Working On The Business Versus In The Business: Realizing The Greatest Return On Brainpower

Every successful car dealer starts by working in the business. We’re not talking about what they did to become a car dealer. This is now that they own a dealership! Their success comes from nurturing relationships, correcting problems, improving operations, building teams and of course, marketing and selling cars. Things go well for a while and eventually, growth slows or maybe hits a wall. It’s time to look for what’s next.

What’s next? That’s a question that can only be answered when you’re working on the business. The challenge for most dealers is knowing when and how to dial their time appropriately between working in the business and on it.

Working in the business can be addictive. Do it long enough and it becomes your comfort zone. That’s what makes it a tough habit to break. There are a few markers to look for that can help you determine when it’s time to turn the dial from in to on.

When you’re executing strategy:

Make sure strategy you approved is being executed and that you’re adding significant value only you can add. You want your finger on the pulse but not your hands wrapped around anyone’s neck. It literally chokes the ability of your team to shine and everyone’s motivation to think about what’s best for the dealership.

When you’re involved in day-to-day operations:

What? Why are you still involved in day-to-day operations? Didn’t you already fix the major systemic problems? When there is an issue that only you can address, put your brainpower and muscle into it in a way that empowers your team and inspires your employees, then get out of the way. This is what separates great leaders from people who just run things.

When you’re making every decision:

Decisions demand a lot of time. You have to read information, listen to presentations, go to meetings. Think. At least that’s what it takes to make smart decisions. The decisions you make should only be the ones that no one else in the dealership can make. If that still includes most of the decisions, you have the wrong team and wrong decision making process. Leading a dealership, like any company, does not mean being the “go-to person”.

It’s about balance. Spending some time working in the business will always be required. It’s the only way to keep yourself grounded and tuned to the rhythm of your store. Mess up the balance and the business gets messy, as it did for a dealer group run by an incredibly sharp entrepreneur.

The owner hired capable GM’s, set the vision, agreed to the strategy, then spent all his time working on the business. As several of the dealerships struggled to make their numbers, the dealer group’s overall strategy unraveled. The GM’s lost confidence in the plan and wandered way off track in their decision making. Some dealerships within the group started conquesting each other using online marketing. In this case, the owner had backed away too far and too long. What he should have done was reinvest his time and authority in the business long enough to get his team aligned and focused.

Habit #3 of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People states, “Put first things first”. What is urgent and what is important? If it’s urgent, it’s likely something that requires you to work in the business. The important stuff, that takes thoughtful consideration and time to develop, produces opportunities that will define your dealership’s success for years to come.

Create the conditions to balance your time between urgent and important and it will help you figure out when to work in the business and when to work on it.

Assemble a trusted senior team, giving them the authority to make good decisions…within parameters you set. Be clear about where the goal posts are in terms of objectives, how far they can go with decision making, and most importantly, how their success will be measured in relation to the overall success of the dealership. As long as they keep putting the puck in the net, and are living by the rules you established, let ‘em play. As soon as that’s not happening, step in.

Establish a rock steady process for getting things done right.

Conduct monthly situational analyses with your team to determine where you can add the most value working in the business.

Finally, discipline yourself to turn the dial when needed, and only for as long as it makes a real difference. As Jack Welch put it, “Shun the incremental, and look for the quantum leap." Get the right balance of working in the business and on it, and both you and your dealership will realize the greatest returns.


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