The burr under my saddle
By Murray Voth
There are days that I think that I have the best job in the world.
In the process of training and coaching automotive shop owners, I get to work with some of the smartest, most interesting, hardest working people I know. My company brings the information and the encouragement, and my clients do the heavy lifting. The feedback is rewarding as well – more time to spend with family, marriage relationships mended, time away from the shop on vacation, financial stability. And, to repeat a very common comment, I love what I am learning, I love the accountability, but I wish I had heard about this 25 years ago.
Automotive shop management training has been around for at least 40 years and yet it seems like only 10% of shop owners ever take management training. I use 10% as an estimate, based on comments I’ve heard in discussion with other management trainers, who run into the same resistance – it’s probably the most common topic we bat around at conferences. But I admit I can relate: I took a while, too, to break down and take training back in the ’80s. After all, I had “free” training from the oil company. But I guess you get what you pay for.
The most common excuses I hear are, “ I don’t have time,” or “I don’t have the money right now.” In some cases those are legitimate, but all too often I think owners are covering up a number of other reasons.
And I think the biggest is fear.
But wait a minute: you are able to sit in a machine made of welded tubes, with a 10,000 horsepower bomb between your legs, and shoot down a quarter- mile track at 300 mph, and you are afraid to come to a meeting? As my friend said in my last column, shop owners are stubborn and terrified when it comes to the thought of taking training.
Here are four theories I am working with. I look forward to all of you either proving them right, or disproving them.
1. Some shop owners are too smart for their own good. They are intelligent, with fantastic memories, hard-working problem solvers, and know how to make money. In other words, they are competent. But here is the problem: they have to do it all themselves; they can’t, won’t, don’t train anyone else to share the load. They last about 15 years, and then burn out. They are exhausted by the customers, by the business problems, by the staff, and by suppliers, and can never get away, or have a break. Taking training to them implies they are not competent.
2. For many automotive technicians turned shop owners, especially those from my generation or younger, school is a bad memory. They had trouble reading or with math, and they had trouble fitting into the academic setting, so they gravitated to shop class. That is where they felt comfortable; this they understood, and this is where they felt smart. Why in the world they ask themselves to voluntarily put themselves back into school, a place that they ran away from as soon as they could? I know a guy who is so smart, he can rebuild an automatic transmission (which can consist of over 500 distinct parts) without a manual, and it works perfectly when installed in the car. Yet he is stressed about learning how to read an income statement or business composite that may have 30 lines in it. It’s not about intelligence; it’s about your own perception of your own intelligence that gets in the way.
3. There is this thing called cognitive dissonance. One definition of this phrase is that humans are unable to hold two opposing thoughts in their brain at the same time. So here is how it works with shop owners, especially ones that have been in business for a long time: “I’ve been in business for 25 years and it never gets better. I have tried everything I can think of. If I have not been able to figure out a better way to do this in 25 years; no one can.” Their brain cannot admit that after 25 years there is something they haven’t tried. Or the reverse is also true: “I am too afraid to find out that there is a better way to do this after 25 years of trying. If I take training, I am admitting that I am a failure.”
4. They tried management training and had a bad experience. The trainer they had was a high-pressure slick sales person, who just wanted to teach them high-pressure slimy sales practices. Or the trainer they had was highly inspirational, but there was no substance to the training, no practical handholds to take back and work on. Maybe the trainer was a very negative, high-pressure, make-you-feel-guilty type of trainer. Or maybe the trainer was knowledgeable, patient, encouraging, and good at their job.
Change is hard; changing behaviours and attitudes is even harder. I think that some shop owners know how hard it is and just settle for good enough. But rather than come in on a regular basis to learn how to make changes a little at a time, they make broad statements like, “That would never work in my shop, my town, or with my customers or with my staff.”
My heart rejoices every day with the wins, large and small, my clients create in their businesses. Yet my heart breaks at least weekly when I hear someone turn down an opportunity to learn how to make their shop and their lives better.
Thank you to all who have taken a risk with me! The rewards are mutual. Next column should have more training than ranting, but you never know what burr is going to get under my saddle.