Challenge the Status Quo.
AutoTrader.com, the world’s leading automotive marketplace online, improves the way people research, buy, and sell cars by providing a comprehensive source of information and an inventory of more than 2.2 million vehicles for sale by private sellers, dealers, and manufacturers.
As you might imagine, building a leading-edge e-business requires an innovative mindset, and AutoTrader.com CEO Chip Perry sees fostering this mindset as one of his key leadership challenges.
“My most powerful leadership technique is to tell everyone who works for AutoTrader.com that one of their main responsibilities and obligations as an employee is to constantly challenge the status quo and relentlessly work to improve whatever product, process, or system they may use to get their work done,” says Chip. “Our company grew from zero to $100 million in revenues in just five years, and the main source of our success was the way our employees took the initiative to reinvent their part of the company at least once every six months.
“Most of the tools we use are created with software, which is inherently flexible and changeable. There is always room for improvement in how we help consumers shop for a car and help dealers and private owners advertise their cars for sale. It is the unending opportunity for improvement—melded with the creativity and drive of our employees—that spurs us to innovate everything we do for the benefit of our customers.
“There are so many examples of employee-driven innovation around our company that it’s hard to call out just one or two. Here are a couple that stand out.
“About a year-and-a-half ago, one of our product managers came up with the idea of a dynamic display ad that enables car shoppers to link directly from an individual car listing to nine similar vehicles from the dealer’s inventory. This in context shopping experience has proven very popular, since it gives consumers a way to easily see other cars they might want to buy from a dealer without doing multiple searches in our site or randomly browsing the dealer’s Web site.
“This is the kind of convenience and intuitive shopping experience that the Web has the potential to deliver, but few companies are able to pull it off. More than 1,500 dealers have purchased this advertising product since it was introduced and it has become one of our best sellers.
“Incidentally, the product manager, Jeff Catron, got the idea from one of our dealer customers who thought since we already had his entire inventory online, why not let the consumer see other similar vehicles from the dealer that the consumer might want to buy?
“Another example of an employee-driven innovation is the advertising product preview tool that we recently developed so our customer service people and dealers can preview all new products before they are moved live to our Web site. This may sound like a simple idea, but it required significant new code and a set of dedicated servers. To get the project completed, it had to compete with many other priorities that are more visible on the front end of our Web site. Often it is these less visible back end improvements that are critical to employee job satisfaction, efficiency, and good customer care.
“Our culture is team-driven, so employees’ support and buy-in are essential to every project’s success. There are several different ways we build excitement around new ideas and initiatives.
“First, we have an internal committee called the Employee Advisory Committee. This committee is made up of individuals from each department, and their role is to provide feedback to management on new ideas. Soliciting input from our employees is the first step to gaining their support.
“Also, we plan quarterly events for our employees around new initiatives to introduce them with a bang. Depending on the department’s needs, employees are trained so they have a complete understanding of the new product.
“Lastly, we have a monthly print newsletter and weekly e-newsletter that reports to our employees what is going on within the company.
Communication with our employees is key, and it definitely impacts how our employees react to new ideas and initiatives: The better we inform them, the stronger their support. Our company has been successful because of our employees’ feedback and belief in our mission and goals.”
How can a person learn to become a better leader? “I think a person-can learn to be a better leader by remembering that the essence of management is getting things done through other people, so building the support and buy-in of the people you’re working with is ultimately the most important thing managers do, and all managers who fail have somehow violated this principle.
“So many people try to be excellent individual performers, and this serves them well in their careers up to the point when they become managers. Often, as managers, they continue their habits and drive to be excellent individual performers rather than leaders that help their people get their jobs done while having fun along the way.
“Life as a manager requires people to step up and grow, and let others-take credit and responsibility. That’s hard to do, and that’s why so many people don’t make good managers or leaders.
“The best approach for individual high-performers to become effective managers is to learn from proven managers. At AutoTrader .com, we have an outstanding executive team who provides this example to our employees.
“We have a strong desire to promote from within the company, and are continuously providing professional development programs to build better managers. Our internal leadership program matches employees with a senior-level mentor. Both attend workshops and one-on-one meetings to share management experiences. This program teaches our employees that being a manager is an evolutionary process of change and growth.
“Leadership for an e-business is different than leadership for a brick and mortar. While both utilize the same fundamental leadership principles, e-businesses have a different approach in the application of these principles.
“AutoTrader.com was built from the ground up. We didn’t have a detailed business plan to follow, so we adopted a test and evolve or continuous improvement mentality. We like to say, ‘Nothing is written in stone.’
“Our leaders are risk takers, who are always trying to build a better mouse trap. Our company has to be more nimble, because of the everchanging e-environment. Technology and competitors are changing all the time, and we have to move promptly and decisively. Our business has grown quickly, and we have to adapt to this growth.
“While we are a dot-com by function, we have gone beyond the start-up mode and now must evaluate ourselves differently—more like a brick and mortar—to reach the next level of success. However, this does not change who we are as a company. Setting goals and objectives now and developing a plan for the future are only making us stronger.”