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A meeting of the minds

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A meeting of the minds

This article is one of a series from The Big Book of Small Business by Tom Gegax with Phil Bolsta. Copyright 2005, 2006 by Tom Gegax. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.

Best-selling author Tom Gegax, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Tires Plus stores, served as that company’s chairman and CEO for 24 years. By the time he sold the company in July 2000, it had mushroomed from a concept sketched on a restaurant napkin to a market leader with 150 upscale stores in 10 states and $200 million in revenue.

Thanks to Tom’s warm-hearted, tough-minded approach to management, and his team’s relentless focus on customer service, the company’s turnover rate ranked among the industry’s lowest, and its guest enthusiasm index reached 98%. He was named Modern Tire Dealer’s Tire Dealer of the Year in 1998 and a Midwest Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. magazine.

In 2000, Gegax founded Gegax Management Systems (www.gegax.com) to help growing companies raise profits and reduce stress through fast and affordable business management guidance.

Back in 1968, I graduated from Indiana University into the human resources department of Shell Oil’s Midwest regional headquarters in Chicago. At 21 years old, it was my job to ensure that proposed salary increases were commensurate with corporate policy.

I threw myself into the fray with all the youthful, bullheaded passion of an idyllic college grad. I kicked up a storm, to put it mildly. After I butted heads with department leaders for a week, my manager, Neal Pettit, was swamped with complaints.

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Thank God Neal saw the uproar as a teachable moment. He asked me to tag along as he visited a few poodles I had turned into South Side pit bulls. Neal put on a diplomacy clinic. He started with a smile and some small talk, then eased into inquiring about the logic of the raises I had rejected. He listened intently and praised each supervisor’s approach. But he didn’t hesitate to scratch his head over a few things that didn’t track for him. It was a humble, help-me-out-here approach (think Peter Falk in the old detective show “Columbo”). Neal patiently worked with each manager to explore options and find solutions. I was amazed at how effortlessly he patched things up.

Neal taught me two simple but important lessons. First, it takes great communication skills to build and manage relationships. Second, every single thing you do requires building and managing relationships. It’s the quality of your relationships that ultimately determines how well you communicate, and vice versa. This four-word mantra will improve your relationships and your communication skills: less ego, more empathy.

Egotism and empathy are opposites. They repel each other like poles of magnets. The more you pour ego into your consciousness, the less room there is for empathy. But our culture rewards big egos a lot more than big empathy. If you could see the thought-bubbles floating through America’s cartoonish entrepreneurs, many would contain variations on, “The world revolves around me; my needs are first.”

Neal taught me that people care not only about what is said, but how it’s said.

Years later, Scott McPhee, one of our top execs, learned the same lesson. One afternoon, Scott’s colleague teared up as she confided to me that Scott’s body language proved his disdain for her. She feared for her job. I called Scott in for a briefing. “When Tom explained it to me,” Scott said, “I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve heard the same thing from my wife.’” That insight helped Scott understand the impression he left on people. He apologized to his colleague and repaired the damage.

If you’re quarreling with employees, step back. Think of yourself as a complex communications network that processes the messages you receive and assembles the messages you send out. Are your lines open and clear, or is the signal distorted by static generated by, say, an oversize ego? If it’s the latter, get used to endless loops of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

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Practice active listening

“Hi, my name is Tom and I’m a talkaholic.”

If there were a support group for dialogue hogs, I would have been a charter member. I used to see every conversation as a race — first one to get his or her point across wins.

But cutting off a conversation without considering what the other person can offer is like tearing up a lottery ticket before the winning number is announced.

It never occurred to me that I was a lousy listener. Heck, listening was like breathing -- I never thought about it, I just did it.

My “Ah-ha!” moment came at C.J. Hegarty’s “Active Listening” seminar in the mid-1980s. His theme: “Hearing is involuntary but listening is an acquired skill.” When it dawned on me that listening involved more than noticing noise emitting from a mouth, my transition to enlightened entrepreneur picked up steam.

Lousy listening wastes precious resources and damages relationships. How can we discipline an employee if we don’t listen -- really listen -- to her side of the story? How can we expect employees to nail deadlines if we don’t listen to their questions and concerns?

In small businesses, where people wear multiple hats, chase deadlines, and move fast and talk faster, listening should be a core competency. Imagine what can be lost or misinterpreted in a simple exchange between two people of different genders, ages and socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Knowing how to listen is a competitive edge you need.

Here are five listening lessons:

1) Seek first to understand before seeking to be understood. These nine simple words, from the timeless prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, are powerful. Challenging myself to view things through another person’s eyes expanded my powers of perception and deepened my connection to -- and appreciation of -- others. It was further proof that empathy trumps ego. Another benefit: The more you listen, the better informed you are when it’s your turn to talk.

2) Be a human mirror. We expect employees to hang on our every word. Yet, if we don’t first listen to them — so we can lock onto their communication style and mirror it back to them — we might as well be speaking different languages. If you’re brainstorming with a co-worker who thoughtfully chooses every word, your brilliant idea might zip by her if you spew sentences at the speed of light.

The same goes for decibel level; your pithy points may not register if you overwhelm her soft-spoken sensibilities with bluster.

3) Value the speaker as well as the speech. It’s easy for people to tell when their boss is listening against them instead of to them. A dead giveaway is the wall he builds — leaning back in a chair and folding his arms across his chest.

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No matter what comes out of his mouth, all they’re going to hear is, “I have nothing but contempt for you and your ideas. Stop wasting my time.”

If this sounds like you, you won’t be crowned Mr. Motivation any time soon -- people are certainly not going to share all their great ideas just to see them shot down.

Conversely, a caring approach -- a smile, leaning into the conversation, eye contact -- lets employees know they’re taken seriously. The mindset is, “What’s right with what she’s saying and how can I learn from it?” rather than, “What’s wrong and how can I object to it?”

A leader who actively listens sets the tone for the entire company.

4) Hear the unspoken. Subtle messages flow through facial expressions, body language and tone of voice.

That awareness came in handy during store visits when I queried customers about our service.

I recall one typically over-polite Minnesotan who called the service “fine.” But her steady foot-tapping and the restless way she flipped through her magazine suggested a different story.

So I pressed her. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Anything I can help you with?” She paused, then confessed her car was 20 minutes overdue. Information in hand, we addressed the problem.

5) Repeat what you hear. Try not to ape the speaker, of course, but play back your interpretation of what you heard.

Paraphrasing his message shows you listened carefully, and gives you both a chance to clear up miscommunication. (Remember that one of our deepest desires is to be heard.) Skipping this step can set off a chain reaction of misunderstanding that culminates in dented feelings and awkward apologies.

Active listening is grounded in courtesy, empathy and a desire for clarity at all costs. You don’t have to agree with what you hear. But your attentiveness and attitude speak the unspoken: I want to understand where you’re coming from. Tell me how you see this.

Practiced conscientiously, active listening engenders trust, reduces errors, and encourages people to speak their mind.

Remember, conversations aren’t competitions. They’re successful only when both parties win. People feel free to express themselves when they feel appreciated, and nothing shows appreciation in the business world like the scarce resource of undivided attention.

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