Emerging Leaders with John Michael Fery

Reading Time: 15 Minutes

In this episode, John Michael Fery shares many leadership tips from his two companies, insights from when he was younger, and an interesting perspective of the quote “feed your faith and starve your fear.”

Takeaways We Learned from John Michael…

Inspiring Takeaways from the Interview:

Ignite Ambition Early

Commencing an entrepreneurial journey at a young age, our guest exemplifies the potential of embracing responsibility early on. The takeaway: Age should not be a barrier; instead, take on responsibilities and pursue dreams with vigor.

Embrace Challenges, Lead with Humility

Facing the challenge of leading older employees with limited experience, our guest’s humility and learning from setbacks underscore the value of embracing challenges as opportunities for personal and professional growth.

Leadership Beyond Hard Work

Initially relying on hard work to compensate for a lack of leadership skills, our guest highlights the importance of skills like training, accountability, and inspiration. Leaders must evolve beyond mere hard work to make a lasting impact.

Define Your Company’s Purpose

Transforming perceptions by defining a clear purpose beyond the business’s primary function, our guest encourages leaders to establish a compelling “why” that transcends immediate goals, fostering a sense of purpose among team members.

Continuous Leadership Evolution

As the business expands, leadership must evolve. Successful leaders recognize the need to refine their approach based on the changing organizational landscape and the diverse needs of their team.

Values Drive Excellence

Aligning leadership with company values elevates it to a higher level. The key is actively incorporating values into hiring, firing, training, and rewarding processes, fostering a workplace where values drive success.

Leaders Facilitate, Don’t Control

Distinguishing between managers and leaders, our guest emphasizes that true leaders facilitate their team’s accountability and growth. Micromanaging every detail can hinder leadership development. Leaders should set clear expectations, empower their teams, and trust them to take responsibility.

About John Michael Fery

At the age of 16, the President and Founder of Bluebird Express Car Wash, John Michael Fery, started a mobile detailing company in the north end of Boise with the desire to have a flexible summer job. A passion was born after a busy first summer, and help was needed. John Michael hired his younger brother, Dominick Fery, to work with him the next summer.

Summer after summer, the client list grew, and more and more employees were hired.  When John Michael went to college at the University of Denver, Dominick ran the expanded crew and managed the growing list of jobs. Even as teenagers, they were the perfect complement of skills and personalities. 

Following graduation, John Michael opened and continues to operate one of the nation’s largest car washes near Denver, CO.  After developing a deep passion for the express car wash business, the Bluebird brand was born, and John Michael returned to Idaho to open the Bluebird locations. 

Fast forward to 2020, when, after graduating from the University of Idaho and working for CM Company, Dominick rejoined his brother at Bluebird Express as the Operations Manager, then Vice President of Operations, and later COO.  With a shared passion for excellence, hard work, and challenging expectations, together they opened a sixth Bluebird location in Caldwell and are excited to bring locations to Nampa, Emmett, and other cities in the Pacific Northwest.

Read the Transcript

Anna: Hi, John Michael, welcome to the Deliberate Leaders podcast.

John: Thanks for having me.

Anna: First question, I heard a little bit about your past. You started entrepreneur spirit at 16. How did you manage? Having all the dreams in the world but only having 16 years of life experience?

John: Yeah, I think, certainly at that time, I think that people were just impressed that I was a 16 year old who wanted to do something on my own right. So the bar was pretty low. Just the fact that I was being a responsible teenager, I think just impressed some people regardless of how good you know, the quality of our detailing or the prices or anything of that sort, you know, but certainly as I got older, and then, you know, started my first carwash, when I was, you know, it’s open when I was 25. That’s certainly the kind of paradigm shifted a little bit because I’m a 25 year old, who is leading, in some cases, people twice my age, and I had no experience, I had no idea what I was doing. So certainly, there was some, some challenges I had to face there.

And, quite interestingly, a lot of the lessons, some of the most impactful lessons that I learned as a leader were certainly during that time.

I compensated for my lack of leadership ability by hard work, like I came into when I opened my first wash, honestly, a little too cocky.

You know, as I was, in high school, I was junior class president and senior class or the student body president, my fraternity, I was president a couple times and held leadership positions. I was president of cycling club started my own business when I was 16. You know, I’ve been a manager and a leader, all of high school and college. And so I kind of thought I had things figured out. Little did I know, I did not, and I knew nothing. And despite having a fancy degree, they never teach you anything on how to be a leader. Which is comical. But I’m already digressing. You’re going to have to keep me accountable there.

Okay, the point I was trying to make was, you know, when I first opened the first wash, I knew I could work hard. So when I opened my first one, I had no idea how to train hold people accountable, or lead. So when we opened, I worked 20 days straight.

My shortest day was 12 hours, I was doing 120 hour weeks. And in really, for the first several years, I was doing 80 plus hour weeks. And yes, I like really enjoyed the success that came from that. But more often than not those long hours, were really just a symptom of my inability to lead and to manage and to hold accountable. So it’s certainly the journey I started on as much different than it is now thankfully.

Anna: Yes, before we jump into, like, now, future growth, what you’re looking forward to. I’m curious in that time, where you didn’t know how to be a leader, but you had to lead other people. Like, what was what was their response to you?

John: Oh, I certainly got, you know, I can I can remember a handful of times, it seemed like you’re just a little kid, you don’t know what you’re doing. When I was trying to coach somebody, or doing my best to try and lead them. But really, those things were so few and far between.

Pretty early on, I developed our why as a company. And that was pretty monumental. For my ability to get people excited and engaged with what we were trying to do when we’re working at a carwash, right.

So it’s not like people come to us thinking that we’re going to change the world. But my hope as a leader was that I could help them understand that we weren’t just a carwash. We are a professional organization focused on people’s growth. And we want to provide an exceptional service and experience for our guests, unlike any other wash out there. And changing it to that and helping people understand it from that perspective, totally changed the game, and people stopped looking at me like a 25 year old who didn’t know what they’re doing.

Anna: Yes. Okay. So all the past what? What is the next opportunity for growth?

John: Oh, personally, or professionally or both?

Anna: Whatever is more prevalent at this current moment?

John: That’s fair, I think one of the biggest things we’re focused on is so now, you know, you’ve heard about the young John Michael, you know, now I’m, you know, 32 and, you know, to businesses, over 100 employees and soon to be eight locations.

You know, I’ve totally had to transform my leadership style every single year since we’ve opened and figuring out work life balance and all those things. I have a long road ahead of me to becoming an exceptional leader.

But I think our greatest area of opportunity, my greatest area of opportunity for growth is trying to refine, being able to reinvent my leadership style to better accommodate the environment. I mean, I’m in, you know, we went from 45 employees last December to now over 109 months, 10 months, you know, now have some pretty incredibly sophisticated people that are around us to help manage that. And now I’m having to change my leadership style to help them be successful and inspired. So that’s definitely at the forefront of my mind every day is how can I show up best for them?

Anna: As a leader facing these problems, what are two to three attributes that you assigned to them?

John: To be a leader. I was trying to think of this in the context of like our company, and what we push now because this is inherently kind of like an embodiment of my personal beliefs. And for us, we’ve, we really have tried to model ourselves after our values.

And we found that when we really focus on value alignment, we start to see much greater success, much better engagement. And people genuinely enjoy what they’re doing. And the people around them so much more.

So for bluebird that’s pursue excellence, serve with humility, be accountable and deliver smiles. So that was step one is if you know, I think if a leader can hit those things, they’re a great shape. But I think the next level of that is once you can create either a system a structure or an environment where you hire, fire, train and reward using those values. And as a leader, you stick to that, whether or not that’s company policy or not, I think that’s when you really start to become a really true leader. Yeah, that’s, that’s how I feel about that.

Anna: When you can like live out the values, is that what you’re meaning?

John: I’m sorry. Yet, when you can identify your values, there’s a whole other thing, which I highly recommend people spending the time to do personally and professionally. But if you can identify and state and be vocal about, Hey, these are the values, I will hire, fire, train and reward by then that’s when I think you can live up to being called a leader.

Anna: Gotcha. When did you put that into place?

John: We have had company values for probably five, six years. But really, it’s taken us a long time to implement to get to a point where we’re now I would say almost totally living up to that higher fire training and rewarding based off of those values. That was a big shift for us. And it’s totally changed how we would normally operate. And I’m so happy we’ve really committed to that, because it’s made quite a big difference.

Anna: It sounds like for the best. Yes. Um, so without just saying the opposite. What are two to three attributes that you assign to a bad leader?

John: You know, it sounds kind of silly. But I would say people who don’t want to lead. Now, what does that really mean? To me, people who don’t want to lead are people who want to control every facet of every project and decision. They want to remove all of the roadblocks for their team members are those that they manage, even ones that should be easily handled by their team. Those are two big pieces that don’t talk about some of the things I’d love to get into. But those two things are peep describe people who are and probably are incredible managers and incredible producers. Right. And that doesn’t mean they’re bad at their job because they do those two things.

It’s just to me that’s not someone who wants to be a leader. A leader is someone who’s held Think facilitate their team’s accountability and helping them be better at their job and only removing roadblocks that they cannot tackle. And also, helping them understand we call it a bluebird is, is you’re going to tell them what to do, but not how to do it. Really great leaders, I think can tell people what to do, but not how to do it and still achieve success. But if you want to micromanage that whole process, you’re not doing that. Now, the worst leaders of all is when people’s emotions spill out everywhere, and whenever things get stressful. And I will say all this all the things I just described was me as a 25 year old and 26 year old and sometimes 27 year old leader and sometimes today so those are the things I try not to do.

Anna: Okay, this is equally cool, because and I’m like, I’m like in the zone listening to you, and then have my next response. And then that’s okay. What’s up? Okay. So in, like, the difference between a manager and a leader? Is the like, being willing to ask the what, and not the how. And since you have a personal relationship with this, there is the piece of vulnerability that you have to be comfortable with, to like, not micromanage. Do you have something to say to that?

John: Yeah. So I says one of the things I developed pretty early on was a leadership development course. And quite frankly, while I did it, to teach others and to help other people and members of our team become more successful in their role. It was a frankly, the genesis of it was all of my shortcomings that I worked to learn on.

And one of the things that we talked about is how not to micromanage and the keys to success there is you have to be able to feel, I love how you put the vulnerability you have to feel comfortable with a couple of things that are kind of really tough, so you got to tell them what to do, but not how to do it.

When they ask you questions. You have to work really hard to focus their thought process and their questions back to the process and not the details. Okay, you can’t dive into the details of things. Like how do you take this, you know, what is the exact measurement? What are the calculations versus Hey, think about this process. So, what are you trying to accomplish? What’s the big picture? What are you trying to get to right?

And then you have to set really clear goals for them and expectations. And I think one of the biggest things that’s missed is people don’t say, I expect that you will take accountability for this process. And once you do that, you shift the conversation and shift the task to now this person owns this thing. And it’s their job to take it to completion. We often say as leaders or managers will say, hey, I need you to do this. And the expectation is that to do it, right, we all kind of expect that. But so often, we miss that one critical point of saying, Hey, I expect you to take responsibility for this. So if you can get past that, that’s a tough and a weird conversation to have. And then the next thing is, is you have to be getting out of their way, the second, that they start making good progress towards where you think they need to go. So you can’t stay there and micromanager, you can’t be a part of the process, you have to say, hey, looks like you have this covered.

Even if this isn’t an email, or a text or call, it looks like you’ve got this covered. I expect you take responsibility of this. If anything goes wrong, come get me or if you have any questions we can work through together. And then you have to follow up and praise. Not that they got the job done. But the second that they take accountability for the process. So if you can do that, then what you’ve taught that person is that, hey, I care that you are taking responsibility, accountability for this task. And we together have worked so that I’m not micromanaging you, you’re going to be happier, I’m going to be happier. And I’ve just helped you become a better human person, employee, what have you and hopefully can achieve greater success in your career now?

Anna: Yeah, maybe you should just make that question like the entire podcast because we could go on and on and on about okay, if you do that, then then it means this. And oh, yeah. We’ll have to have a separate conversation. But so Malcolm Gladwell, author of outliers, believes it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert on something, are you working on the mastery of anything?

John: You know, I joke before we started that I have such terrible add that I can’t sit still long enough to get 10,000 hours of anything. Now, that said, I think when I was kind of reflecting on the areas I spent the most time and invested the most time consistently, it would be that smart personal goal setting has been something I’ve been doing since 2015, or 2013, actually. So I have this little notebook. It’s very beautiful. It’s leather bound has gold edges. And I’ve made personal professional financial, and now family goals every year, since 2013. And I have, I guess, I’m a nerd, huge nerd when it comes to this area of my life. And I nowhere near mastery, but I love the art of creating personal goals and envisioning a future for a whole year. And trying to hold myself accountable to that. I think the other thing is just trying to be an inspiring leader.

To given that 10,000 hours is not that much over a whole year, I should be an expert at that I feel like but I think given how slow I am learning, it’s probably going to take me double that to get anywhere close. But I certainly have been kind of borderline obsessed with the idea of becoming an inspirational leader, since I really failed my first year of being a leader when I opened up my first wash. So I just love I love love love talking about how to be a better leader, how to coach others and helping other people become their best self, which is actually my why. My why is to use tools and resources to help people become better versions of themselves. So anytime I’m in that realm, I’m happy. Have I mastered it? No. Right?

John: 10,000 hours is only five years. So you think about the combination 16 to now 25 Really being the pivotal, maybe you are pretty close to mastery, and maybe I’m getting closer than I think but I think if I admit it, then it won’t live up to our value of humility. So I’ll just say stay away, say the edge, you know, yeah.

Anna: Which is more valuable to you when thinking about mastery 10,000 hours or having several years of experience under your belt.

John: You know, I think and maybe it’s just a contrarian in me, I would say, you know, really neither. Okay, because I think that I think the most valuable thinking for mastery is just the thought of continuous and constant improvement. Not that there is ever a finite thing you meet. So maybe I can be contrary to myself again and say that that just means experience on your belt. But I think as long as you’re really full guest on. And for us at bluebird that’s aligns our value of excellence, which is we defined as 1% better than yesterday. I think as long as you’re working for that constant and continuous improvement, then I think inevitably, that theory of mastery will become more relevant.

Anna: When you hear this quote by John Maxwell, what does it evoke inside of you feed your faith and starve your fear.

John: I would say that my answer to this a week ago had been different than this week. So I love food. And so I love the idea of feeding parts of my life that bring me joy and perpetuate joy. However, I heard this really interesting story. And it was about I love to hunt. And I’ve been training, hunting labs. Since my first lab, when I was in eighth grade, I heard the story about this guy who got this highly trained dog, he worked really hard. Got it with an amazing trainer, and is ready to take on us firsthand. And he had seen this dog work in the field with the other trainer, it was perfect for birds, and just was amazing everything he could have hoped for. He went on his first time with it, and they get out of the truck, and the dog goes and climbs underneath the trailer and lays down and wouldn’t come out. And so the guys obviously just spent all this money, and he’s super sad. And so he calls the trainer and said, you know, we got out of the truck, the dog just went laid under this trailer and didn’t want to hunt. What happened in the trailer, the trainer said, Did you feed the dog before you hunt it? And the guy says, Well, yeah, I wanted him to have a full belly.

So he was had plenty of energy to hunt. He says you never feed a hunting dog before they hunt, you need them to be hungry. You want them to be hungry for that. The birds and to really be agitated and want more. So that totally changed my perspective on a concept like this. Because I’ve always felt that you have to, you know, feed the things that make you happy and make you want to pursue and not be scared. But I kind of think that if you given that context, that story, if you starve your fear, it will always nag at you. So I think the only way to feed your fear is to is to not feed your fear, excuse me, is to ensure that you, you explore it, you understand it, you rationalize it. So in some sense, you feel it, but you bring it to light. I think I know for me when I bring my fears to light, then they don’t really scare me anymore. So previously, I would have answered this to say hey, focus on the things that make you happy focus on the things that make you better. But now I’ll say that I really do think you have to focus on the things that you’re afraid of bring them to light, air them out, feed them, so they go away. And then you can go back to focusing on the things that make you happy make you better.

Anna: That’s a great perspective. Thank you for sharing. James clear author of atomic habits teaches us that the most effective way to change your habits is to focus on not what you want to achieve, but who you want to come become. My question is, my question to you is, who do you want to become?

John: This is going to sound sterile, but I really want to like, optimize who I am. Right now. I really do love the person I am now. But I do think that there’s a really great opportunity for me to chase that 1% Better, whether it’s how I show up as a father, a husband, a brother, a friend, a community member, a leader. So I don’t have this, like deep sense of desire to achieve this certain thing, which is so my personality, I’m a forward thinker, I want to like achieve this one thing, right. But in terms of this is who I want to become, I really want to focus on maintaining my values, living my values as I achieved my various goals. And I hope to continue to find happiness. With an undoubtably rapid changing set of variables, aka in my life.

Anna: I’m going to challenge how you preface that you said this may seem sterile, but this is what I believe. What about that? Like? So you said this really inspiring thing of like, I’m going to get 1% better, but then you prefaced it with sterile? How does that shake out?

John: That’s a great question. You know, I think when I use the word optimize, like the word optimized in its essence, I feel just seems like very sterile and unemotional. When you ask this, like, beautiful question of like, Who do you want to become? You know, so I think outside of that word, I don’t think anything I said was sterile. So that’s fair.

Anna: Yes, it’s, it’s what’s giving you your why and it’s what’s driving you and I think that’s, that’s beautiful.

John: Thank you. I appreciate that. And I appreciate that accountability.

Anna: Thank you John Michael for this conversation in for joining on this podcast that is the end for me.

John: Great well thank you for having me.

I'm Allison Dunn,

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