How this retail group uses sports to coach up a new batch of leaders

3 months ago 36

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From the rear, a small Findlay Auto Group staff meeting more resembles the locker room of an all-star game than it does an automotive retailing training session.

While the athletes in this huddle aren't nearly as famous as their jerseys might imply, their continued development and performance are just as critical to their team's mission as if they were on a field with a ball in their hands and helmets on their heads.

These are the Rising Leaders of Findlay Auto Group, and this sports-infused Las Vegas room is the training ground for the next generation of dealership general managers, sales managers and department heads who will one day run vital pieces of the 33-rooftop, family-owned dealership chain. Those gathered are not here to learn the intricacies of dealership management systems or the vagaries of inventory management, but how to work together as a team and develop as leaders — and how they will better themselves by doing both.

"It started over lunch" just a few years ago, recalls Robby Findlay, the group's director of operations, who, at the time, was trying unsuccessfully to fill a top position at one of the group's dealerships. Across the table from him was D.J. Allen, a former journalist and co-author of a business book on leadership with collegiate basketball coach Lon Kruger, with whom Allen had co-founded a company called The Xs & Os of Success, after the title of their book.

"I was trying to fill the role of a general manager at one of our stores, and I realized that I needed to strengthen my bench," said Findlay, "so that when these jobs open, we're promoting from within and not hiring from outside, because we have had very little success with retreading, somebody who's failed or been let go at another dealership. So the goal was just to build up our team internally and promote from within."

Using team sports as a theme, the intensive four-month training program focuses on teaching prospective leaders the important skills of team-building and coaching in new roles, and how to make the transition from star performer to star leader.

"A lot of times, we don't think about what makes a good team and what makes a bad team, and how, as a coach embracing your role as a leader, your job is now to make those around you better," Allen says. "A lot of us make the mistake of thinking that, just because you were a star player, or a star technician, or a star salesperson, you're going to be a good leader. But as we see in sports with star athletes, that's rarely the case, because there are different skills involved."

Findlay Automotive started its sixth and seventh set of classes, held at an off-site location, this month.

Each class has fewer than two dozen participants, who — like the auto group — are split between the 17 stores in metro Las Vegas and the 16 stores in Arizona, California, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and elsewhere in Nevada. Findlay Automotive Group is No. 24 on the 2021 Automotive News list of the top 150 dealership groups based in the U.S., and sold 27,134 new and 19,834 used vehicles in 2020.

Participants for the Rising Leaders program are nominated by their individual stores to attend, and when they arrive, they are told to come in their favorite team jersey. "These are the people that we want to grow within our group," Findlay said, adding that the entire Findlay group has about 2,500 employees across its 33 stores.

"The dress code is, you wear a jersey from your favorite sports teams," said Findlay, who took the program's inaugural class and is himself a former athlete. "Even if you didn't play sports, you probably grew up with them."

The four single-day sessions — one per month for the in-town group, two back-to-back for those from elsewhere — include confidence-building and team-building exercises, and field trips to the training facilities of area teams such as the Las Vegas Knights or University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where the class interacts with team coaches, players or management.

There are assignments as well, which make the participants work closely together, and others where they are forced to react quickly to win. In between sessions, the participants receive individual coaching from Allen or his staff, with participants asked to give a "Hall of Fame" induction speech at the culmination of the program.

"What you begin to understand is that life is a team sport," says Allen. "Families, the military, business — these are teams. The same traits that make up great teams in sports make up great teams in business and in life."

For Findlay, the team-building training and coaching has generated results that he and other leaders at Findlay Automotive Group can see.

Not everyone successfully graduates, but Findlay said he's been using the participants' performance in class in helping to make personnel decisions, none of which he's come to regret.

It also allows Findlay employees from different stores to meet each other and learn to work together, instead of just focusing on their own store-level performance.

"All of our recent openings at the general manager or management level have come from graduates of these classes," said Findlay. "I've seen them take the learnings and implement them in their work life and in their personal life. We've seen them grow. And right now, our turnover is at an all-time low. We have more stability across our group than we've ever had, and I think this is why."

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