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General Motors Should Buy a Donut Shop

In addition to my consulting practice I own (and occasionally get involved in) my used car dealership (consultant and used car dealer—you can stop laughing now). What I have discovered is that the C-suite, BOD, or any senior leadership team of any large company could greatly benefit if they were to do the same thing—buy and operate a small business—an exercise that could rival the most effective leadership development program available.


Operating a small business provides the challenges and insights that can help make anyone a better leader and the learning can be easily transferred. It’s also a lot more fun than traditional leadership development programs.  However, Harley Davidson shouldn’t buy a motorcycle shop or get involved in one of their dealerships.  They should buy and operate a dry cleaner or an ice cream shop.  Apple shouldn’t buy a computer service and repair shop or get involved in one of their retail outlets. They should buy and operate a coffee shop. You get the point; leadership development by operating a small dissimilar business operation.


For example, at my little car dealership whenever I had a new thought, idea or question, regardless of validity, I would send an e-mail or ask an employee to do their best to find a solution. My last “great” idea, and ultimately not very informed idea, was to use more “windshield advertising” to increase sales. The domino effect of my suggestion and the waste I created across 3 car lots, 5 sales people and several managers was extraordinary. How many times do emails or requests generated from leadership create enormous unintended waste? I recently discussed this with one of my clients and they found that one weekend e-mail from their President generated 86 combined hours for a response.  Worse, the President was only making an innocent comment that really didn’t require a response. This is not abnormal.  It happens all the time.


Used cars dealers don’t have the best reputation; some of it is earned but much is unearned. How do I change my reputation, my “brand”? Maybe I could make my business a bigger part of the community where we are located. The neighborhood public school desperately needs additional funds. How can this little car lot help generate funds for that school? How can the car lot brand itself as a good community neighbor and not just a used car lot?  I don’t have the answer but it’s a question that hadn’t been asked. Delta works hard on their customer service “brand” and it’s reflected in their improved standings. How could operating a small business help Delta stimulate new ideas that could provide new and different customer experiences that would separate them from the competition? For example, almost every one of their customers, and some of their employees, is exposed to some sort of non-Delta retail experience while at the airport, particularly in Atlanta.  Is that an opportunity to expand their customer service “brand”?  Maybe there is a Delta “ambassador” in major retail locations? It may sound crazy and I don’t have the answers but I wonder if they are asking that question.


I compete in a market where we all have the same product, used cars, at approximately the same price all looking for the same customer. I found that many dealers are chasing the next shiny penny, which today is social media marketing. It’s the easy and obvious answer. What dealers aren’t doing is immerse themselves in the problem. Maybe I need to change the customer experience?  Maybe I should look at being more value-added with every contact? Again, I don’t have the answer but I have been forced to be buried in the problem.  In a recent HBR article “Bright Shiny Objects and the Future of HR” authors John Boudreau and Steven Rice emphasize “falling in love with the problem”. Recently, while consulting with a railroad, we started working on an initiative that was going to consume needed resources of a limited resource pool. When I asked what the problem was they were trying to solve, they couldn’t answer. The project would have been nice to do but didn’t need to be done. They are revisiting the entire project. How many leaders are focused on the shiny object and not the problem?


There are many other examples you could think of, however, it’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that my little car business is making me a better leader and an even better consultant. Could it do the same for others?  I’m sure I haven’t surfaced any new leadership issues or challenges that likely haven’t been thought of before. However, how do you push this to the forefront of the daily thought process of leadership teams? —-Buy and Operate a Small Business


Hopefully you can see from this blog that I am trying to stimulate some not so common lean thinking. Stay tuned. My next blog is “Lean is Dead”.

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