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How to spot new shop leaders

Feb. 21, 2024
Promoting from within is a great way for maintenance departments to ensure consistency. Here are some best practices in finding the employees ready to lead in new roles.

This is Part Four of a four-part series. Read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three here.

Big or small, new or old, every maintenance operation needs to take career advancement seriously. In a rapidly changing sector like commercial vehicle maintenance, all employees need training just to keep up with new models, technology, and tools. But how do you identify which of your employees are ready for leadership?

For starters, you should strive for a steady stream of capable—and homegrown—supervisors, managers, and executives trained in your ways who can drive growth and efficiency.

“We are system-based, so we want people who understand our system, who have been able to come into it and perform at that level and demonstrate that they’re capable of a little more with that,” said Sal Boemia, area maintenance manager for Penske Transportation Solutions South Central Area.

The former Marine sergeant has been with Penske since 2005, starting as a maintenance supervisor, and has been promoted five times. One of the technicians he mentored, Penske Tech 1 Tommy Bass, won the company’s skills competition in 2023. Penske has more than 11,000 techs.

No matter how many vehicles run through the shop, he explained that standardized processes ensure consistency in preventive maintenance and customer satisfaction. A good leader ensures that these standards are adhered to and executed.

“We have locations that run 1,400 units, we have locations that run 300 units,” he said. “But I look for the same thing out of both of them, because we have the same playbook, regardless of size.”

Demonstrating initiative, essentially being the one to step up, and excellent communication skills are also inherent skills of a good leader.

While an area maintenance manager in the Northeast, Boemia recalled a tech who showed both qualities on display when visiting a shop in need of a manager. He noticed a tech crawl out from under a truck to then maintain a not-so-satisfied customer. This tech’s communication skills and confidence in addressing the complaint put the customer at ease. He backed up his soft skills by fixing the truck.

“This guy’s our potential future leader,’” Boemia remembers saying. He was right. That tech is now a district service manager at Penske.

It’s common practice at Penske for the role of lead technician to be a trial run for supervisor.

“We’re not going to leave them by themselves to necessarily handle everything, but we’re going to let them deal with the customer,” he said. “And then we’ll provide coaching in real-time, or based on feedback from the customer.”

At the district service manager level and above, Penske also provides the year-long “Leading Maintenance Excellence” program to improve communication skills.

Penske associates also undergo various personality tests, like Myers Briggs and Hogan Assessment, to identify future potential. This shows employees “how not only they perceive themselves, but how others perceive them, and then they could work on their development,” Boemia said.

When identifying new executives at Penske, the customer service quotient is just as important, said Gregg Mangione, EVP of maintenance for Penske Truck Leasing.

“If you’re going to spend too much money, err on the side of taking care of the customer in the moment,” he said. “Monday morning, we’ll review it, but you’re never gonna get in trouble for that.”

Mangione noted that despite the size and scale of Penske’s maintenance operations, techs starting out on the fuel island or shop floor have worked their way up to become VPs.

Making the jump to the C-suite requires an “intelligent, analytical mindset” too, Mangione said, because of all the data involved, from financial to customer to maintenance.

They also need to “balance their time between tactical and strategic,” he added.

Read more: How mentorship increases retention

When considering giving a manager more shops to oversee, watch how their current facility runs when they are gone.

“If any leader goes on vacation and comes back and the place is still humming, that’s a sign of a good leader,” Mangione said. “If that leader leaves and the dominoes come apart, then they’re not leading properly.”

At any level, look for those future leaders to demonstrate the ambition to learn new skills.

“Our future leaders actively seek increased knowledge, whether through the many training programs we offer online, or on their own through secondary schools, or opportunities such as taking a project in the shop under their wings,” said Doug Conniff, regional service operations manager at Rihm Family Companies, a Minnesota-based heavy-duty truck dealer that has been selling Kenworth trucks for 92 years, the second longest span in the world.

“The jump from the shop floor to shop office isn’t painless but I would say it is made easier by the training each tech receives in his or her time on the floor,” Conniff said.

Rihm also invites guest speakers to the dealership for in-person learning.

Dealerships and larger operations can afford to send techs offs to get certified on new technology, or attend leadership training, but finding time to do such things at smaller operations can be difficult. Classrooms aren’t the only places to learn valuable skills. Even though he works for an organization as large as Penske’s, Boemia said he owes much of his ascent up the ranks to reading.

“I credit a huge part of my leadership ability to the various books that I’ve read over the years,” said Boemia, who estimates he finishes 40 to 60 books a year on subjects from military leadership to psychology and neurology. A few he suggests are:

Because a good leader must be able to steer the shop through smooth and rocky times, look for how an employee at the shop level handles failure, Coniff explained.

“Over time in the shop environment, all members of the team will experience success and failure,” Conniff said. “Those who keep humble on the wins and learn from the failures are destined to be leaders.”

Preparing for leadership also requires letting go of individual performance and considering the bigger picture.

“Letting go of hands-on results can be difficult but we continuously remind our team members to empower their teammates. Failure is not ideal, but it is necessary to learn,” he continued. “Once they trust their teammates to succeed, then and only then will they succeed.”

As you think about promoting leaders up the ladder, consider testing their project management mettle to judge teamwork abilities.

“Create heat moments where they’ve got to work on a project as part of a team…[where] they have to make a presentation to executive management,” suggested Mangione, explaining such an exercise helps upper management see how they navigate working with other departments and inevitable power struggles. “This puts them in an uncomfortable space, but it’s a great stretch experience for them.”

Assign workers a collateral duty, such as managing coolant sampling, to test how a floor technician handles additional responsibility and follows the processes in place, Boemia said.

Small details can also provide helpful hints as to who could be bumped up.

“If you’re walking through the shop, and their bay always tends to be clean, neat, and organized, you know that’s a potential candidate,” Boemia added.

Finally, remember the best leader isn’t always the one who troubleshoots trucks the most effectively or has the fastest standard time to repair.

“Just because you show technical prowess, and you’re the best at fixing a truck, that doesn’t necessarily make you the best at dealing with the customer,” Boemia said. He acknowledged that both are important, but a leader must recognize taking care of customers takes priority, otherwise “you have no truck to work on.”

About the Author

John Hitch | Editor-in-chief, Fleet Maintenance

John Hitch is the editor-in-chief of Fleet Maintenance, where his mission is to provide maintenance management and technicians with the the latest information on the tools and strategies to keep their fleets' commercial vehicles moving.

He is based out of Cleveland, Ohio, and has worked in the B2B journalism space for more than a decade.

Hitch was previously senior editor for FleetOwner, and covers everything related to trucking and commercial vehicle equipment, including breaking news, the latest trends and best practices. He previously wrote about manufacturing and advanced technology for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest.

Prior to that he was editor for Kent State University's student magazine, The Burr, and a freelancer for Cleveland Magazine. He is an award-winning journalist and former sonar technician, where he served honorably aboard the fast-attack submarine USS Oklahoma City (SSN-723).