A Title Does Not A Leader Make

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There's a difference between leaders and those who just hold management titles

The success of your dealership depends on the people running each of your departments. They will likely interact with more of your customers than you ever will, no matter how involved you are in day-to-day operations. They will sell more parts, talk to more happy or upset service customers, and sell more bikes (and a lot more T-shirts) than you, at least in the vast majority of dealerships I've seen across the country. Your department heads and their people are your dealership, for better or worse, and they represent you, both professionally and personally.

Precisely who manages the departments in your dealership? Are they leaders, are they managers, a combination of both — or are they none of these? I'm not speaking about titles here; I'm talking about management traits, personalities and skills. It's likely you've given them the titles of sales manager, parts manager, service manager, F&I/business manager, parts & service director, or something similar — that's not much of an issue right now, and we'll address titles a bit more later on. It's their expertise and personal traits in and out of their assigned positions that we'll discuss in this space — in other words, their ability to interact with and lead people.


Now, what are these skills required to manage your departments at their maximum effectiveness and efficiency? What does this leader look like — how does he or she behave? What are you willing to pay for those leadership skills and personality traits that will make you more successful?

Unfortunately, we cannot address all the issues in this small space — entire volumes of books have been written on this topic — but we can shed some light on the key factors and questions that you need to wrestle with when you're going into the winter months. First, did your department heads get their positions by applying for them and meeting certain specific management criteria? Or were they "the last man or woman standing"? In other words, were they around the longest while everyone else either quit or was run off, or were they born into their positions? Leadership is a dealer's strategic management issue of the highest order, particularly in these unpredictable and challenging times. Most competitors I've witnessed aren't very kind or forgiving when it comes to wanting to eat your lunch and take food off of your dinner table. It's survival of the fittest out there. You had better plan to have the best lieutenants available on your team in today's business climate.


Let's define a few different levels of skill. Depending on the size of your dealership, your ultimate goal should be to have leaders at the helm of each department regardless of their titles. Webster has his own definition of a leader – mine is simply, "someone who can take his or her people to a place they can't get to on their own."

Having led big companies and small, public and private, in all parts of the country and in four related industries, I have culled the eight key traits of a leader (see box).

Integrity and the desire to learn and grow are prerequisites to any department head position, or for that matter, any other position in your dealership. In my view, the lack of either is a deal-killer, whether for a porter or a president.

Think if the person described above was managing one or more of your departments. As they say, "the pace of the leader is the pace of the troops." What do you believe would be the expected level of performance of that department? Just meeting expectations or beating every business targets? And what would be the difference to you of exceeding your business plan objectives or missing them? What's that differential in real, hard dollars? And then ask yourself, can I afford not to have a leader at every key position?

Clark Vitulli is a Harley-Davidson dealer in St. Augustine, Fla. Contact him via editors@dealernews.com.