigeon holed in a spot that is very hard to get out of, while enabling those above and below us to be more effective in their positions. Sadly, the reality is that we rarely know when we are having to manage up, or down, or anywhere in between.  If you have the personality traits of a strong leader, you often just do what you need to in order to get the job done, even if that means doing the job of others around you.

Managing Up
When you find yourself in a situation where you are having to make recommendations to your leader or supervisor, you might be managing up.  When you are strategically identifying ways to navigate around them, either because they are unable to make a decision, too concerned about being wrong, or even too afraid the decision they make could create conflict, means you are managing up. Regardless of the circumstance, managing up is frustrating, tiring and often, demoralizing. You find yourself building resentment because you begin to lose confidence in the effectiveness of leadership. You can become deflated in the direction of the family business and sink to the feeling that you will never have the opportunity to step-up and lead. You might even become frustrated enough that you simply do not want to do it anymore, and leave.

Managing up can become even more frustrating when the senior leader does not have the requisite skill set to lead people.  Sure, they may be able to lead the dealership, but it does not mean that they are a very good leader of people.  Therefore, identifying and understanding the importance of leadership development and soft-skills training as it relates to managing and leading people is critical to the success of the current or future dealer.

Managing Down
Building up and coming leaders in the dealership, sometimes means that we are blurring the line between mentoring and managing down.  Mentoring provides the opportunity to help build relationships. A mentor is responsible for establishing a trusted relationship with a “student” to offer perspective on the frustrations, challenges and confusion the “student” is experiencing. Mentorship, however, should not be confused with coaching. Coaching is where “managing down” occurs, in effectively setting a standard and holding those below you accountable.  We sometimes get coaching or management confused with trying to “mentor out” behaviors that are deemed not legitimate leadership traits. As successors attempt to navigate the murky waters of living in the middle, wanting to be liked can often get in the way of affective coaching. As a result, the line can become blurred because we do not realize what is actually going on and miss the real issues at hand.

When we manage down, we decrease our effectiveness as a leader. We also diminish our ability to perform at a higher level because we are in the weeds focused on downward pressure. Too often, we do not realize we are doing it until it is too late and before you know it, the person(s) being managed are growing into new and bigger roles, while you are still, right where you have always been.  Here to, you grow frustrated, resentful and perhaps become unhappy enough to potentially want out of the family dealership.

Don’t Play Dodgeball
Rather than volunteering to stand and try to not get hit by a ball, perhaps you can take control of your situation. The first challenge is recognizing the situation.  In most cases, you are not going to change what has currently been placed before you.  But you can change yourself; in fact, one of the best quotes ever written is “the most versatile person in the room wins”.  Therefore, recognizing that you have the ability to capitalize on every situation put before you is the first step to getting where you want to go; the top! Don’t prevent yourself from learning from each obstacle or individual put before you as an opportunity to get out of the middle.

The changing dynamics in our industry require us to be leaders with emotional intelligence, as well as business intelligence. No longer can we lead, or expect to grow into leadership roles based on “how it’s always been done.” A as a current or future dealer, understanding the situation, embracing what it takes to properly lead, and committing to enhanced leadership training is a valid avenue to take in order to achieve leadership success.

Author: Champ Rawls

Being a part of his own family’s business, Champ has a unique insight into the difficulties, challenges, and triumphs families face when combining family and business. Champ Rawls has been officially associated with The Rawls Group since 2012, although it could be said he became a part of the team in 1984, when he was born into the family business.

Digital Dealer