Ride employee development to the top: Help your team succeed by offering building blocks, not roadblocks

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Ride employee development to the top: Help your team succeed by offering building blocks, not roadblocks

Some years ago, a junior IBM executive lost the company $10 million when a deal blew up. Shortly afterward, CEO Tom Watson Sr. called the young man into his office. When the contrite exec said, "I guess you want my resignation," Watson replied, "You can't be serious, son. We've just spent $10 million educating you."

Elementary, my dear Watson. Whether it's Big Blue or a business of two, PR&D (people, research and development) should be a big-ticket item on any company's budget.

Hard-line fiscal hawks may squawk, but yields on human-capital upgrades are better than on most other capital expenses. Thanks to my company's education obsession, our competition always lagged a few steps behind. Scrambling to catch up, our seat-of-the-pants competitors imitated everything we did, from store design to our television commercials. They even swiped our phone greeting. What they couldn't copy was our people and culture, a proprietary blend of personalities and values.

Whether you're teaching an employee to manage payroll or coaching him to get organized, you're doing more than shoveling information into his brain. You're equipping him with the wisdom and skills to meet your high expectations. And capable employees add up to profitable days and restful nights.

Build your educational infrastructure

The employee education equation is Zen simple: more input equals more output. Input education and your people will output more productivity. It starts with you. Share what you know. Be a steady conduit of business-building information. If you keep your knowledge to yourself, you'll be a roadblock, perpetually frustrated that nobody else "gets it." The same goes for sharing best practices. If one department or store builds a better mousetrap, make sure it's replicated throughout the company.

Employee education stretches beyond work-related subjects. The best education is multidisciplinary, reaching across all of life's artificial boundaries. Well-rounded employees with mature, sophisticated outlooks are more likely to become (happy) masters of their craft. "Our focus on education had a lot to do with our low turnover," noted Jim Pascale, our operations veep. "After all, the more educated you are, the more productive and fulfilled you are. Learning new things prepares you to take on more responsibility."


The building blocks of employee education are:

Training. Consuming 8,000 square feet in our suburban Minneapolis headquarters, Tires Plus University included classrooms, an auditorium and a virtual store complete with showroom and service bays. (In-house universities are expensive, but ours paid for itself countless times over.)

We enrolled new employees in a week-long course with three primary objectives. First, TPU, as we called it, taught standardization -- indispensable to an explosive outfit with employees from Milwaukee to Denver. Second, TPU instilled a familiarity with store responsibilities that allowed people to step right in and contribute. Third, TPU taught product knowledge. Nobody in the tire industry knew their "black gold" as well as our staff. Our salespeople provided customers with manufacturer specs -- as well as value and safety metrics -- for every brand.

TPU also taught old dogs new tricks. The Accelerated Management program put select employees on the fast track, a must for a company in heavy growth mode. "Eventually," said Chris Koepsell, TPU's dean, "we reduced the training timeline from six to 12 months down to three months." The approach was simple -- identify an employee's skills, identify the skills necessary for the position, train to the gap.

The formula also applies to bosses, especially entrepreneurial ones. Most people start a business because it allows them to make a living doing something they love. Careful, though, because paying more attention to brakes and oil pans than budgets and operating plans can be dangerous. Every minute under the hood is another minute you're not sharpening your leadership and management skills. The sad truth is, if a restaurateur is more passionate about her dishes than improving her business skills, she'll gradually become overwhelmed by the daily demands of business and wind up running the place by the seat of her pants. And the inevitable frustration that follows may quash the food passion that led her into business in the first place.

Motivational speakers. Familiarity breeds boredom. A new face in the office complements your in-house experts. Mike Norman, a franchisee for Dale Carnegie Training, lit a fire under a hundred of our regional and store managers during a half-day leadership workshop. "At the time, we needed to reinvent ourselves and quit relying so much on internal leaders to educate and motivate employees," said Chris Koepsell.

I always looked to the horizon for fascinating specialists who could speak on anything from business trends to psychology. Our roster of memorable speakers ran the gamut from basketball firebrand Bobby Knight to mind-body author Deepak Chopra. Chalk it up to human nature, but when an outside speaker says something, chances are it's going to be heard and valued more.

But don't just hand over the agenda. Before Mike Norman took the stage, I made sure his message jibed with our mission, vision, and values. I also spoke during Mike's workshop. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to set the stage for Mike -- and to pump up a gathering of employees who were in constant contact with customers.

Seminars. Send employees to workshops that fit their positions -- and don't neglect yourself. I took notes and collected handouts at numerous classes, conventions and seminars so I could re-present the content to our management team.


Books. I periodically asked my executive team to read a business or personal growth book. I'd assign each person to summarize a chapter or two at an upcoming meeting. The reaction was predictable -- nobody liked doing it, but everybody liked having done it. "I have a belated appreciation for Tom's emphasis on downloading information about successful people and companies," said Dave Wilhelmi, vice president of marketing. "I found myself reading more books at Tires Plus than I ever did in school. It was like getting an additional education while going to work every day. With that kind of culture we couldn't help but succeed."

Mentors. Mentoring is a terrific way to leverage one employee's strengths while simultaneously educating another. Mentors and "mentees" typically trade phone calls and get together for lunch monthly.

If the right internal match doesn't exist, go outside the company. Eric Randa, our vice president of loss prevention, trained under Gary Kasper more than 20 years ago at Montgomery Ward. Later, when we hired Eric to start up our loss prevention program, he often called Gary to ask him how he'd handle a particular challenge. "It's always good to talk to somebody who's been there and done that," Eric said, "rather than try to reinvent the wheel every time."

Tuition assistance. In the early days, Steve Varner was a wholesale rep eager for a fresh challenge. We obliged him with an assignment to the collections department, followed by a bump up to credit manager that required him to squeeze people for money. Figuring there was more to the job, Steve signed up for a credit and financial management course at the University of Minnesota. We were thrilled, and paid half of Steve's tuition for every class in which he earned a B or better.

"If I hadn't gone back to school," Steve said, "they would've eventually replaced me with somebody from the outside."

He's right. Our rapid growth demanded that Steve know everything from calculating a customer's credit risk to interpreting anti-trust and collection laws. But it was a classic win-win. His bad-debt ratio was well below industry benchmarks, and his stewardship played a key role in our wholesale division's sales growth.

Encourage your people to advance their education however it fits into their busy lives. It's deadly to assume they already have what it takes to play in the big leagues. Night and weekend courses make an immediate impact. And Web-based distance learning makes formal education more convenient than ever.


How to impart wisdom

"I told him what to do and how to do it -- and he still screwed it up!" Whenever I hear this complaint, I agree that someone indeed screwed up. The culprit, however, was usually the boss doing the venting. You cannot just throw information at people and expect them to process it the same way you do. Nobody shares your precise experiences and frame of reference, so a few links in their chain of understanding may be missing. How do you get them to understand? Stated gastronomically: Digesting and assimilating raw information requires that it be chopped into bite-size chunks and sauteed in encouragement by a committed corporate chef.

Teaching is as simple as the Confucius Checklist (see sidebar). But seat-of-the-pantsers usually abandon it after the first step, oblivious that barking orders on the run wastes more time than it saves. Each step takes you a quarter of the way toward becoming a business sensei.

1. Tell him.

2. Show him.

3. Watch him do it and offer feedback.

4. Watch him do it again.

Say you're coaching an employee to field calls. Start by reviewing the protocols point by point. Next, take a call yourself and handle it with your usual aplomb. After hanging up, smile and ask him to take a stab. Watch closely. When he finishes his call, critique his performance: "Nice job, Larry. You were polite and friendly, the qualities we look for. A couple minor things. Remember to offer your name before, 'How can I help you?' And try not to hem and haw so much. Project composure and confidence. All right, let's try it again." Watch and listen once more. If he nails it, give him the thumbs up and move on to the next learner.

Confucius checklist

The Confucius checklist is grounded in a basic truth -- information turns into knowledge when we understand how it applies to us, and knowledge turns into wisdom when we absorb it and act on it. This process has inspired leaders for 2,500 years, ever since Confucius (one of the earliest enlightened executives) said: Tell me and I will forget.

Show me and I might remember.

Involve me and I will understand.

Best-selling author Tom Gegax, cofounder 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 to Bridgestone/Firestone 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 Gegax'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 MTD's Tire Dealer of the Year in 1998.

Gegax founded Gegax Management Systems ( in 2000 to help growing companies raise profits and reduce stress through fast and affordable business management guidance. His most recent book, "By the Seat of Your Pants: The No-Nonsense Business Management Guide," is already a national bestseller. You can order it on the home page. Gegax can be reached at or by calling (877) TOM-GEGAX (866-4342).

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