When I reminisce about my time in retail automotive, my mind is filled with a variety of emotions. I think about the colorful cast of characters I worked with over the years and the bonds we forged over that time. I think about the thousands of people I met, including the customers I sold, and the likable folks I didn’t. The strongest emotion that comes to mind is the actually the feeling of loss. All of the time persevering in the face of adversity, overcoming all obstacles at all costs, and going that extra mile has left an indelible mark. People wonder why the culture of car sales hasn’t changed. Let me tell you my theory.
As humans, we’re hardwired to seek balance with those around us. We use terms like “like-mindedness,” “kinship,” and “belonging” to describe this balance. It’s why we’re stoic during heavy turbulence on a plane and laugh at dumb jokes on the subway. We want to normalize ourselves in the group that we’re with, thus binding ourselves even for the briefest of moments.
When we delve deeper into the study of relationships, we find that the most adverse of circumstances bring people closer together. The men and women of our armed forces forge relationships that last a lifetime after a few minutes on the battlefield. Natural disasters have a way of bringing people together from different socioeconomic, racial, and religious backgrounds to permanently melt prejudice for those affected. It’s no wonder that for millennia we’ve sought to simulate those situations to create tight bonds to bring people together for a common goal.
Many outwardly identifiable groups have initiation customs that serve as a right of passage. Undoubtedly, some of the oldest rituals date back to the native tribes that surround the earth. Whether it be ascending to the caldera of a volcano, enduring freezing and starving conditions, or enduring painful body modifications, biology was not enough to transition from being a child into an adult. Fast forward to today’s society, where we have a full spectrum of crucible activities ranging from hackathons, to fraternity and sorority initiations, to military boot camps. Do you think the Crossfit movement happened by accident?
The automotive retail community has its own initiation rituals, as well. Those new to the industry get a desk full of brochures that come in handy for the OEM certification quizzes. Some might get a two-page employee handbook that covers everything from facial hair grooming to workplace injuries. The lucky ones get to sit through some VHS tapes of training videos, while also learning that mustaches were popular before hipsters. Of course, there is the cutting of the necktie when that elusive first vehicle is sold. However, those are not the stories shared when those in the community sit down for a beverage. Instead, they talk about the grind.
If you’ve ever been in a congregation of car salespeople, the conversations will migrate towards war stories within minutes. The “me-too” moments of missing a daughter’s soccer game or a son’s birth quickly escalate into a competition of who is more overworked or depraved. Stories abound of general managers with drug addictions, spouses cheating, having a coronary on the job, getting into fist fights, getting sexually harassed, and things even worse. When someone runs out of their own stories, they talk about someone they worked with. These stories of survival are what bind the community together. It’s for these reasons, the culture of car sales never changes.
The grinding culture is an equivalent of being tied to an anchor in the ocean. Do you want information? Go find it. Do you need help? You’ll have to wait. Can’t read minds? Time to start. When you seek balance from those who have survived the grind the longest, you’re rewarded with stories of the gas crisis, import domination, and recessions. The chief take away? If you want to be like “us,” don’t drown.
Retail automotive still hasn’t universally recovered from the destabilizing force of the Internet, and that happened over 20 years ago. If even a fraction of the predicted bloodbath of the Mobility Movement comes true, the Internet revolution will feel like a hangnail in comparison. If the retail community has any hope of moving forward, much less surviving, it must re-evaluate how it indoctrinates its new recruits.
The call for a culture change in retail has been overwhelming for quite some time. It has been the subject of countless articles, blog posts, workshops, and keynote presentations. Yet that call is screamed into an echo chamber full of deaf people. Human capital management was the entire theme of the conference I just attended. Before the applause even stopped, someone shared a motivational meme about hard work.
The vacuum of leadership will be filled by someone. It doesn’t matter if an employee is new or a veteran. If a work situation becomes chaotic, they are going to seek a balancing force. If that balancing force is continuously glorifying the old ways, how on Earth can we expect anyone to embrace change?
Nothing grinds without resistance. If we have any aspirations to protect the current retail model, we must cut the ties that hold us back. That’s right: it’s time to bury the temple, close down the boot camp, sell the fraternity house, leave our neckwear intact, and say goodbye to the way we’ve always done it. Instead of building our initiation rituals around surviving challenging times, we must mold our model employees to thrive during any challenges. This means celebrating change. This means proactively seeking employee diversity. This means actively rewarding those who champion the cause. If the most avid of grinders keep pushing against resistance, they will be pulverized to dust.
As for me, I’m no longer concerned about yesterday. There is only tomorrow. Until then, we’ll still have the ties that grind us.