Dr. Merlot, my sometimes brash alter ego, and I were finally having a long-awaited meeting with a client, Jim, about the future of his dealerships. Over the last three or four years, Jim had been dealing with a variety of distractions (challenges) including alcohol abuse, a sexual harassment lawsuit, a divorce and a prolonged, well-publicized issue with the Secretary of State regarding several operational issues. As a result, Jim was under immense pressure, both lenders and manufacturers had communicated concern and Jim wanted to step back from a leadership role to get his personal life back on track.
“Jim, I understand how you feel. It’s been a challenging few years, and I can appreciate that you want to let Bob, your minority partner, assume leadership of your stores. As GM he can become the face of the business and promote focus on the job at hand, selling cars. I appreciate your insight and acknowledgement that your son, Jimmy, doesn’t have a lot of experience under his belt yet and certainly your younger children—due to both inexperience and lack of motivation—are not ideal candidates to step in as your successor.”
“As you know Loyd, I have not been able to be a leader for some time,” Jim replied. “Stuff just keeps happening; it seems like if it was not for bad luck I would have none at all. Everyone is out to get me. I’m under so much pressure that I can’t think straight and cannot lead. Dr. Merlot, do you agree that we need to appoint a new leader until I can get my head straight”?
“Jim,” Dr. Merlot chimed in, “I have to admit that I am amazed with what comes out of your mouth. Since you took over leadership from your father 25 years ago, I think your mind has turned to mush!”
I looked over at Jim who sat up in his chair like he had been hit with a cattle prod. With blood rushing to my face, I quickly glanced at my bombastic partner and then turned back to Jim. “Not to worry, Jim. The Dr. is just feeling some stress like you. We both agree that you should appoint new leadership and devote your time to your personal issues.”
“Hold on Loyd,” asserted Dr. Merlot, “I am under stress because I have needed to speak my mind for some time and can no longer restrain myself.” Jim had adjusted to the shocking statement and was beginning to utter a rebuttal when Dr. Merlot started his spiel.
“Dude, like I have told you on many occasions, you’re a very influential leader, for good or for bad. For as long as I can remember, you have been doing an outstanding job of instilling your employees with cavalier confidence that not telling the whole story is not a lie. Based upon the interdepartmental competition you have created they are committed to the credo that only the strong survive, personal gain at the price of another is okay, dumb customers deserve to be abused, and don’t give a damn about tomorrow. Therefore, I take issue with your comment that you have not been leading. If you believe when you are not in your office or standing before your managers and employees preaching teamwork or trying to teach your son how to be a sales manager you are not leading; you’re crazy.”
Dr. Merlot took a breath and much to my dismay continued to press, “Leadership is a 24/7 issue for anyone in control of an operation who by legal or financial positioning has become responsible for the welfare of employees, vendors and customers. What you don’t do or say about how to treat employees and customers can be more powerful than what you do and say. What you need to do for the first time in your life is stop ducking responsibility, stop making excuses, stop having a pity party and take responsibility for both your actions and inaction; take responsibility for not only what you do but what those working for you do. Acknowledge that the dealership handed to you by your Dad—in hopes that it would ultimately go to your sons—is on the verge of a meltdown due to your strong leadership, in the wrong direction.”
I started to gather my files about half way through Dr. Merlot’s rant as I had concluded that we were going to be jettisoned and Jim initiated his all too common disappearing act out the back door. Stuffing the last file in my briefcase, I looked up and noticed that Jim was not reaching for something to throw at the doctor. He had leaned back in his seat and was pondering the ceiling while twiddling his thumbs.
“Pretty ballsy oration there, Dr. Merlot,” Jim offered. “Yes, I guess this is my Jack Nicholson moment regarding the truth,” responded the Dr. “I’m encouraged that you can apparently handle it.” “I wouldn’t count on that,” Jim replied, “but assuming I did take responsibility for this crap storm; what do you think we should do?”
“First of all, we cannot do anything other than be your wingman.” Dr. Merlot answered. “We didn’t get you in this mess; we are not the owners of this store; and therefore we can’t be the change agents. We can pray for a crop failure regarding all the bad seeds that have been sown, but you are the one who has to change the culture of these stores. But trust me, it is simpler this way because you don’t need a committee to make a decision. Wins and losses from your decisions will appropriately fall directly upon you. And as far as losses go, no one will expect you to be perfect but everyone expects you as their leader to try to do the right thing. If you take responsibility and give it your best effort, you will begin to earn the trust of your people and start the slow process of changing this toxic culture. But don’t expect an instant remedy or any thanks for your efforts. In fact, expect skeptics who will doubt your commitment and sincerity. It will take about as long to clean up this mess as it did to create it.”
“Second, unless you sell the company, you won’t be able to delegate your leadership. As the leader, you will always be determining the direction of the company, which will be confirmed daily by the things you do and don’t do. I also strongly suggest that you don’t think for a second of Bob as an interim leader. Remember, he has been held to task for shacking up with several assistants and is the sales manager over-seeing the issues being investigated by the authorities. In fact, you’ve also got to take responsibility for allowing Bob’s shenanigans to happen and decide if he can change or if he needs to self select and take his fun and games elsewhere. I know he’s your drinking buddy but when it comes to this business, he is a cultural terrorist: rules never apply to him.”
“When it comes to selecting your successor, Jimmy would actually be a better choice. He may not be a complete ‘car guy’, but he is a leader with a trusted moral code and what this place needs is good leadership. However, if you appointed Jimmy or anyone other than Bob, you should prepare yourself for significant turnover within a month of his appointment. You’ll need to be ready to run the store on a skeleton crew because the rats will start jumping ship when they start being held accountable for their predatory, self-serving attitudes. With this culture shift you should also brace yourself for some unflattering revelations about your trusted employees and drinking buddies. It may take you a couple years to adjust to this new way, but in my opinion, if you don’t change, it’s only a matter of time before you begin feeling the swirl of a flushing toilet taking away a business that your dad created and you have done very little to grow.”
Trying to manage the growing emotions, I countered, “Jim you have done a lot to grow this business and it won’t be as awful as Dr. Merlot is making it sound. We all know that Dr. Merlot is prone to exaggerate. I must agree though that Bob would not represent a significant change and Jimmy would be an interesting alternative. We could also consider bringing in someone from the outside.”
“Hold on, Loyd,” Jim responded. “As much as I would love to bust him in the mouth, I have to admit that Merlot is hitting a cord. I am the owner and I have not grown the business, I have harvested it. Furthermore, it is my motivation and perspective that is going to determine if we are going to survive, much less achieve succession. I lead with what I do here, what I do elsewhere, what I tolerate, and what I don’t do. I’m not sure if I’m strong enough to make this radical change, but I do know that it’s me that has to make it. The company’s succession is my responsibility and there are a lot of people and vendors who are counting on me.”