7 Skills of Highly Effective General Managers

“I’ve been a GM for a few years now but feel like I’m struggling. Why can’t I get my people to do the things I need them to do?”

“I’m a dealer and need to hire a good GM. What should I look for in candidates?”

“I want to be a GM someday. What do I need to do to get there?”

I often get these questions from dealers, General Managers, and salespeople. If you want to know the answers, keep reading!

I’ve met and worked with General Managers from diverse backgrounds. Some went through all the jobs in a dealership: from sales, to F&I, to Sales Manager, to General Sales Manager, and, finally, to a General Manager. Others had a more extensive fixed operations experience. And some even came from completely different industries or backgrounds, like OEM or medical sales.

In my experience of working with dealership management teams, there are several critical skills a General Manager should have to be effective.

Overall, the more a GM has been “in the trenches,” the more they are suited for the role.

But leadership is the one area that’s the most critical and the most underdeveloped skill that I see in those who are in management or want to become managers. Some GMs may have learned sales, inventory, fixed ops, advertising, and comp, but don’t know how to motivate, discipline and influence people.

If you are a GM, want to become a GM, or are looking to hire a GM, these are the 7 skills of highly effective General Managers:

  1. Ability to see things as they actually are, but not worse than they are

I first heard of this critical leadership quality at a Tony Robbins seminar and I believe it’s true. A good GM should be honest about where the dealership actually is. But they also need to see the big picture, see the potential, and know what it takes to get there.

It’s often necessary to take a step back to move forward. A sure sign of an incompetent GM is panicking too easily when the dealership had a bad month. They start making impulsive decisions that are reactive in nature and are based on short-term results. A good GM will not lose sight of the long-term vision but will be realistic about the needed changes to get there.

  1. Ability to want it more for their people than their people want it for themselves

An effective General Manager is also an effective leader. Being a leader means describing a vision for your team and continually helping them understand the vision and move toward it.

Some GMs tell their people they should sell X number of cars or the department needs to make X amount of profit, but then the GM gets frustrated or disappointed that their people seemingly don’t want to go for it. A good GM should understand that meaningful growth and breaking one’s personal ceiling is as much of a psychological barrier as it is a skill barrier.

Don’t get discouraged if your team doesn’t see your vision immediately or doesn’t believe in it. As a leader, you have to help them see it before they see it, or they’ll never see it.

  1. Ability to see a weakness in a person without seeing the person as weak

Poor leaders judge their team’s weaknesses from the perspective of their own strength. For example, if you’re naturally organized, you might dismiss someone’s potential because that person is disorganized. A good GM should understand the idea that a weakness does not define a person’s character or long-term potential.

Unfortunately, many ineffective GMs equate a person’s fault in one area with the whole person. Or they may exaggerate a weakness, and it becomes like a caricature, where an artist will exaggerate a facial feature. Nobody likes to be reduced to a caricature, so next time you’re about to point out a flaw, make sure you don’t overstate it.

  1. Ability to shape culture and behavior through their presence

Have you experienced a morning sales meeting that started with a manager yelling or threatening staff? Everyone’s mood (and results) become effectively ruined for the entire day. A competent GM is aware of how their presence and behavior influence the entire store. If the GM focuses on providing excellent customer service, their team will focus on it and provide excellent customer service! If the GM talks about how everyone’s a buyer, the team will maximize every opportunity!

If you want to be an effective GM who positively influences the dealership’s culture, watch what you do and say.  Remember – the state of the boss will determine the state of the crew!

  1. Ability to anticipate future trends and proactively adapt to them

The automotive industry is in a constant shift. If you’re a GM, are you actively staying on top of new trends? What’s the last time you attended a national automotive conference? Do you understand how online car buying habits affect your business? Do you know how to attract the next generation to work at your dealership and motivate them once they’re part of your team?

If you’re forced to change how you sell cars, your marketing methods, or how you motivate your staff because the dealership is losing money, you need to work on your proactive management skills.

  1. Ability to humbly admit mistakes and willingness to work on correcting them

Unchecked pride and ego contribute to the downfall of many GMs and the dealerships they’ve been tasked to run. Ability to humbly admit mistakes is a sign of a highly effective GM. If you hired a sales manager who was a terrible fit, did you take responsibility? If you changed the pay plan impulsively without thinking through of how it will impact your team, did you admit you made a mistake?

Some managers equate admitting failures with weak leadership. In my experience, admitting mistakes means the person is a leader and is willing to change and grow.

  1. Ability to maintain a high standard through accountability

I’ve been saying this for a long time: Your team will rise to the lowest allowable standards you will tolerate. If your team and store are under-performing, it’s time to examine your standards and how you keep your team accountable! Some managers need to be more clear on what the performance standards are; and once those are communicated, they need to enforce them. Other GMs lack the skill and the discipline to do consistent performance reviews and one-on-one coaching. I’d like to say it again: Your team will rise to the lowest allowable standards YOU will tolerate!

If you’re a GM, how would you rate yourself on all these 7 skills?

If you’re looking to hire a GM, how do the applicants rate on these skills?

If you’d like leadership training for your store, contact me at (612) 387-7776 or info@sellchology.com


  1. Gabriel Salcedo on June 7, 2020 at 5:27 pm

    This was a great article. It touched every scenario in different ways. I feel even those with a big ego will get it

  2. John on June 11, 2020 at 10:46 am

    Great read. Thanks

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