Meet Fleming Ford
President, Culture Ignited & DEI Champions Council for Retail Automotive; Director
“I always was analyzing my different leaders, different people on my team, why they struggle, why people failed.”
I would go back to my parents as the beginning of my journey. In my family, everyone thinks they’re a therapist, so there was a lot of counseling and guidance. I have five younger brothers and sisters, and as the oldest, I got to boss people around all the time. Birth order and the personal stress that you put on yourself as the oldest child has been an ongoing challenge or, rather, an energizer for me.
Like many others, I went to school, got a finance degree, and then realized I didn’t like finance at all. So instead, I got into selling finance and eventually found myself selling HR products like recruiting assessments, hiring processes, and behavioral leadership evaluations. I became quite good at it, and at 28, I was promoted to sales manager. That’s when I made some epic mistakes, and I really developed as a person; I discovered a passion for helping managers who want to do their best but haven’t been given the necessary skills to lead effectively.
My curiosity led me to analyze my different leaders, cultures, and team members, trying to understand why people struggle and fail in their careers.
I became fascinated by the career choices people make early on and how they can end up in what I call “job jail” – making a paycheck but not enjoying their work. So my mission has been to help people find a place where they love what they’re doing, their workplace, and their boss, and I believe that can be life-changing.
There’s no secret formula to figuring it all out, but I’ve been slowly chipping away at it, and it all started with the lessons I learned early on, both from my family and from my own experiences in the workforce.
“I think most managers go into just doing what they did best before they got promoted, versus what they need to do best is work with their people.”
I’ll point back to my mother, who was an early instigator in encouraging me to find a job that makes me happy. However, when I started my career, job hopping was frowned upon. Times have changed, and we now understand that people might be searching for the right place or escaping terrible management. I believe people inherently want to do a good job, feel proud, and serve a purpose, but managers don’t always have the skills to empower or trust their employees.
I’ve witnessed managers managing to the lowest level of their team instead of the highest, pushing away top employees. We need to shift our mindset to believe that everyone on our team wants to do their very best and find ways to bring that out of them.
This approach attracts better employees and allows people to rise to your expectations.
One of the biggest struggles in performance-driven environments, such as automotive, is transitioning from performer to managing the performers. Unfortunately, we often don’t do a good job helping people onboard into their new roles. Managers need training in coaching, caring about others, and letting their team take credit.
I work with high-potential employees, helping them transition into leadership roles by mentoring and coaching them. I encourage companies to be responsible for this transition period by identifying high-potential employees and working with them to develop new skill sets, such as conducting coaching reviews with difficult employees, setting attainable goals, and understanding their strengths to put them in the right roles. This process helps prevent frustration and burnout, enabling employees to grow and scale.
To sum up, owners must equip their people with the necessary leadership skills, not just for the leaders but also for their teams. This approach allows everyone to feel more comfortable and promotes growth within the organization.
Some of the most significant wins in my career include:
- Building the consulting arm at Omnia Group to equip our client with the power of utilizing behavioral assessments to build winning teams: The program made it easier for managers to hire the right person, improve the interviewing process and optimize talent. It also allowed for better team leadership based on understanding individual strengths, needs, and communication styles for improved engagement and retention.
- Being part of the original hiring and growth project of autotrader.com: I had the opportunity to shape the company’s beginning by working with the leaders, HR, and sales managers to identify the hiring benchmarks and get the right people for new roles. It was fun as they really took off quickly, and it was inspiring to work with their team.
- Working on the SHOT program with Toyota and the Ritz Carlton: This experience taught me about implementing strong company culture through pillars, hiring and onboarding systems, and the importance of employee engagement and buy-in. Facilitating the program for Toyota and working with dealers was an enjoyable and rewarding experience.
These wins made me realize that focusing on the people side of the business is crucial for success, and finding purpose in my work is what truly defines “making it.”
I would say that coming out of COVID made me more reflective about my career and life choices. Some key realizations and goals I have include:
- I want to work with people I love and customers I enjoy working with while maintaining balance in my life. I’m learning to set boundaries to take care of myself, my family, my friends, and my health.
- I’m at a point where I want to help not just a few dealerships but many more.
- To continue to develop empathy for those I coach and work with. I experience similar challenges as them. I want to help leaders create healthier, high-performing teams, which in turn leads to healthier families and communities.
- Addressing the growing mental health crisis – with one in four people dealing with mental health issues, I recognize the power we have as leaders in the automotive industry to make a positive impact on people’s lives.
My current focus is on finding ways to provide solutions at scale and navigating the balance between personal and professional life.
I am also deeply involved in the DEI Champions Council. The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council consists of around 20 different dealer groups, including some of the larger groups. We are focused on addressing various aspects of building inclusive cultures so we can attract and retain the talent to meet business objectives. A current topic we are focused on is the mental health of our workforce.
There are many aspects of people’s lives that they may hide or cover up at work, which can have a significant impact on mental health. Therefore, it’s crucial for leaders to create inclusive environments where everyone can thrive.
This isn’t just about addressing the needs of specific demographics – it’s about creating spaces where everyone can express their needs and feelings openly. By creating courageous spaces, leaders can foster honest communication and nurture personal and professional growth among their team members.
For me, this focus on DEI is an exciting and inspiring aspect of my future career. I’ve spent years working on hiring, interviewing, culture, engagement, and retention, which are all important. However, given the current cultural landscape and changing mindsets, addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion is a vital and impactful area where I would like to concentrate my efforts as I approach the end of my career before retirement.