Creating high-performance employees

By Bob Clements                    

Most of us have been out at night with just a flashlight to cut a path through the darkness. With one flick of a switch or quick push of a button, a soft, yellow light gives us comfort. The light coming out is harmless, and if you held your hand against the lens, the only thing that would happen is the light would be blocked. Send the same amount of light through a laser chamber, and you can use it to carve steel or make microscopically precise surgical cuts on the human eye.

What makes the difference?

The laser chamber synchronizes and concentrates waves of light. It aligns the wavelength, vibration and direction of all light waves that will comprise the laser beam. So, these waves don’t bounce off of one another, scatter, and lose their force — they focus intensely on a single point. Their focus is their power. The same holds true with the people you manage.

As an owner or a manager, your goal is to focus on your employees individually, showing them how their job can be that laser chamber, bringing their wants and needs together to achieve success. That focus brings an excitement and energy that creates an unstoppable motivation in your employees, giving you the ability to achieve the results you need from your employees and your dealership.

Build a motivating environment

All of us want to make a difference. We want the hours we spend at work to make some contribution — to have a purpose. Your goal as a manager is to establish a work environment in your dealership where the employees can experience an appropriate level of challenge and know that what they do makes a difference. To achieve that goal, you have to work to create an environment where your employees are motivated and inspired. You need to identify each employee’s purpose in working for you and your business, and then show the employees how their purposes align with those of the dealership. In a dealership, the purpose of an employee can range from the need to just make money, to the desire to take something that is broken and make it work again. Regardless of the reason, once you recognize why your employees work, you’ll be able to uncover the goals, plans and dreams you have in common. After identifying these shared purposes, your goal is to help your employees recognize that they share common purposes with others. As your employees understand how their work collectively meets their own purposes, the purposes of others and those of the organization, their motivation to work grows.

Think back for a moment in time when someone said you were good at something. You may have been very good at sports, music or art, and someone simply let you know that they noticed how good you were and encouraged you to continue pursuing it as a goal or dream. At that moment in time, you probably wanted to excel in that area even more. Now imagine if you were given a scholarship to continue pursuing that goal or dream in college. You would be even more motivated to hone your skills. The same thing happens in your dealership. Employees are more motivated when you give them opportunities to develop their talents. Opportunities to grow, learn, and improve are some of the most effective motivators. And because 80 percent of critical job learning occurs on the job, motivational opportunities at work abound.

Support and encourage

By identifying the specific talents and skills of your employees, you can then find ways to nurture them. The investment you make in their training and skill development will increase employee motivation and satisfaction, as well as the bottom line. Think back to when you learned how to ride a bicycle. You were motivated by the challenge of learning a new skill. You focused your attention on the task and finally mastered it. But there was also probably someone right behind you, cheering you on as you peddled away — a mom, dad, brother, sister or friend that encouraged your effort to master this new skill.

As an owner or a manager, you are now that someone to others — you need to balance challenging your employees with supporting them when they need help. Challenge your employees too much, and they will give up. Give them too much support, and you rob them of initiative. Employees thrive on an intermediate level of challenge — enough to make the task interesting, but not so much that it becomes nearly impossible. A proper balance of challenge and support are key components of a motivated workforce. Achievement carries its own reward. Employees are automatically proud when they accomplish something challenging and worthwhile. If allowed to celebrate their victory, they will be highly motivated to repeat their efforts — and even improve on them. But, if you rob them of the natural rewards of success, their motivation will die.

Praise the good work that your employees do and make others in your dealership aware of what they have accomplished. Your employees will respond to your praise by giving you more effort and working harder to make you notice them again. Keep in mind, however, never praise good work and then follow that praise with the word “but.” More than any other word, “but” kills all the momentum built with praise. The word “but” negates your praise and creates a hollow victory for the employee. Like a parent telling a child, “You did a great job on your math test, but I am surprised you missed that question.” The moment you said the word “but,” your praise became conditional and killed the motivation.

I know a manager who claims that motivating employees and holding feedback sessions are a waste of time because, he says, “My people know they are doing a good job because when they don’t, I let them know.” Unfortunately, this owner’s management style is based on negative consequences, and his employees tend to focus on avoiding to upset him rather than on achieving success. It’s important to understand that in the short run, negative motivation such as threats or fear may pay off, but in the long run, it destroys a motivating environment and comes at a high price — mediocrity and high turnover.

Get your employees on the bus

Buying into the work environment is like climbing onto a bus. We’re willing to ride if we know where the bus is going, like its destination, trust the driver, find the cost reasonable, and know that we’ll have enough legroom to be comfortable. Similarly, an employee will want to belong to your dealership and willingly come along for the ride if — and only if — your company has a clear purpose that aligns with the employee’s own purposes, if the employee trusts the ownership, is not asked to sell his or her self-respect, and is allowed some room for self-expression.

For most employees, one of the greatest obstacles to working successfully with others and to owning their work is unclear expectations. When unfulfilled expectations accumulate, an employee’s commitment to the dealership diminishes and will eventually lead to the failure of an employee who began the trip on your “dealership bus” as an excited, motivated passenger.

Communicating what you expect of your employees is a daily mission. When there is clear, consistent communication, your expectations and your employees’ understanding of your expectations come together, creating success in your dealership. Listening to your employees is critical enough to warrant establishing listening time. I encourage all owners and managers to commit time each week to every employee they manage. Every manager should commit to spending just 10 minutes every week with each employee, asking and then listening to the responses of just two questions: “On a scale of 1 to 5, how are you doing?” and “How or what can I do to make what you do here meet your goals?” Spending time truly listening gives you the crucial information needed to improve your company, and it helps employees feel involved in the process and motivated to help you achieve your goals, because by your actions, they see you are motivated to help them achieve theirs.

Define and model your processes

Employee behavior is shaped in part by their work environment, including the processes and people in that environment. Well-designed processes enable us to be more productive and efficient. However, processes can never take the place of leadership or good management. Leadership is the most important aspect of the work environment. Good leaders establish direction and processes for the organization, and they model the attitude they want their employees to have. Sometimes, as leaders, we believe every employee should be self motivated, no matter how poorly work processes are designed. But that’s not true. Processes that are well designed will motivate, but poorly designed processes create roadblocks and frustration.

I believe that one of the reasons my company enjoys so much success with the dealers that we work with is because our processes in service and parts are so well defined, and we model those processes at the dealership so the employees learn by participating with us during our one-week visit. Every parts person, service tech and service writer with whom we work has our personal cell phone numbers, so they can call us with questions or issues that might arise. We don’t have a meeting with management and tell them what they should do, and then come back and check on them. The average person doesn’t learn in a classroom — they learn by “modeling.” They learn from working hands on with people who know what they are doing and being encouraged to ask questions, try new ideas, and not be afraid of making mistakes. In a way, we bring the parts and service employees into an “apprenticeship” program with us, where they have the ability to not be in some classroom, but beside us. It is truly amazing how quickly employees “get it” once they understand the process, the daily measurements that are used to validate the process, and how helping the dealership succeed in parts and service helps them achieve their personal goals.

Every day is a test

Measuring is an important part of keeping employees motivated. Studies have shown that measuring what’s important heightens awareness and directly affects performance. If employees have a way of keeping track of their progress, their drive to excel naturally increases. Every employee that we work with in our dealership consultations knows the numbers that he or she is measured against every day. The employees know that when they meet or exceed those numbers, there are bonuses set aside every two weeks they can share in.

Measuring what’s important communicates its importance to employees. Saying that something is important, but failing to keep track of it, sends a mixed message. If you tell your service techs that it’s important to bill out all of their time every day and then don’t follow up to make sure it happens, you have sent the wrong message to your techs. If it’s not important enough for you to follow up, then it’s really not that important after all. It would be like a teacher giving a test, but then not grading it. What’s the purpose? In the dealerships that we consult, every employee knows that every day is a test that he or she will be graded and potentially rewarded. The employees’ ability to achieve their personal goals will depend on how well they personally performed. They know that their success is in their hands and are self motivated to constantly look for better ways to achieve the results they need to achieve.

Your job as an owner or a manager is to establish direction and processes for the dealership, and model the work practices you want your employees to use. By establishing milestones that enable employees to measure their progress, and rewarding the behaviors you want to encourage, you will create a team of high-performing employees that your competitors can’t beat.

 Bob Clements is the president of Bob Clements International, Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in the development of high-performance dealerships. His organization works hands on with dealerships throughout North America, helping them attain the personal freedom and financial wealth all owners strive to achieve. For more information, contact Bob Clements at (800) 480-0737 or or visit his website at


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