Managing the Financial Side of Commercial Fleets

Say 'No' to Senior Management without Getting Fired

When it comes to cars and trucks, everyone believes they’re experts, especially senior managers. Saying “no” to a senior ­executive’s "brilliant" idea is a challenge. Preparation, information, and solid communication skills can help.

January 2009, by Staff

Cars and trucks are personal things — an extension of personality, a hobby, a place where (other than home and work) people spend more time than anywhere else. Since the dawn of the fleet profession, fleet managers have had to deal with "experts" in the company — those who feel that because they are "into" cars, they know how to run a fleet better.

It isn't too difficult to handle when the "expert" is a sales rep, buyer, or an operations manager. It's when the enthusiastic advice comes from the executive suite that it becomes far more challenging. Here are some tips on how to handle these situations without incurring the wrath of a senior  executive.


'Sell Cars to Junkyards'

The following is a true story. A fleet manager for a Fortune 500 company and a 1,300-unit fleet recieved a call one Monday morning from his boss, the senior VP of finance and CFO. The executive shared that over the weekend, he watched a television news segment in which the reporter explained the replacement value of the sum total of all of the individual parts that make up a typical automobile cost several times what the car sold for when new.

The executive asked if the company, rather than selling vehicles via auctions and wholesalers, or to employees, should sell them to junkyards instead. His logic told him if the parts in the vehicle held such cumulative value, surely junkyards would be anxious to pay top dollar for good used vehicles, since they could then sell the parts off the car for such huge profits.

The CFO was absolutely serious and wanted answers to a question that, coming from just about anyone else, would be laughable. Of course, the fleet manager (not having a career death wish) knew he had to give the CFO the impression that his question was a good one, while explaining why the idea wasn't.

This anecdote is a textbook example of the circumstances in which fleet managers often find themselves, and if not handled carefully, can put a serious dent in a fleet manager's career plans.

Not all requests from senior executives are quite as bizarre. Often, they are simply asking why the company shouldn't use smaller cars, smaller engines, or replace the fleet altogether and reimburse drivers. Whatever the idea, if the fleet manager is well prepared and careful about how the disagreement is presented, saying "no" to executives can actually be a boon.


Prepare for the Inevitable

The anecdote just cited, though true, isn't representative of the usual challenges executives present fleet managers. Most of the time, the questions and ideas are grounded not in some idle thought derived from a television show, but serious concern about the company's finances. One of the most common questions takes some form of "Why aren't we using more fuel-efficient cars?" or "Isn't it cheaper for the company to reimburse drivers?"

Fleet managers can prepare to answer this type of question simply in the normal course of doing the job. Knowing what the company's costs are and preparing a thorough analysis of alternatives is the best starting point.

For example, when selecting vehicles for the coming model-year, the fleet manager should be asking that very question — would a smaller car or smaller engine do the job as well as what is used currently? Analyzing the numbers — projected capitalized cost, resale, variable costs — is part of the job in the first place. Once the decision is made, the process of fleet analysis will provide the foundation for the response. The numbers will speak for themselves.

That, however, is only the first step in saying "no" to a senior manager. The next, and possibly more important, step is in communicating the disagreement in a way that, no matter how off the wall the question or idea may be, the fleet manager demonstrates it was taken seriously.

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