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Leadership Lessons of Dealer Week

Empowering your team to get the job done

When the partnership to produce the Marine Dealer Conference and Expo ended in 2018 between the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas Boating Industry magazine, MRAA president Matt Gruhn faced a daunting challenge in leading a transition through what he describes as a “confused marketplace.”

I spoke with Gruhn recently and learned about some of the approaches he and his team took en route to successfully launching the first Dealer Week in December 2019.

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Unlike many leaders, Gruhn willingly admits he was uncertain of the best course to take. His response: “I decided to rely on insights from other people.”

Given that they already had plenty of experience running a successful event, this might be a surprise, but the process wasn’t only about learning new tips and tricks. “Among our board, our staff and our partners, we called over 120 dealers,” Gruhn says, “and we asked them about pain points, obstacles, challenges and opportunities. Then we built everything that we did based on what they told us.”

By expressing a willingness to listen from the start, Gruhn not only learned a lot, but also tapped into the power of building his internal team and, at the same time, MRAA’s external network of dealers and partner manufacturers.

Create a Unifying Message

Another key step was to let the team take their time creating a shared vision for the new conference. “We wanted to be 100 percent clear who our target market is — we’re trying to impact the dealer to give them that brighter future,” Gruhn says.

The team settled on the conference theme “Envision,” which Gruhn also saw as an opportunity for their small team, with its several viewpoints, to be more unified around a message. From partners to the decorators and the AV company, presenters, dealer attendees and staff, Gruhn says, “there’s a lot of pulling and pushing.” Having a concrete theme challenged people at every step.

“Envision the future. Envision what marine retail would look like. Envision the opportunities in front of you by engaging with the content of the conference,” he says. “It’s a single word, yet the meaning behind it was really powerful. It helped to solidify the vision and the goal of where we were headed.”

Balance Change

What was the right amount of change? After the MRAA’s conference became MDCE in 2007, it grew rapidly and became one of the key B2B events on the industry calendar. But every conference must evolve, especially when gaining an entirely new identity.

Using a framework tool suggested by Velvet Chainsaw, the MRAA’s consultant, Gruhn’s team gained an early sense of who was responsible for what. “What they recommended,” Gruhn says, “is to think of ourselves as the architect. Build the house, and then let your board and your partners decorate it.

“We built out what we wanted to happen,” he adds, “and presented that to our board, partners and Young Leaders Advisory Council as our vision, saying, ‘Here’s what we think we can accomplish. Help us put this together.’ ” The essential plan came out of that meeting.

There was financial pressure to get it right, as the conference is a major contributor to much of the MRAA’s annual activities. “We knew the stakes were high, so we poured everything we had into making sure our team and strategies were fully vested in our mission for the year,” Gruhn says. “We knew fundamentally we didn’t need a lot of changes, but knew we could create a more experiential event.”

Gruhn points to a range of enhancements, including a preconference field trip to an RV dealership, music and entertainment, and changing the classroom dynamics by adding table rounds and taking short breaks to talk about what was resonating. “We could have invested super heavily in different things, but we decided to enhance and not make significant changes,” he says. “Our world-class net promoter scores tell us what we accomplished was a home run. And even though our board gave us permission to dip into our reserves, we didn’t need to do it.”

Give Your Team Ownership

One of the most challenging tactics for many leaders is to give team members ownership of different aspects of a project. The MRAA team defined eight phases of the event, and Gruhn made different team members responsible for each — announcing, attracting, anticipating, arriving, entering, engaging, exiting and extending.

“We went through the process in a book called Traction, which provides a structure internally for how you run an organization when an entrepreneur doesn’t have to be in the midst of things any longer,” Gruhn says. “It gave me a chance to be more visionary and gave everyone tasks ad responsibilities. A lot of the conference was built by our team without my direction and insight, and it was both a little scary for me and also very reassuring and exciting in that I was almost showing up as an attendee. Obviously I knew everything that was supposed to be happening, but they had it, and I didn’t need to get too involved in the day-to-day details.”

Not that Gruhn always found the going easy. “One example,” he says, “is that I was not a fan of how our schedule was laid out. I had some questions and concerns about it, but I just had to say, ‘I’ll let you handle it.’ And I stepped back. And you know what? People actually raved about the schedule.

“That proved me wrong, and it was awesome because now you know how comfortable the team is, how confident they are in their decision-making process,” he adds. “They aren’t just throwing ideas out there; they are thinking things through and building them in a way that is beneficial for everybody — partners, dealer attendees and speakers.”

Gruhn had to expand his team for Dealer Week in addition to hiring a staff member to help oversee conference branding, build the educational programs and work alongside vice president Liz Walz with the presenters. And two years earlier, Gruhn had invested in an internal salesperson to help with exhibit and sponsorship sales, giving them time to get to know dealers, manufacturers and partners through other aspects of MRAA’s business first.

“I like leadership conversations,” Gruhn says. “But at the end of the day it boils down to how the team performs. Having the team we have — a lot of guys call it the dream team, the best team that we’ve had. When you work with them to create the vision and they can rally around it, that’s the essence of what we do. That’s the most powerful part of it — when they buy in, and they love it, and they’re passionate about accomplishing that vision together.” 

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue.

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