Managing the Financial Side of Commercial Fleets

Senior Management: Getting Fleet Managers to Excel

September 2013, by Staff

Former NFL coach Bill Parcells was known for tossing compliments around like manhole covers. "Should I congratulate a guy for just doing his job?" Parcells would ask.

Parcells had a point. One of the challenges of managing people is establishing expectations, and deciding what is excellence and what is simply doing the job; when to provide encouragement and when not to. Good managers learn and understand what motivates their subordinates to excel, and how to provide that motivation.

The relationship between senior managers and fleet managers can run the gamut from incessant meddling to hands off to everything in between. Finding the right middle ground can go a long way toward getting fleet managers to excel.

Senior management needs to understand the difference between fleet management excellence and "just doing the job" for the fleet and fleet manager to operate at their very best.
Senior management needs to understand the difference between fleet management excellence and "just doing the job" for the fleet and fleet manager to operate at their very best.

Know and Understand the Job

For years, articles, presentations, and speeches have been telling fleet managers how they can demonstrate to management what they do, how important it is to the company, and how well they do it. One of the most common complaints fleet managers have is the company (read: management) doesn’t appreciate what they do.

Is it the sole responsibility of the fleet manager to make certain management recognizes their worth? One can make the case that no, it is not. It is true that fleet managers need to do what they can to make sure this is the case, but one of the trademarks of a successful executive is that he or she has at least a basic understanding of what their subordinates do, can recognize what is "just doing the job," and what is excellent performance, and communicates both to the fleet manager. This can be put succinctly in the old adage, "I don’t need to know how to play the instruments; I just need to know how to lead the band."

Thus, the first step executives and senior management can make is to take the time to learn the basics of what fleet managers do, and how they do it. Those basics would include:

  • Why company vehicles?
  • Lease or own?
  • Managing operations.
  • Resale.
  • Goals.

There are, of course, myriad other things fleet managers do; however, remember that an executive may have several departments competing for attention, so it’s important to keep things compact and simple.  
The better handle an executive has on fleet management, the more he or she will be able to help the fleet manager excel.

Recruiting the Right Candidates

The very first step in bringing excellence to the fleet manager begins in the recruiting and hiring process. Fleet managers are hired either as a replacement for an existing position or for a newly created job function. The background, experience, and skills required for the two scenarios can be somewhat different.

If the fleet manager is coming into the job as a replacement, direct fleet management experience is less important than overall management experience. Candidates can come from a number of disciplines, including purchasing/procurement, accounting, and administration.

If the candidate is being hired to fill a newly created position, and/or the department has not had professional fleet management in the past, a background in fleet management is a must, with other experience a plus.

The point is that motivating fleet managers to excel will differ in what form the motivation will take depending upon the circumstances of the hire.

Forms of Motivation

Motivations are as different as individuals. Some people are motivated by fear, others by recognition, some by money, and still others combinations of all of the above and more. Finding the right form of motivation is a key component in getting fleet managers to excel.

While motivating by fear — fear of losing one's job, fear of unflattering attention, fear of embarrassment — may seem like it works, it really only motivates a worker to do just enough to avoid any negative outcomes, and not, necessarily, to excel. Positive motivation, which compels a manager to seek reward, is far more effective in getting an employee to go beyond "just doing enough."

That said, what kind of motivation can an executive provide a fleet manager? In what ways does fleet management lend itself to measurable goals that — if they are exceeded — result in excellence?

Finally, how does the executive recognize the difference between "just doing the job" and true excellence? The correct answer to this question will benefit the company substantially.

What Is 'the Job'?

What, exactly, is "the job" of a fleet manager? From a macro perspective, it is fairly general. The job of the fleet manager is to provide the safest, most cost efficient vehicles, which are capable of performing the mission.

In the micro sense, this includes:

  • Tracking and managing (reducing/controlling) operating costs.
  • Supervising supplier relationships.
  • Developing vehicle choices and specifications.
  • Mitigating risk/encouraging safety.
  • Maximizing fuel efficiency.
  • Managing resale.

There is more, but, without getting too far into the weeds, that is the gist of it. An executive doesn’t need to know exactly how a fleet manager accomplishes goals to develop a strategy to push him or her to excellent performance.

The first step is to consider where fleet falls in the overall corporate structure. Employees strive to excel with the primary purpose of furthering their career. If, for example, fleet is within a financial discipline in the company (accounting, finance, treasury), then increasing knowledge and understanding of corporate financial matters is necessary. If it is within purchasing/procurement, the same holds true.

Thus, the executive who is looking for excellence from a fleet manager should not only encourage but require expanding knowledge, training, and understanding of disciplines beyond those strictly related to fleet.

This does not mean that skills directly related to fleet management are to be ignored. Executives aren’t simply looking to help a fleet manager move beyond fleet, but to encourage excellence in the current job, which will benefit both the manager as well as the company. All in all, employees strive for excellence when they know that performance will provide benefits.

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