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“Creating Gainful Employment Opportunity For Individuals with Autism” with Tom D’Eri Co-founder Rising Tide U

I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom D’Eri, the co-founder and COO of Rising Tide Car Wash, a social enterprise that employs over 80…


I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom D’Eri, the co-founder and COO of Rising Tide Car Wash, a social enterprise that employs over 80 individuals with autism in a successful car wash business.

He is also the co-founder of Rising Tide U, an organization dedicated to teaching others how to harness the autism advantage. Tom is a summa cum laude graduate of Bentley University in Finance and Economics, an Unreasonable Institute Global Fellow, a Startingbloc Fellow and a Miami Herald 20Under40 award recipient.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?My father, John, and I founded Rising Tide Car Wash as a means of employing my brother Andrew who’s on the autism spectrum. While Andrew is an incredibly capable young man, we saw that it was going to be difficult, if not impossible, for him to find meaningful employment because of the way society views autism — as a disability that requires sympathy instead of a valuable diversity. Our mission with Rising Tide Car Wash is to create gainful employment opportunities for individuals with autism in premium car washes. We feel that by delivering exceptional service, provided by expertly trained employees with autism, we can help change the way communities view autism and show the world that people with autism can help businesses thrive.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I’ve learned to never judge an employee by first impressions and that very often team members will surprise you when they are given direct and clear feedback. One of our managers was failing after his first three months of working with us. I had pretty much given up him, assuming that his issues were too difficult to correct. In a last stich effort, I decided to be blunt with him. I said, “Bob you’re failing right now because you’re not assertive enough with your team members and they don’t know what you want from them. You need to really focus on speaking up and being clear or this isn’t going to work out.” To my amazement, Bob began to speak up and direct his team, they began to follow him and once he mastered this skill, he was able to balance his naturally laid-back personality with clear and frequent communication, making him one of the best managers we have.

How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?

At Rising Tide Car Wash, we use a combination of reporting, team communication tools and team events to synchronize our teams. We have a variety of reports on every aspect of the business from operational checklists to financial analyses, each of which are shared with all store level managers. This allows everyone to understand where we are as a company and how each store is doing in comparison with each other. We also use lots of group chats and the messaging features in our operational program, Jolt. Finally, we get the whole management team together for dinner on a monthly basis, this really serves as a critical bonding tool that keeps us as one big team instead of independent stores.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

It’s the leader’s job to chart the path of personal and professional development for their team members. This includes providing access to great training resources, developing clear and fair standards of what someone needs to do to grow and provide constant, discrete growth opportunities. It’s also critical that a CEO/Founder intentionally develops the type of culture they want. To do this we must be specific and clear about the cultural values we hold dear and the behaviors that are associated with them. For us it’s buy-in to our mission of employing people with autism, clear communication, consistent feedback and disciplined operations. We call our leadership framework Disciplined Compassion.

Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on retaining talent today?

There’s a lot of talk about how younger generations are lazy and not as loyal as generations past. I think that’s a misinterpretation of how millennials act. From my view, retaining talent today is about consistently providing growth and helping team members develop their purpose. These are natural human tendencies (to want our work to matter and feel like we are growing) but in the past it was culturally taboo to expect this from an employer. Today, current and potential employees demand these things from their work experience and are liable to leave their jobs if they aren’t getting it. This responsibility ultimately falls on their direct managers as they hold the key to help their team members grow and cultivate purpose in their work. It’s imperative that we equip our managers to be effective coaches and trainers and allow them to develop their team members beyond the functional skills they need to do their job and focus on development them as whole people.

Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)

  1. Care personally and challenge directly — This is stolen from Kim Scott and her wonderful book Radical Candor because it’s simply the best advice I’ve ever received for being a good boss. If you show your employees you care about them by doing anything you can to help them grow, find purpose in their work and you aren’t afraid to be blunt with them when something isn’t working, you will have a high performing team that respects you as a leader.
  2. Be a coach more than a manager — I think many inexperienced managers look at their role as simply making sure their team achieves their objectives. When you follow that line of logic it’s easy to micromanage people, constantly poking at them, treating them more like robots than humans and creating an environment where people don’t feel valued. If you make a slight tweak in your thinking from “make sure your team achieves their objectives” to “enable your team to meet their objectives” you will begin to focus more on helping your team members grow, clearing the path for them to be effective and fostering a culture that is caring and safe. Notice how the goal of achieving objectives didn’t change, just the thought process of how to get there did.
  3. Focus on purpose and character, not just functional skill — While it’s undeniable that technical proficiency is an order qualifier to be effective in any role, in my experience people fail far more often due to disengagement, inability to preserver through challenges and control their emotions in stressful situations than due to not being able to complete a functional skill. Further, helping team members find purpose and meaning in their work boosts’ intrinsic motivation which spurs their engagement in their role and desire to learn new functional skills. To develop your skills in fostering character growth and purpose the work Angela Duckworth at The Character Lab and Aaron Hurst/Arthur Woods at Imperative are doing is incredibly valuable.
  4. Create clear standards and expectations — As humans we all have a desire for certainty. While that’s not always possible, if we as managers focus on creating clarity in what we are expecting from our team we can drastically reduce stress and improve the experience of our team members. Focusing on creating clear standards for work and expectations also has the obvious effect of making it more likely that our team members will do what we need them to do. I am constantly asking myself if what I need my team to do is clear to them and if it’s not, how can I make it clear? Sometimes that means creating processes, workplace visual supports or decision trees and other times it means creating video trainings or objective scoring metrics. This act of constantly driving clarity into the organization can drastically improve the effectiveness of your team.
  5. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re wrong or to take feedback from the people who work for you. According to Google’s Project Aristotle fostering Psychological Safety, the shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking, is the number one dynamic that makes a team effective. In my practice to improve psychological safety on my team I’ve found that the most impactful thing I can do is publically admit when I make a mistake and approach employee suggestions and feedback with curiosity and excitement.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

That all people are talented, it’s up to leaders to unleash that talent. I believe that current views on talent are broken. I hear so many leaders say that they have trouble finding “top talent” to work for them. Yet upon closer inspection its apparent that their prospective on “top talent” means top university degree or coming from a top competitor, but is that really what they need? In my experience of working with hundreds of people with autism and opportunity youth I’ve come to believe that “top talent” should really mean minimum required skill (the least amount knowledge or certification that must be had to do the job) + maximum enthusiasm for the opportunity at hand and willingness to learn. This approach can drastically increase the size of the talent pool a company is recruiting from and allows them to find the right culture fit. When an approach like this is taken and coupled with a management team that is dedicated to empowering their team through training and coaching, the impact on the company and the people who work there is truly inspiring. All people have a basic human desire to realize their potential and believe that their life meant something. We as leaders have the opportunity to help people achieve these most important life goals all while strengthening our company’s performance.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live it’s whole like believing that it is stupid” — Albert Einstein

This quote is relevant to me because it eloquently describes my entire philosophy in building great teams. 80% of our staff is on the autism spectrum, 15% of our staff is opportunity youth and 5% are high school students. We developed these hiring sources and staff ratios by constantly looking for the people who would be most enthusiastic about the roles we needed to fill. Once we found the people who wanted these roles we went to work designing work systems and training systems that would allow them to be effective. From a business prospective, this practice has created a great organizational culture, a consistent talent pool to draw from and a brand that stands for something customers love. From a personal prospective, this practice makes all the struggles and challenges of building a business worth it. If it weren’t for the impact I have the privilege of contributing to in our business I would’ve quit a hundred times over.

Originally published at medium.com

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