When next you take a wander through the business section of your local bookstore you might be struck by the plethora of books on leadership. John C Maxwell alone found so much to say about the topic that he wrote 58 titles on it. (And if you’re in any doubt that leadership is big business, just ask him about his 50 language translations and 13 million copies sold). Given that so much has been written and said about the topic, I’m dying to ask Dawn Jones, CEO of Imperial Car Rental and the newly-awarded 2007 Boss of the Year, why she believes she was bestowed with this prestigious title. But the question renders a usually highly articulate woman stumped and distinctly uncomfortable for a few seconds. She’ll come back to that question, she says.
When she does eventually answer, she explains why she finds the question difficult: “I don’t like the focus and attention to be on me – I like it to be about the business, and the business is about a team, not one person.” False modesty? You wouldn’t say so if you read through the pages-long nomination document put forward by her staff to the Boss of the Year judging panel. It’s not necessarily what they have to say about her, but rather the fact that there are so many of them who say it. And therein lies the answer to my question. Leadership isn’t about having a vision; it’s about being able to take people along with you to achieve a vision. And doing so requires the ability to make a connection with individuals and teams. It requires the ability to communicate whatever vision you have and to speak in a voice that people can understand and relate to.
And while many of the old business guard might argue otherwise, making a human connection is not a soft skill. Generation X (and the Millennium Generation following closely behind) is a very different animal to its baby-boomer predecessor. For one thing, Xs do a great deal more questioning. They’re more inclined to fob off authority and make up their own minds about things. And in a business climate experiencing an almost critical skills shortage, they have the ability to exercise far more choice than in the past. Which means leadership today calls for a very different skills set than it did in the past. Critically, it requires the ability to inspire people so that they want to be a part of your journey. And at this Jones is an expert.
It’s a skill she had way back when she joined Imperial founding members Carol Scott and Maureen Jackson as a 21-year-old. Up against car rental giants Avis, Hertz and Budget, the little team had five cars between them and operated out of the Durban airport car park. When she’d hired out all five cars she’d have no transport home, so she’d hitch. “We didn’t have enough money for a kiosk, so we’d literally entice our competitors’ customers to come to us. I would see someone getting into a competitor’s car and I’d just approach them and say, ‘I see you’re renting a car from X. Won’t you give us a try? We’re a new company and we have a really superb service – whatever rates you’re getting we’ll match them.’ I think people were so shocked that they didn’t know what to say,” she laughs. But the fact is that she convinced them to be part of the Imperial journey. The company went from five cars to 100 in a few short months.
If it’s true that people are attracted to others because they see a mirror of attributes that they value in themselves, it’s not surprising that a woman of Jones’ pluck and gumption was impressed by Carol Scott, who started Imperial Car Rental under Bill Lynch of the Imperial Group. She relates the story of how they met: “In 1980 I was working at Budget in the old Elangeni Hotel and Carol walked in and started chatting to the concierge about this new car rental company she was starting. I remember being so impressed by her – she had such a presence and she was talking about how Imperial was going to be the biggest car rental company in South Africa. I just knew I had to meet her, so I asked him for her phone number and called her up.
“We met in this tiny office that had boxes of car oil lying all over the place and she told me she’d identified a gap in the car rental market and that I could join tomorrow. At that point she had no cars. She offered me R275 a month and I said yes. My manager at Budget told me I was mad, offered me an extra R25, which Carol then matched, and said women knew nothing about business. That decided it for me. I left immediately and joined her.”
The ‘gap’ that Scott had identified was for a highly personalised car rental service. “We turned the disadvantage of not having a kiosk into our biggest advantage, because it forced us to meet and greet people at the airport and this was really unique in the industry. So no matter what time of day or night people arrived, we’d be there to welcome them, give them their keys, show them to the car and follow them out of the airport onto the highway. Nobody else was doing that,” says Jones. She admits however that it wasn’t easy. “We had to pound the pavements. I couldn’t have a car unless I had a customer so I’d just knock on doors to find business. I had no idea where to go but I think that naiveté, ignorance and enthusiasm were my strengths back then,” she laughs.
While there were no doubts about her sales ability, Jones recalls how, initially, the older and more sophisticated Scott wasn’t entirely sure about her ability to run things. “In the beginning there was a guy who ran the workshop and she kind of thought he might be the overall manager. But the more she thought that, the more determined I was to prove myself,” she says.
In doing so, one of her biggest lessons was managing people – and it stood her in good stead later on in her career. “Oh my word did I employ some noo-noos!” she laughs, “For example I employed a really lovely girl who was gorgeous and who the customers loved but what I didn’t realise was that she was a prostitute.” Growing serious again, she continues, “I also learned how difficult it was to employ someone who was older, more experienced and more qualified than me. I think when you’re young you see that as a threat in some way but as you go on you realise that the more people you employ who are better than you, the better it is for you and for the business.”
After four years Imperial had established a national presence and the 25-year-old Jones moved to Johannesburg to take up a position as sales and marketing director. The position, and the growth of the company, brought a new set of challenges. “For me the biggest thing was letting go. When you’re in a business at its inception, it’s very difficult later on not to do everything yourself. You tend to want to hold on to certain things. What I had to learn as I went up through the ranks of the company was to empower people,” she says.
And if there’s one thing Jones knows better than anyone it’s that empowerment goes hand in hand with development. After all, it’s something she was on the receiving end of. She explains: “At such a young age I was given so many opportunities to grow and develop and the Imperial group was fantastic about empowering us to be successful. So today, developing people is really close to my heart. I believe very strongly, because I’ve been there myself, in putting small people in big chairs. And it’s amazing how people rise to the occasion when you give them the chance. Of course, not all of them do and you do have failures, but the important thing is that you give them the support and guidelines they need. There’s a certain amount of hand-holding and a certain amount of letting go and you have to know when to do which one and how much.”
She’s had the good fortune of watching some powerful leadership icons over the course of her career and Jones is the first to point them out. “From Carol I learned to fight for business and then of course there was Bill Lynch. At board meetings if you put up a presentation or a graph, he’d tell you that didn’t tell him about what was really going on in the business. He’d tell you to talk to him about what your gut said. And I think I’ve tried to continue that – to talk to people and to listen when they talk back.”
So in-between all the talking and listening and empowering, where’s the room for the hard-nosed stuff of business, you ask. It’s an excellent question. Being liked and respected by your employees does not necessarily a good leader make but Jones can be tough when required. And while she’s happy to give people a chance to grow, she’s not tolerant of non-performance. “You need to be tough sometimes. It’s a two-way street,” she says.
She’s also more than capable of making the right call when it comes to business decisions. If nothing else, her quick reaction to changing market conditions in the car rental industry proves that. “Our strategy has always been to position ourselves as a premium brand at the top end of the market but over the years we’ve had to change this. With low-cost airlines coming into the market about five years ago, car rental is no longer just for senior businesspeople. It has meant people who couldn’t fly before now can and obviously they need a rental car when they arrive at their destination. So in the past five years the profile of our customer has changed and this has required something of a paradigm shift. All your business processes are geared towards being a corporate car rental company but suddenly you need to change that to accommodate a little old lady who’s hiring a car for the first time to visit her grandchildren. It’s been a huge learning curve for us – massive.”
Thirty percent of Imperial’s customers now come from the leisure market but gaining this market share has meant implementing some drastic changes. Instead of processing customers as quickly as possible (one of Imperial’s selling points), Jones explains how staff had to be retrained to develop the skills necessary for processing families and holidaymakers. It’s meant having a bigger customer receiving area (holidaymakers come with more luggage and an entourage), baby car seats and child-friendly reception areas. Different customers also demand a different marketing strategy.
To accommodate all these changes, Jones has changed the entire management structure of the business. “We’ve moved away from the traditional structure of a business where you have an ops director and a sales director, and have split our business into different channels that focus on our different customers. Each of these channels has a channel director who’s responsible for everything pertaining to that market. The four markets are the international tourist, the corporate market, the domestic leisure market and the insurance vehicle replacement market. Each has different needs and needs to be approached differently,” she explains.
The recent acquisition of Europcar means Jones faces new challenges in the year ahead. Always fiercely proud of the Imperial culture, she says, “The challenge now is to inculcate the culture into a new group of staff without forcing it on them and to try to find common ground, because different companies have different values and ways of doing things.” Mergers are seldom simple, especially from a human resources point of view, but Jones is undoubtedly the best person for the job. “Communication is everything,” she quips, “and I’m sure the reason so many companies fail is because they fail to communicate. It’s something that we’ve worked very hard on and it can take up an enormous amount of time doing roadshows all over the country, but it’s worth it. Things like video conferencing are simply not personal enough – and how can I expect our employees to engage with customers on a personal level if I don’t bother to engage with employees in the same way. Leading is done by example.”
It is – gratifyingly – an answer to my very first question and brings to mind one of the truer things written about leadership – that a great leader never expects anything from people that they couldn’t deliver themselves. And if anyone has been there and done that, it’s Ms Jones.
Dawn Jones’ advice to aspirant entrepreneurs on starting and building a business
- Starting a business requires lots of courage. You have to take risks in order to succeed – but they need to be calculated.
- In order to lead a business, you need to start off with an idea – a dream or a vision. You need to be able to visualise it and follow it through.
- Above all you need to love what you do and do what you love. The passion required for success will only be there if you are doing something that you love. It’s not something you can fake.
- Building a business takes personal sacrifice, especially in the early days and you have to be prepared to make these if you want to succeed. Having said this, it is important that you seek a balance between your work and life as the business grows.
- Don’t ever give up. Many things may go wrong. You have to persevere.
- Surround yourself with good people whose strengths lie where your weaknesses are. This is vitally important. They need to complement and support you. But you need to look after them – they need to feel part of the vision.
- When it comes to failure, you firstly need to think of it as a learning opportunity. You must expect that with risk comes possible failure, so grow from it. Its vital that you don’t use failure as an excuse to give up – giving up is easy, moving forward takes far more determination, maturity and courage.
- Stick to your game plan!
- Look to the many wonderful entrepreneurial South African role models. Be inspired by their creativity and diversity.