A leadership expert named John Maxwell once said, “Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.” Years ago, I had a boss who often told me, “Kiddo, don’t let the inmates run the asylum.” Every day, the meaning of both quotes becomes clearer: Someone has to be in charge. For me, it was the new, used and F&I departments. For my boss, it was the store.

Five or so years ago, things went south in our industry. Dealers cut staff and, in many cases, shut their doors. Those who recovered did so by stepping up as leaders and taking charge. The question now is, are you still running the show?

To find out, look no further than the finance office. When the inmates are running the asylum, things get sloppy. Paperwork can be a mess, which can lead to more funding delays from the banks, which means you aren’t getting your money in a timely manner. Lack of management affects sales as well. When was the last time you watched a salesperson do a walk-around on a car? Are they getting the client actively involved in the process, or standing there with their hands in their pockets, looking at the window sticker? Are they asking sold customers for future business?

Finally, you must examine how your departments are interacting. Who is really in charge? Is it the service manager who tells the used-car manager they can’t work on his cars today? Is it the used-car manager who tells the new-car manager the 2010 Camry with 50,000 miles is really not a good car and rough book is the best she can get? How about when she tells the parts manager he needs to mark down the $100 all-season mats to make the deal?

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s time for you to step up, like you did when times were tight. Here are a few areas to focus on:

1. Decisiveness: Everyone needs to feel that the buck stops with you. If you find it hard to make a firm decision, your managers will get tired of waiting and make it for you. Some of them may think like an owner and make the best choice for the store; most will make the best choice for their department. You don’t have to make every decision for everyone who walks in your office — decisiveness doesn’t require you to think for other people — but you are the only person qualified to make the big decisions.

2. Clarity: The best workplaces are staffed by people who know what they are supposed to be doing and what they are shooting for. It is your job to decide what your dealership stands for. Are you a small-town dealership or a massive operation that can’t be outsold? Work with your team to set and clarify individual goals that match your goals for the store.

3. Empowerment: Let your people do their jobs and make it easy for them to suggest and implement new ideas. Identify your best employees, put them in charge of a department or a task and help them establish goals. Set the expectations, establish a timeframe and get out of the way. If they need tools, get them; if they want tools, let them earn them as they make progress.

4. Availability: You are a mentor, a teacher, a leader and a boss. You have to be available, even to those who don’t seek you out. Take your used-car manager, for example. In addition to the regularly scheduled sales meetings, why not meet one-on-one? Ask whether his cars are being serviced in a timely fashion. Ask how successful his salespeople are at moving inventory before the 60-day turn. Being available to the folks on the front lines raises morale, helps fix problems before they get out of hand and helps you identify talent at every level.

5. Education: I have read that many high-performing CEOs still read one book about their industries every week. You need to do the same. Are you involved in a 20 Group? Do you attend educational events such as the F&I Conference? When was the last time you brought in a trainer? Do you have a training library? Adding to your own skill set makes it easier to demand that your people improve theirs. It isn’t always about spending more to get more people in the door. Most often, it’s about using resources to make your people and processes better.

Jason Heard is the general sales manager at Frank Ancona Honda in Olathe, Kan. He is a 20-year industry veteran with extensive sales management experience. [email protected]