A state coronavirus requirement helped David Blackburn take the temperature of his service department every day — literally and figuratively. In the process, he got a better read on himself as a manager.
Blackburn, the service director at Scott Clark Auto Group in Charlotte, N.C., took it upon himself to take the temperatures of nearly 100 people on the service side of the group's Toyota store daily, including some in corporate functions. The step was required by the state's coronavirus health protocols. He had his service managers at Scott Clark's Honda and Nissan stores do the same.
"I just decided to do it myself because that way everybody else can focus on their job," he says.
By Blackburn's reckoning, he had managed in the same way a school principal might. In recent years, he'd had his deputies lead most staff meetings. Employees typically dealt with their immediate supervisor on most matters, leaving Blackburn as a detached overlord.
As a novice temperature-taker, he began showing up a half-hour before the dealership opened at 7 a.m. He would walk around the service, parts, rental and service BDC departments to get a reading from each employee's forehead and record it on their daily COVID-19 health questionnaire. When that exercise proved too chaotic, Blackburn had everyone come by his office when they arrived at work.
And so they did, all formal and nervous. His office, he realized, was "the place where you go if you're in trouble or where you go to talk about something unpleasant."
Blackburn says the 10-second scan was similar to a military exercise, with everyone stiff and standing at attention. Over time, though, things began to loosen up.
"People started to make jokes, and then they would come in and say, you know, 'How was your weekend? Did you watch the race? Did you watch the game?' " Blackburn says.
As the months went on, some of Blackburn's management team — while sitting in his office — would add sound effects such as a gunshot or an explosion when Blackburn pushed the thermometer button to take a temperature. One employee would joke every day: "Do I get to go home?"
But out of roughly 30,000 temperature recordings Blackburn made for 12 months starting in April 2020, not one employee was sent home with a high temperature. Blackburn says he did have a few employees who were told to leave work for the day because they had other COVID symptoms.
Blackburn knows about how many temperatures he took because the state mandated he keep all the daily employee COVID forms. He had almost filled up his sixth box — each holds 5,000 forms — when North Carolina stopped the temperature-taking requirement.
He still has the thermometer in his office, a reminder of how a straightforward exercise brought his service department closer.
"It just allowed me to kind of see a different side of them and allowed them to see a different side of me," Blackburn says. "They got completely relaxed, and now they come in my office without really stopping to think about it. They don't mind coming in to ask me a question.
"And when I walk through the shop, instead of them snapping to attention, they know I'm not Mr. Blackburn anymore, I'm not David anymore — it's like, 'Hey, Dave, how you doing? How's it going?' It's a nice change."
As for lessons learned by "the principal"?
He says it shouldn't take a pandemic for leaders to engage more with their staff. He is interacting more with his employees on the shop floor. Yes, he continues to recognize good work but is also chatting about nonwork things.
"Take time to talk to people more often," he advises. "It has made me a better person."