How to Avoid Stagnating as a Fleet Manager
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It isn’t difficult to get into a rut at work. The excitement of a new job, a new opportunity, will often fade over time, as what we do becomes rote.
Fleet managers can fall into that trap just like any other business manager; if they’ve done a good job from the beginning, even more so and more quickly. Any job can become repetitive, even boring, if processes and procedures have been implemented well.
Much of what fleet managers do, on a day-to-day basis, is “put out fires.” Vehicles break down, registrations expire, orders get cancelled, and drivers have accidents. Other than that, it’s a weekly and monthly routine of staff meetings (if the fleet manager is fortunate enough to have staff), going over reports with management, the occasional repair authorization, rinse and repeat.
However, here are ways fleet managers can keep the job and their careers more satisfying and fresh.
A talented and experienced fleet manager, when first on the job, will have plenty of interesting and challenging things to do. Review existing policy, confirm the replacement policy and vehicle selection, research cost reports to look for savings. But there is a law of diminishing returns; the more these early days accomplish, the sooner the later days become the same, week after week, and eventually, the fleet manager becomes a victim of his or her own success in setting up a smooth running department. Stagnation sets in.
What to do then? A good start is to pick a project to work on. For example, how would turning the fleet annually impact total cost of ownership? Or the reverse, what would TCO look like if the replacement cycle were extended by a full year, or two, or out past some mileage milestone (past 100,000 miles for a car, 200,000 for a light-duty truck)?
Planning the project would include pinpointing data sources, developing a means to collect the data, how to track it, what form to present it in to management. Choose a team within the department, or the company, to help. Set a schedule and timetable for the project, and be ready to present the results to management. Do this every year; set out a list of subjects to be researched and analyzed.
Using projects to keep stagnation at bay will also likely be appreciated by the aforementioned management, from direct supervisors up to the senior level.
It is commonly believed in the fleet industry that fleet management encompasses as broad a base of skills, knowledge, and experience as any department head in the company. Personnel skills, communication skills, financial, mechanical and operational skills are all essential. You name it, fleet managers have it.
That said, most fleet managers have a core competency in one or two of these areas. Perhaps the fleet manager came from purchasing or strategic sourcing. Or maybe they have a background in finance or accounting. If hired from externally, some prospective fleet managers may have an automotive background. Whatever that core base of knowledge and experience is, these other areas are ripe for continued learning.
Go back to school; learn accounting, or finance, if that’s an area that the fleet manager lacks experience. Night courses are available, and today online courses are ubiquitous. Learning financial disciplines better can help the fleet manager to become more involved in such decisions, including leasing versus ownership, or funding.
What about a mechanical background? Fewer fleet managers today have the kind of technical background that was far more common back when the profession was in its infancy. Your OEM representatives can help steer you in the direction to better understand their make’s particular technology and suggest training as well. You don’t necessarily need to be able to turn a wrench, but knowing and understanding the basic vehicle systems, such as fuel, brakes, suspension, drivetrain, can help not only in a more thorough understanding of the subject, but even help in managing maintenance and repairs. You might even find yourself handling some basic work on your own vehicles.
Increasing what may be very basic knowledge and understanding of the skills needed to be a successful fleet manager can go a long way toward keeping the job fresh and challenging.
How much do you really know about your company? Other departments, products and services, or even the people at all levels of the organizational chart who keep it going?
Fleet managers know the company, for the most part, as it pertains to the interaction between the company and the fleet. What drivers need to, what they carry, mileage/territories, and at a basic level how they interact with the company’s customers (i.e., how they bring products and services to market, how they service them). But what about the bigger picture? If the company is publicly held, how has the stock done, recently and historically? Does the fleet manager own any? Has he or she read the annual report? Really read it, including all the financial statements and the notes therein? What about, if the company manufactures products, ever toured a plant or assembly facility?
These are some of the more important things fleet managers should know about the company for which they work, and getting that knowledge can not only help them do their job better, but keep it interesting. Relating the fleet to the balance sheet, or to the distribution process the company uses to get products to the customers can only help.
Take a plant tour; modern manufacturing, even just assembly, is a fascinating process to see up close. Note how very seriously plant management takes worker safety. It permeates everything they do, a good lesson on bringing the same focus to safe driving.
Try to schedule a meeting with all of the company’s senior management team: C-level executive management, senior field management. Learn about what they do, and what they know about what you do.
Schedule regular “ride alongs” with drivers and their managers out in the field. There is no better way to assess how well you’ve chosen vehicles and equipment for the job than to see it in person.
Drivers will usually be fairly direct in their own assessment of the vehicles they drive. Pay attention. Take notes. You may think you’ve covered all the bases when choosing vehicles, and how to spec them, but hearing the men and women who spend most of their days driving them tell you whether or not you’ve done a good job is invaluable. Don’t dismiss criticisms; if they’re legitimate, do something about it, if not, explain why you can’t or won’t.
It is not unusual, at the level which faces the customer, for a company to ask for feedback, for customers to assess their experience and the products and services they have purchased. Do the same for your customers: the drivers and their managers. Solicit feedback as to their experience dealing with the fleet department, and any contacts they’ve had with your suppliers. Keep statistics, and track what you’re doing well, and where you can improve. Producing savings, and keeping vehicles running smoothly and efficiently is only part of the job; providing good customer service to drivers and anyone else that interacts with the fleet department is just as important. You can bank that the above service activity and tracking will keep the job from becoming stale and repetitive.
Nearly every fleet manager has stories of fellow employees coming to them for advice and counsel as it relates to their personal vehicles, and those of family members. No matter that the fleet manager may not necessarily be a “car person,” they’re viewed as such.
This phenomenon can be used to help keep the job fresh, interesting, and to help fellow employees as well. Offer to conduct a series of presentations: such as how to buy a car, how dealers work, basic vehicle systems and what they do, safe driving, what your car costs you, etc. You’ll be surprised at how your colleagues at work will be eager to learn more about the cars, trucks, and SUVs they drive. You can show off a bit, have some fun (particularly with any Q&A at the end of the presentation; you’ll get some laughs and surprises there), and have something other than the daily grind to look forward to.
Much has been written over the years about fleet managers taking on additional responsibilities, related to the fleet management job. These can include handling:
- Rental car programs
- Air travel
- Employee relocation
- Meeting planning
In other words, understanding the movement of people and things, along with the logistics such movement requires.
The idea of becoming a manager of all employee transportation isn’t new, and it has always been a way that fleet managers can build a career beyond the management of a fleet of vehicles. But most companies don’t look at it that way. Most tend to pigeonhole fleet managers as just that: fleet managers, without considering the wide range of skills and experience fleet managers must have in order to be effective.
Be bold; approach a supervisor, or senior management, with a carefully constructed plan for combining all aspects of employee transportation into a “people/goods moving” position, with the current fleet manager heading it up. Do this, and schedule time with the appropriate decision makers to present it. Make the case that those key fleet management skills: communication, negotiation, asset and budget management, and other abilities that translate well to the new, proposed position. True enough, such a transition would be a big step, and at first glance it may not be taken seriously. Stick with it; note any objections and prepare a response, all the while being careful to be formal and direct. In other words, create your own career path beyond heading up a company department that is limited to managing vehicles.
There is a great deal going on in the transportation industry, with innovation not only in technology (at a dizzying pace) but in the creation of a number of ways to move people from one place to another.
There are ride-sharing programs such as Lyft and Uber, where individuals essentially sell rides to other individuals. OEMs are investing in autonomous vehicles. There are a number of options in alternative fuels, from electricity to propane to liquid natural gas, as well as hybrids which incorporate them with traditional internal combustion engines.
You want to avoid inertia and keep what you do fresh and challenging? Keep an eye on the future; know what technologies, products and services are in the pipeline, learn as much as possible about all of them, and analyze how they might be applicable to fleet management, or an overall transportation solution.
Would a ridesharing service be a better alternative to reimbursement for occasional business travel? What are the pros and cons of alternative fuels? Will autonomous vehicles actually be a real option? These and other questions require research and careful analysis relative to the traditional provision of company vehicles to employees who travel extensively.
Change isn’t bad, it’s just different, a wise man once said. Much change comes at fleet managers from outside, and must be well managed to keep the fleet running smoothly. Maybe new senior management is considering a change from the provision of company vehicles to reimbursement. Have your analysis ready to show why, in most cases, this is not a cost efficient option.
Better yet, be an agent of change yourself. Develop and present new ideas on a regular basis. Maybe downsizing the fleet, using smaller more fuel-efficient vehicles (provided, of course, that they can do the job). Perhaps incorporate several new aspects to employee transportation, including (the dreaded) reimbursement, long-RFQ, term rentals, and ride-share services. Change the way vehicle assignment is determined, or other fleet policies The worst thing that can happen to a fleet manager, particularly one who has become complacent and stagnant in the job, is to have management “suggest” changes that he or she is not prepared to address.
Veteran fleet managers know that much of their time is spent on “putting out fires” as it were. Drivers call and say their registrations have expired. An executive wants to know why her new company car hasn’t arrived. The blue van you ordered to be delivered to a driver in Pittsburgh turns up as a white one in St. Petersburg. How is it possible for a fleet manager, faced every day with such administrative problems, to do any of the aforementioned things that can help the job remain fresh?
By creating time. By doing what is necessary to ensure these problems are addressed, but not necessarily by the fleet manager. First on the list, for fleet managers who are fortunate enough to have staff, is to delegate as much as possible. Train staff to handle these types of daily challenges. Where to go to get a registration renewed quickly. Contact the OEM or lessor to find out where the executive’s vehicle is, and what if anything can be done to accelerate delivery. Who to call to help drivers whose vehicle may have broken down. Delegating responsibility to staff not only will help keep the fleet manager available for promotion, but will create time needed to initiate new projects, expand skills, and create change.
Lacking staff, look outside to fleet suppliers who can often offer services to handle precisely the kinds of day-to-day issues that arise, and can dominate the fleet manager’s time. Whatever the means, freeing up time will allow a fleet manager to engage in the kinds of activities that can go a long way to keeping what has become a stagnant, dull job challenging and inspire the fleet manager and those around him or her with new ideas, new challenges, and ultimately a more satisfying career.