Friday, February 09, 2007

Did the "King of Cars" Read This Book?

One of my favorite TV shows before I went "cold turkey" and went a very long year without cable here in Kentucky, was the "King of Cars" on A&E. It's a reality show about a car dealership in Las Vegas called Towbin Dodge which is the biggest dealership in Vegas, making it one of the largest in the country. If you want a taste of what the show is about here's a clip about Chop, the owner of the dealership:

Right now you're thinking, "So what? You like some dumb reality show... what's the point?"

Well, I don't think I could have articulated why I enjoyed watching Chop so much until I started reading Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee for my upcoming Pastoral Leadership class. The book, in short, posits and then explores this idea:

The emotional task of the leader is primal - that is, first - in two sense: It is both the original and the most important act of leadership.

Leaders have always played a primordial emotional role. No doubt humankind's original leaders - whether tribal chieftains or shamanesses - earned their place in large part because their leadership was emotionally compelling. Throughout history and in cultures everywhere, the leader in any human group has been the one to whom others look for assurance and clarity when facing uncertainty or threat, or when there's a job to be done. The leader acts as the group's emotional guide.

In modern organization, this primordial emotional task - through by now largely invisible - remains foremost among the many jobs of leadership: driving the collective emotions in a positive direction and clearing the smog created by toxic emotions. This task applies to leadership everywhere, from the boardroom to the shop floor. (Primal Leadership, 5)

Thus, because of the way people are neurologically designed, according to these authors, the most important task, the most important job for a leader is "determining the shared emotions in a working group" (9). Quite simply, this means getting everyone working together positively, in an upbeat atmosphere where all people are free to be at their creative best. The author claims that if a leader works to "balance the group's focus on the task at hand with its attention to the quality of members' relationships" they will unlock the maximum "Group IQ", where the environment "...naturally create(s) a friendly but effective climate that lifts every one's spirits. (15).

Which gets me back to the car thing....

Have you in your life ever bought a car at a dealership? Well, as someone who has owned about 30+ different cars in his lifetime, and even paid more than $500 for a few of them, I can tell you that personally, I find it a miserable experience (so is going to a "Buy Here, Pay Here"lot.... but that's another post for another day). You bring in a car that's probably not all the way paid for, and cause:
1) it's been running funny
2) you need something more reliable
3) you somehow falsely attach what you drive to who you are (a big deal in our culture... just ask a mom who's been driving a mini-van too long) find something else you "kinda like". I say "kinda" because sticker-shock has most likely (but not always) scared you away from the fully-loaded sleek model you really like, to something that doesn't have all the bells and whistles, but has enough of them at the right price to lessen the anxiety.

Of course, to even sit in the car, let alone drive it, you have to make the acquaintance of a car salesperson who inevitably gets you inside, sitting as his/her desk, and after procuring you a refreshing beverage, asks the inevitable question:

What do we need to do to get you into this new car today?

That's when things start running off the rails. For, up to now, you have probably been thinking about the TOTAL bottom line (sticker price of the car you want v. the trade-in value of the heap you own now), when three things really mess up your thinking:

1) The heap you own now.... worthless. Doesn't matter what that Honda Civic goes for in the paper. The dealer is going to pay you half of that, or worse.

2) Now, the sticker price, minus the value of your car, isn't as low as you thought it was going to be... and now in most cases for a trade-in, since most Americans are taking out longer loans on vehicles whose "used car" values are sinking due to manufacturing over-capacity, you are "upside-down" on your loan... i.e. you owe more than they'll give you. So now, the sticker is HIGHER than what you planned... which is really confusing and depressing.

3) The salesperson, realizing that you think it's too much money, gets you thinking about "how much you want to pay each month". Now, you aren't thinking sticker price, you are thinking about monthly payment, which is generally only "three zeros" as opposed to a sticker's "five zeros"... which eases the fear, but without you really realizing it, locks you into spending about 8-30% more TOTAL over the lifespan of the loan.

Now, as you are looking at all the figures your brain is saying "Maybe I can make this work?", when your stomach is churning, saying

"What are you, crazy? Who spends $29,000 total on a Chrysler Mini-van and is happy about it in the seventh year of the loan?"

This where the TV show comes in!

Would there be a TV-show at a car dealership if the goings-on at the said enterprise weren't at least mildly entertaining? Well, Chop is this high energy guy, who, make no bones about it, puts serious pressure on his salespeople to move boatloads of cars, but creates an atmosphere of.... well, hope. He convinces them that he WANTS them to make a lot of money, getting them so pumped up and optimistic, that even though the reality that if they don't produce they are out the door is very real, it's not the pressure the salespeople are focused on, but rather making the sale for Chop. I mean, it's phenomenal to watch. I'd have never thought it possible if I didn't see it with my own eyes.

And, what's more, Chop, via a late night infomercial produced each and every week (one of the highest rated shows in Vegas) has created such a carnival atmosphere around his dealership, people come just to see what all the hubbub is about. A character that shows up in every infomercial, a salesman dressed up as a blue genie, has even become a local celebrity. In Vegas, the Blue Genie is as big as Wayne Newton. People come in from all around to buy a car from him. Is that crazy or what?

Well.... it's crazy all the way to the bank for Chop.

For me, the best parts of each episode are 1) getting inside the head of the salesperson who is hungry to make a sale and 2) watch what happens as the three step "Monthly Payment Mambo" begins to play out between the salesperson and the customer. Chop has made the environment so upbeat that the salesperson wants to make the sale (not only making some cash, but probably also winning one of Chop's incentive prizes) and the customer wants to make a purchase, largely so they can (I am not making this up) bang a gong that hangs in the middle of dealership. I mean, you watch people leaving that place, often paying more than they really wanted to, happy cause they bought a car from Chop's place.

The gong, in particular, is a fascinating study. In a clip you can see at the link to the show above, Chop explains that the gong was an idea a salesman had years ago. The idea was that buying a car, being a major and often difficult task, should be rewarded in some way beyond the acquisition of the car itself. Banging the gong elicits major cheering from the sales floor (about 70+ people), which affirms to the buyer that they have made the right choice and makes them feel better about the commitment they have just made. And at the same time, if the gong keeps going off, simultaneously the message received by salespeople in the room that people are buying (thus giving them hope they'll make a sale too), while the customers they are dealing with begin thinking that if a dealership is making this many sales, they must know what they are doing.

And they want to bang the gong too. Pure genius.

It is, in the real world, an excellent example of what the Primal Leadership authors call "creating a sustainable culture" where positive emotional relationships can be fostered among groups who see themselves in something together.

Of course, I'm not going to defend the blatant materialism that the show seems to celebrate. One of the more horrifying aspects of the show is when we see the numbers of the final deal, and how many times people end up spending a whole lot more than what they say their budget can manage. Remember friends, dealers don't sell cars to customers.... they sell them to banks, and what might be good for the dealer or the bank, might not be so great for you (which you'll realize when making the 68th payment on a 2001 Dodge Durango that needs $600 in new tires).

But if we look at what the authors of the book term the "six different leadership styles" which are employed by leaders to get things done, let's see (based simply upon whatever articles have been written about Chop and the time I killed watching footage of Chop's dealership, which was admittedly highly edited, but a video record none the less) how Chop employs all six with a degree of "emotional intelligence", which the authors have defined as:

Driving the collective emotions in a positive direction and clearing the smog created by toxic emotions

Visionary : "Giving people the sense of the dream they want to reach" (56) but "not how it will get there - setting people free to innovate, experiment, and take calculated risks." (57) Chop unabashedly sates that his goal is for his dealership to be 1) the biggest in the Las Vegas area and 2) a place where employees can make a lot of money. Each day at Chop's dealership, the salespeople are gathered together to talk about goals for the day which feed the greater goals, and whatever incentives might be at stake over the course of the next workday, or week. The goals are generally dealership wide while the incentives are focused on individual sales. So there is both working so that the team succeeds, and the individual is rewarded within that context. The talk is very high-energy, employs a lot of humor, and unabashedly celebrates success. This attitude is demonstrably carried over to the customer, either via the local infomercial and in the props and or events used at the dealership to make it more "experience" than an economic transaction. Thus many customers admit that they've come looking to buy a car as much to be a part of the atmosphere, as they do out of an expectation that they will get a good deal.

Coaching: "Having deep conversation with a an employee that goes beyond short-term concerns and instead explores the person's life, including dreams, life goals, and career hopes."(60) In many episodes, salespeople or floor-managers who are under-performing are given one-on-one time with Chop himself. While the consequences of not meeting goals is made clear, Chop takes time to observe his salespeople, and tries to identify where their sales method is weak or ill-defined. Chop points out these weaknesses, and then attempts to give direct coaching in the context of actual sales as a means of helping the salesperson understand where they can improve. Salespeople who make improvements are not only praised one-on-one, but publicly. Public humiliation is not (often) a tool embraced to evoke greater performance.

Affiliative: "Putting value on people and their feelings - putting less emphasis on accomplishing tasks and goals, and more on the employees' emotional needs. They strive to keep people happy, to create harmony, and to build team resonance" (64) While the bottom line is making car sales, the Chop seems to understand that each day is a new day for each salesperson. Maybe one day no sales will be made, and maybe the next nine cars will go out with happy customers out the door. While expectations of performance are maintained, encouragement is offered that time remains for goals to still yet be attained, or in the absence of this, that tomorrow is another opportunity to succeed. This goes to a basic idea voiced more than once by Chop that an unhappy, nervous, upset staff does not create the kind of positive atmosphere conducive to selling anything. Thus employees, while in competition with one another, follow his example by also engaging in mutual encouraging behavior. Chop also, on a number of occasions, takes advantage of opportunities to celebrate or provide comfort, depending on the situation, to his staff, who he seems to know a deal about despite its size. The result is an atmosphere of mutual affirmation, resulting in affirmation for customers who choose to do business at the dealership.

Democratic: "A style where a leader "gets buy-in from his/her constituents [which builds] feelings of trust, respect, and commitment." (67) A number of the ideas employed by Towbin Dodge to creatively promote the dealership, and make the purchase of a vehicle a more well-rounded experience, were offered by salespeople. Ideas for characters in the infomercial are often the product of salespeople dreaming of ways to get air-time. Opportunities for customers to write in, as a part of the purchase agreement, dunking their salesperson in a dunking booth (which sits outside the sales room), receiving a "Chop" autograph or picture, or some other creative form to create greater satisfaction are encouraged. Even the "gong", which customers get to hit after they've made a deal, was the idea of a salesman on the floor, which is freely celebrated and praised by the owner.

Pacesetting: "The leader holds and exemplifies high standards for performance, is obsessive about doing things better and better, and asks the same of everyone else. He or she quickly pinpoints poor performers, demands more from them, and if they don't rise to the occasion, rescues the situation him or herself" (72) Because of the ongoing energy and focus on making things fun and helping employees succeed and his track-record of success, Chop is able to set the bar high. Goals he sets for numbers of cars to be sold in a day, that are unrealistic for other dealers of comparable size to meet in a week, are often the norm because the confidence in Chop's business sense is very high among his staff. People who do not succeed in meeting sales goals have been provided every opportunity to improve personal performance, have demonstrable examples of other salespeople who are doing quite well in the environment. Thus, while the pace that is set is rigorous, and the goals exacting, because the other four "positive" forms of leadership style are exhibited on a day-to-day basis, Chop is described by his staff as "fair", even as those who are not able to perform, are dismissed with regularity.

Command: "Leaders who demand immediate compliance with orders, but don't bother explaining the reasons behind them. If subordinates fail to follow their orders unquestioningly, these leaders resort to threats. And, rather than delegate authority, they seek tight control of any situation and monitor it studiously. Accordingly, performance feedback - if given at all - invariably focuses on what people did wrong rather than what they did well. In short, it's a classic recipe for dissonance" (76) The reality show is edited very closely, thus it is not often that this kind of leadership is exhibited by Chop. That's not to say that it doesn't happen, as in a competitive, high-stress business like car sales, it's reasonable to expect leaders, on occasion, to lead in a dissonant style. However, the size of the operation, dedication to creativity, number of long-term employees, and the perceived relationship Chop seems to have with his staff would suggest that the use of this leadership style would be more the exception than the rule.

Thus, in the final analysis, it would appear that the proliferation of the four "positive" kinds of leadership style has created an environment where positive, not negative, re-enforcement, and reward, not punishment, drives the agenda of the employees, theoretically to the benefit of the customer (although, where the customer does not have a good sense of their own financial life, this might not always be the case). It is a culture where building on past success, bounded by a willingness to listen and act on what is heard, has resulted in a high amount of trust in an organizational leader who seems to understand that a positive, healthy emotional environment results in high performance. In this way, high standards can be expected and maintained, while dissonant behavior is kept at a minimum.

Why blow all these words on a car dealership in Las Vegas? Well, in the context of the Shawnee United Methodist Church, what does it mean to be an emotionally intelligent leader where the end product is not the sale of vehicles, but people finding Jesus and following Him into building in partnership the Kingdom of Heaven? Particularly in the context of a church, where a dissonant, coercive leadership style would appear to be out of step with the message of the Gospel (summed up as "Love God" and "Love neighbor as yourself") what must be done to create the kind of trust necessary so that honest discussion, listing, and measuring of goals can take place among staff and laity alike?

And how do I, as a leader, submit myself to the same kind of tools of goal establishment and evaluation that I expect of others? That's what I'm wondering.

Creating a place where laity believe in the possibilities of the Kingdom of Heaven being extended to all people, and staff/volunteers come with an attitude of hope and excitement every time they walked through the doors. Where lives getting straightened elicits the kind of celebration within the church community experienced at Towbin Dodge when a person closes a deal on a used Chevy Impala. Where we aren't empty-headed-happy-clappy people, but folks who really do enjoy being around one another, and willing to work through whatever comes with the intent on maintaining our relationships with one another.

What does the pastoral leader of that kind of church look like, and what are the possibilities to change the world? It's an answer that must be worked out in the context of that community, where collective "buy-in" can begin to take place, and adjustments can be made in the course of the journey. A journey, which if "successful" (by the definition given to what it means to be "successful", which will necessitate, I'm sure both quantifiable and qualitative aspects) can feed in on itself as people are able to discern more easily the core values of the movement. These are questions and answers that cannot be laid out right now, but will be established as I seek to understand the way I lead people either through personal reflection, or through the observations of others, some of which will be offered with affirmation, and others, not so much. How one hears and pursues this, I think, in the end will determine the effectiveness of the church in terms of changed lives and a changed world.

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