The Truth About Being a Manager

The Truth About Being a Manager

September 12, 2023

7 minute Read

Graduating from a front-line worker to a manager can come with some surprises. Sometimes, it's even like walking a tightrope. 

You finally made it.

You put in your time, performed well, followed all the rules … and now you’re a manager. But it won’t necessarily be a stroll down Easy Street. Along with the prestige comes more demands on your time, more responsibilities, higher expectations — in addition to the challenge of gaining the respect and trust of coworkers you used to work alongside.

But you can relieve some of the pressure by striving to be an effective manager — one who leads and inspires the crew to git ’er done as a team.

 One key approach to gaining trust is to make sure they know you have their backs at all times.

Many workers have had bosses, at one time or another, that draw clear lines between us and them — but that kind of attitude won’t fly in the car wash business. “I never ask employees to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” said Tayler Kiley, manager at Whatta Wash South 14, Greer, S.C. And that covers everything from changing light bulbs to mucking out the pit. In fact, getting your hands dirty can show the line crews that you really are part of the team.

But another aspect of “us and them” can emerge when managers have worked their way up from the line. “It can be like walking a tightrope,” said Miller Clayton, operations director at Washbox Car Wash, Rainbow City, Ala. “You’re still friends with the line workers — but now it’s your reputation, and the company’s, that’s on the line. And, ultimately, you have to act in the company’s interest — because it all comes back to you.”

“I started from the ground up,” Clayton said. “I always looked up to people who made it more than just a job and I’ve carried that attitude over. My employees know I’m there for them at work and afterward as well. Many times, they’ll need some guidance, and I want to help them grow into something more than they are today. Showing them the future, with a pathway to success, that’s the best thing I can do.”

Iona Kearney, operations manager at Speedy Sparkle Car Wash, Berthoud, Colo., concurred. “I take the time to listen to them and their problems. It sounds like a small thing, but a lot of them are just starting out, and talking to the boss can be a scary idea. So it’s important for them to know they’re being heard.”

Control the snowballs

It’s safe to say that no one likes being micro-managed, but it’s essential for everyone to know where everything stands. That’s why Kearney is a proponent of setting expectations early.

“I need everyone to understand the rules and procedures. If something goes wrong, I don’t yell, I don’t send them home; we sit down and I explain why we do things the way we do,” she said.

“The car wash industry is different from other businesses,” said Tara Huntley, operations manager at RPM Express Car Wash, Pullman, Wash. “Employees tend to be on the younger side, so it can be tough to be the older manager. But it’s important for managers to know what’s going on. Something small can start to slip and snowball out of control if you aren’t attentive to it.”

You might also need to brush up on your soft skills. Granted, mechanical knowledge and aptitude serves both line workers and managers, but management roles make you, essentially, the face of the operation.

That’s why it’s essential to have top-notch communications skills — whether you use them in-person or through impersonal electronic devices. “As a manager, you must constantly deal with customers, vendors and other parties,” said Tyler Shreck, store manager at Autobell Car Wash, Hampton, Va.

Kiley echoed those sentiments. “Being able to communicate directly with customers is very important, and many of our line workers never had to deal with that before,” she said.

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Expect surprises

Effective managers are also skilled problem-solvers — and not just in mechanical situations, but in practically every aspect of the operation.

“There’s always something popping up,” Shreck added. “It might be a breakdown in the operation, or an employee who’s slacking off — regardless, it’s up to you to figure out how to fix it; otherwise, the operation can be crippled. Until I became a manager, I didn’t realize how much I’d need that for everything from safety concerns to the lobby temperature to keeping customers happy.”

But no matter how well-prepared you are for the new position, you’re bound to encounter some surprises. “For me, it was the degree of organization involved in running the business,” said Kiley. “I found myself spending a lot of time on organizing the staff, paying bills, assembling shift schedules, checking inventory; it seems every part of the car wash is always interacting with all the other parts.”

Must-have traits

Business success is often enhanced by your own personality traits, and the car wash industry is no different. Three valuable qualities are patience, empathy and adaptability to change — whether singly or in combination.

“You need a lot of patience to deal with customers, co-workers and even the technology you use,” Kearney said. “And flexibility is important, too. As a manager, you find that more and more things fall into gray areas — so you need to avoid having a rigid mindset.”

And the ability to adapt doesn’t apply just during business hours. While the typical line worker will punch out and call it a day, managers find their hours are virtually endless. “You are constantly on call,” Clayton said. “Even though you put in your required number of hours each week, you can’t just shut off your phone and go home.”

Savvy managers know how to build solid teams by considering the other person’s perspective. “For example, you’re in control of your crews’ schedules, so in a sense you can determine how their day is going to be. If someone has a sick child at home, do your best to accommodate them. You want your employees to be happy to come to work,” Huntley said.

In fact, Kiley sometimes goes to unusual lengths; she’s been known to send an overtired person home to rest up; take over that person’s shift, and pay them for the day anyway.

It is these types of traits and problem-solving skills that some new car wash managers learn on the job, but many have naturally or adopted them prior to taking on a management position.

In Huntley’s case, “I’d been in leadership positions since serving on student council in elementary school, but I also traveled a year after college as I helped various groups grow. That taught me the importance of leading by doing, not just telling people what to do,” she said.

Make an imprint

Smart managers can apply some good old give-and-take to the various car wash processes and policies. For example, when Kearney came on as general manager, “I discovered that many employees had had no formalized training, and many of the processes at the wash were inconsistent,” she said. “I worked with the employees to create formal training documentation that included all of the necessary procedures, as well as the things they believed a good line worker or manager would have to do, and how to evaluate their performance. I was open to their suggestions, because they’re the actual workers.

“In the end, it created a really good bond between us. I understood how my employees wanted to be managed, and they gave me lots of buy-in, because they had helped create the rules they were following.”

But don’t presume that managers can’t find time for fun. “During peak pollen season, I pushed our teams to sell 300 new unlimited wash tags,” Clayton said. “When they hit that goal, I took everyone out to a big dinner party with bowling and skating; it was a really good family outing. And last Christmas, we put up a huge display; my main mechanic dressed as Santa, and I played Buddy the Elf. We handed out toys and had a special light show in the tunnel. It was a good time for the kids — and the adults loved it too!”

And managers can be community influencers as well. Clayton’s Washbox Car Wash regularly allows food and ice cream trucks to set up on their property. And Kearney’s Speedy Sparkle Car Wash has become a first choice for employment among many local high schoolers. “We get so many applications from them, there’s actually a waiting list for hiring,” she said. “This summer, we’re giving them a taste of the business by letting them manage our social media presence.”

How your background helps

As a young athlete, Shreck saw effective leadership and teamwork on the field — as well as observing how to get things done by delegating responsibilities (there’s only one quarterback, after all). “When I entered the workforce, it was obvious to me who the real leaders were. And I’ve been fortunate to work with many great leaders at Autobell; I’ve gained knowledge from just about everyone,” he said.

And Huntley worked her way through school at lots of different jobs, developing different skills. “I like to learn the specifics of how things work and operate,” she said. “I also tend to ask questions; I really don’t like just sitting in one spot.”

 There’s no question that car wash management brings a raft of demands and challenges — but it also offers you opportunities to shine by making solid hires and promotions. It’s a major responsibility, but you don’t need to shoulder the burden alone.

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