Nearly every fleet manager can tell a similar story. The new selector is published and an executive e-mails to denounce the choices and demand an exception. An executive with a company car demands that the fleet manager personally drive the car to get the oil changed. After notifying a driver of the consequences of a third moving violation, the fleet manager gets an angry call from the VP of sales, demanding (not asking) the punishment be rescinded and threatening to notify the CEO.

It may be rare, but an unfortunate fact of business life is that some executives like to throw their weight around and bully subordinates. It is the fleet manager’s lot that he or she comes in contact with executives from most disciplines in the company and may have to deal with oversized executive egos more often than most; few things are more frustrating.

The question of how to deal with sticky situations such as these has no easy answer. Yes, having a good relationship at the very top of the organization helps, but what department head wants to be seen as "hiding behind the CEO’s skirt?" It is a better manifestation of any manager’s mettle if the situation can be defused and handled without looking for help from top management, or better yet, avoided in the first place. The following ideas may help a fleet manager avoid getting caught between the executive rock and the CEO hard place.


Avoid the Circumstances

What circumstances can lead to a confrontation with an executive? There are any number of them. The first step is to avoid confrontations by recognizing and understanding what might set an executive off.

Vehicles tend to be a very personal thing with most people. We depend on them, curse them when they don’t work properly, and use them as an extension of our personalities. An old adage in the fleet business holds that "everyone’s an expert" on the best vehicle makes and models and what they’re worth when resold. Add this "expertise" to an executive’s authority, stir in an inflated sense of self, and you have a potentially volatile brew.

While it may conflict with a fleet manager’s own ego, the best way to handle problem executives is to avoid them whenever possible. If that’s not an option, avoid situations where conflict may arise. If the executive drives a company car, you’ll have to deal with him or her sooner or later regarding:

■ Selector development.

■ Maintenance, repair, or road service, particularly pertaining to the executive’s own company car.

■ Fleet policy, particularly for MVRs, accidents, and personal use.

What situations do the combination of these circumstances and difficult executives give rise to? There are several, and most fleet managers will shake their heads knowingly upon hearing them.


Setting the Table

It is a simple thing to advise a fleet manager to avoid confrontations with difficult employees, including executives. It is another matter to actually accomplish it. After all, ducking into the restroom when a bullying executive gets off the elevator is only a stopgap measure.

The goal is to handle situations as they arise without looking weak by running for protection to higher-ups in the organization. It may seem odd, but developing strong relationships as high in the management food chain as possible is an important part of the process.

Senior management keeps a delicate balance between a packed schedule and the need or desire to know what’s going on. It’s an old fleet management saw, but keeping top executives informed is a career builder. Communication must be short, informative, and consistent. A single-page memo or e-mail on a regular basis should contain information that, at a glance, makes senior management comfortable that their fleet manager is doing the job. This information includes:

■ Performance. How the fleet function stands versus budget or forecast.

■ Changes in policy or operations.

■ Status of ongoing projects or plans.

■ Cost control/savings. For example, if fuel prices have increased 10 percent, clearly point out how the company has kept fuel cost increases below that number.

In communications to senior management, minimize text and keep numbers simple. Use charts and graphs to show trends. (Senior managers are more interested in trends than the numbers themselves.) After receiving these communications regularly, senior execs will become aware the fleet manager is on top of things and doing the job well.

The goal is simple: to compel senior management to come to the fleet manager’s defense if and when he or she is challenged or when complaints from a bullying executive reach their desks. Building effective relationships with management will help provide the kind of protection needed without the fleet manager asking for it.


Inclusion in Process is Important

If the fleet manager is comfortable that his or her efforts are known and appreciated at the highest levels, the next step is to make an effort to include other executives, particularly the most difficult individuals in the fleet management process.

In a primarily sales fleet, for example, in which the VP of sales and marketing tends to throw his weight around, making that executive part of the decision-making process helps to defuse potential confrontations.

Let’s say the fleet manager is developing a formal fleet safety policy that contains consequences for drivers in violation — a classic situation ripe for executive bullying. When a driver who otherwise performs well is punished for incurring too many moving violations or is involved in more than one chargeable accident, it is not unusual for an "appeal" to reach senior sales management. A senior executive comes to the driver’s defense by bullying the fleet manager to rescind the  punishment.

If the fleet manager has planned carefully, two key things will help forestall this situation or maintain a more professional level throughout:

■ The policy has been signed off and supported by the highest levels of management, the "C" level (CEO, CFO, COO, etc.)

■ The VP of sales has been included in the development of the  policy.

It is far more difficult for a bullying executive to fire off an angry, demanding e-mail if he or she was involved in and agreed to the policy in the first place and, further, knows the CEO has reviewed and supports the policy. The same holds true for the development of vehicle selection or other fleet policies the executive in question touches at some level.


Give Exec Vehicles Extra Service

Another area ripe with the potential for executives to throw around their weight is their own company vehicle. Add the attitude that "everyone is an expert" to the additional difficulty of the executive’s feeling of entitlement regarding the vehicle, and the situation can become volatile.

Again, including executives in the selection process is the first step. Depending upon the company’s goal in providing the vehicle via dollar amount (selection, monthly stipend, etc.), keeping all executives who qualify for the program in the loop as decisions are made can help. Local relationships are, however, the single biggest keys to avoiding confrontations.

Whether an executive can choose any vehicle within a dollar limit or the company develops an executive vehicle selector, fleet managers are well advised to develop relationships with local dealers and repair facilities. If at all possible, buy or lease vehicles locally. Most higher line and luxury vehicles offer such services as loaner vehicles when the car is in for service, 24-hour road service, and other "VIP" treatment.

Visit the dealer and meet with the sales and service managers. Make it clear you need very high-touch service, and in return you will provide referrals for retail business whenever appropriate. Investigate whether the dealer is willing to offer special discounts if an executive expresses an interest in the purchase of a personal vehicle. Most will comply.

Next, develop a relationship with the executive’s secretary or administrative assistant. Keep careful servicing records and make sure the servicing schedule is entered on the executive’s calendar. Make the process as transparent as possible: the executive drives the vehicle to work, and when he or she is ready to leave at day’s end, the vehicle is in its parking spot, serviced and ready to go. If the executive needs a vehicle during the day, arrange for delivery of a loaner car.

The more prepared the fleet manager is, the less likely confrontations will occur. If carefully planned, handling the executive fleet will take place seamlessly, without interrupting executives’ schedules.


Handling Confrontations

No matter how carefully a fleet manager plans, almost certainly he or she occasionally will face an executive bully looking to show who’s the boss.

When this happens, the first thing to remember is, like it or not, the executive is the boss, and if the confrontation continues, no good can result for the fleet manager. However, there is nothing wrong with standing ground, provided it is done professionally.

Most likely, the executive will clearly communicate the complaint. If not, investigate the situation. Determine what precipitated the event, and more importantly, what actions you are expected to take. If the outburst is simply a case of "letting off steam" after a bad experience, sometimes the best course is to let it happen and take necessary actions to prevent a reoccurrence.

For example, the company vehicle breaks down on a weekend while an executive is driving. A loaner is not immediately available at the dealer, resulting in a couple of hours of frustration. Here are a few tips to handle the upset executive:

■ First, it’s over; you can’t "unring the bell." The fleet manager’s job is to find out why the situation happened and take steps to prevent a recurrence.

■ Next, don’t interrupt the executive’s tirade; doing so only exacerbates the confrontation. Allow the executive to get everything out on the table.

■ Maintain your own composure. Don’t cower or grovel. Express complete understanding and tell the executive you will contact the dealer to find out what happened. Emphasize your ultimate goal is to prevent a reoccurrence. Actions speak much louder than words; the satisfaction of knowing that their complaints spur such action is usually what aggrieved executives are looking for.

■ Don’t put up with rank abuse. If the executive becomes obscene or threatening, make it clear that although you understand the anger and frustration and it’s your job to take action, you will not put up with personal abuse.

■ When you follow through with actions, keep the executive informed every step of the way: what has been said, what has been done, and what steps have been taken to deal with the issue going forward.

■ Finally, ask for the executive’s feedback on how the situation was handled.

In general, these simple steps will help keep the confrontation short and contribute to minimizing future incidents. Dealing with problem executives isn’t a pleasant task, but is one most every middle manager must learn. Taking steps to avoid them, understanding what to do if they occur, and learning how to handle them on a personal basis makes professional life easier. ■