Developing Leadership in a Growing Family Business

How do you keep your best people who are already great cultural fits engaged and growing to their fullest potential in an organization? The answer is through intentionality—that is to say, understanding how to define leadership and develop it.

Retaining the culture of a family owned business through almost three decades of continued expansion isn’t easy. But losing the essence of what led to success in the first place would be a death knell to future growth, so preserving and enhancing that secret sauce is imperative. When continued growth asks for more leaders, things can get tricky.

I’m a third-generation leader in the Davis Automotive Group, along with my two brothers. The company was founded by our grandfather 27 years ago and eventually passed down to our father and then to us. Their personalities filtered through the organizational layers of our business and formed a family oriented culture that persists today as we have grown to more than 550 employees working at 10 automotive dealerships and seven ancillary businesses such as our RV dealerships, heavy equipment dealerships, collision centers, and rental franchise.

We’re proud of our growth, but even prouder that my grandfather’s values of service, integrity, and respect still guide every employee’s behavior. However, it does become harder to hold onto those values as growth accelerates and new team members are brought in. Scaling up increases the risk that high-potential employees may get overlooked and passed over for promotion in favor of an outside hire who appears to already possess the necessary qualifications. If they get frustrated and resign, it takes a lot of time to recreate the lost culture in a new hire.

Therein lies a massive challenge that can quickly unravel even the most entrenched cultures. How do you keep your best people who are already great cultural fits engaged and growing to their fullest potential in an organization? The answer is through intentionality—that is to say, understanding how to define leadership and develop it. As with any skill, it takes time, effort, and practice.

Charting a Path to Create Strong Leaders

The path looks different for every company depending on what values they hold dear and drive the business, but the same methodology can be used regardless. The first step is defining the culture you have, the one you hope to cultivate, and what qualities a person needs to succeed within the organization and inspire others to do the same.

For us, family values and investing in our team members are key. For example, my brothers and I personally log more than 1,000 miles each December delivering Christmas turkeys to every employee and talking with them—it’s something we love to do. But passing that level of dedication to every leader in the company and developing executives who would do the same thing isn’t always easy. We were looking for a repeatable template, so we turned to The John Maxwell Company to provide an outside perspective on how to turn leadership development into a regular part of business operations.

Using a comprehensive 360-degree assessment, we helped our company’s leaders identify their areas of strength and opportunities for growth—and we did it from the top down, teaching every level of management how to do the same for their team members. To amplify the importance of our culture and values, we recruited my father and another influential leader with 27 years of experience at Davis Automotive Group to act as mentors.

Just as with any family teaching traditions and values to younger generations, all new employees attend a session with these mentors to learn about the company’s history and culture as part of their onboarding process. Emerging leaders also can reserve time with them for personal one-on-one mentorship.

Change the Conversation to Include Leadership Development

One of the biggest results of this focus on intentionality is that it created more conversation within the company around the concept of leadership. This is key because one of our primary goals is to develop more leaders from within. There is never a shortage of people who want to grow, and these conversations are helping identify who these employees are. From there, we can make their leadership development a conscious, ongoing effort.

These conversations also are giving existing leaders new levels of confidence to leverage their influence in ways that help reinforce culture and develop up-and-coming talent. Realizing that top leaders are responsible for helping team members grow is key to ensuring that high-potential employees stay on progressive career paths that fulfill.

We value our legacy as a family business as much as we want to continue on a path of sustained growth. Leadership development for all employees helps develop future leaders from within and creates an environment that supports personal development and growth and in an inclusive culture.

Mike Davis is the general manager of Davis GMC Buick Lethbridge and oversees Davis Auto Group’s Strategic direction and growth of its 10 dealerships, three Fix Auto Collision centers, and seven other automobile-related businesses in the group. 

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