Sometimes, a fleet manager can feel isolated, “pigeonholed” in a job little understood and even less appreciated. However, fleet managers have all the skills, qualities, and experience senior management demands, and as a result, fleet management is an excellent stepping stone to higher responsibilities, provided the fleet manager understands how to use it.
What qualities do companies look for in a senior manager? Putting aside for the moment the experience and knowledge specific to a position (i.e., financial background for a treasurer, manufacturing experience for a plant manager), these general qualities describe the attributes of an effective fleet manager:
● Decision making.
● Strategic thinking.
● Tactical abilities.
● Quick mind.
● Taking responsibility.
● Financial savvy.
● Keen communications skills.
■ Decision Making
Fleet management is essentially a decision-making process. Fleet managers are faced with decisions, large and small, everyday. Most concern “putting out fires” — a driver needs help; financial issues such as whether a damaged vehicle should be repaired or replaced; and other technical-related questions such as authorizing repairs when a vehicle is in the shop.
Many fleet management decisions must be made on the spot. Fleet managers must have the knowledge and confidence to decide.
■ Strategic Thinking
Fleet managers must be able to think strategically. With the roller coaster of fuel prices, a volatile used-vehicle market, and an automotive industry in turmoil, it is impossible to run a fleet of company vehicles without long-term planning.
For example, matching the vehicle to the mission is not a simple process today. Not long ago, only a handful of options (vehicle types) were available and putting a selector together was a relatively uncomplicated process. Today, however, unprecedented increases in fuel prices have required fleet managers research alternate fuel options, and the influence of “import” labels has expanded the menu of vehicles dramatically. Finally, with the auto manufacturers in near chaos, alternative plans must be in place in the event models selected aren’t available.
Fleet managers also must produce both fleet and departmental budgets each year, as well as strategies for cost containment/reduction.
■ Tactical Abilities
Strategic thinking determines the “what;” tactical abilities determine the “how.” Turning strategies into tactics is a critical skill, and fleet managers do it regularly.
A strategy often results from requests or tasks assigned from above; a senior manager demands the fleet participate in a corporate green initiative, for example. The overall plan must be developed; tactics to accomplish the plan follow. This process is particularly true pertaining to cost containment/reduction. Goals are set (strategically) and tactics on how to achieve them come next. Good managers are skilled at turning strategy into tactics.
■ Quick Mind
Each workday, phone calls, e-mails, all manner of communication bring small problems and challenges to the fleet manager’s desk — the driver whose registration has expired, notice of an accident, a manufacturer notification that placed orders won’t be built in the current model-year. All of these issues require a manager who can think on his or her feet, make decisions, and act. Customers, products, and service all hang in the balance. Quick thinking is a critical fleet management quality, as it is in moving up the ladder.
■ Taking Responsibility
It’s been called “pointing and ducking” — keeping one’s “fingerprints” off a decision. However, the “It’s not my job” or “Not my fault” excuses are not marks of a quality manager. Taking full responsibility is a sign of maturity and confidence that cannot be overlooked when the company is reviewing staff promotions. From developing policy to vehicle selection and replacement cycling, fleet managers make decisions that affect hundreds or thousands of employees in their daily jobs. That responsibility cannot be taken lightly.
Using good judgment in decision making, communicating, or interacting with internal customers or peers is an important management quality. Fleet managers interact with more people in more areas of the company than just about any other department head, and good judgment is the foundation for such interaction. Judging people, processes, and assets is a daily requirement for successful fleet managers.
■ Financial Savvy
In most organizational functions of any company, some level of financial experience and knowledge is important. Fleet managers deal with financial matters in a number of areas:
● Leasing versus ownership. Fleet managers must, at the very least, understand the processes involved in determining whether the fleet should be leased or owned.
● Budgeting. Fleet managers must develop both fleet expense budgets as well as departmental budgets.
● Benchmarking. Tracking and benchmarking costs is part of the fleet manager’s job.
● Lifecycle costing. This process is critical to developing a cost-efficient replacement policy.
● Leasing. Fleet managers must know and understand the leasing process, including funding.
All these areas require a level of financial knowledge, and fleet managers have it.
■ Communication Skills
As previously mentioned, fleet managers interact with as many or more people in diverse areas of the company than any other department-level manager. Communication skills are critical in the fleet manager position. The ability to be brief and to the point in interacting with upper management, to conduct meetings, and to speak in front of groups are all part and parcel of the job.
Writing skills are also important. Much of today’s communications are done via e-mail. Fleet managers communicate via e-mail every hour of every day with drivers, suppliers, subordinates, peers, and superiors. Getting to the point, without being perceived as terse or short, helps fleet managers handle time and information-sharing. Telephone skills are equally important.
Communicating ‘Up the Line’
A fleet manager’s personal qualities and professional mien does little good to advance his or her career unless those in a position to help know about it. Here, those communication skills come in very handy.
Every department head must provide some manner of regular reporting to a supervisor and sometimes to upper management as well. Usually, this communication takes the form of financial reporting — budget performance, cost figures, etc. Fleet managers are no exception.
Current period and year-to-date performance reports are most often a quarterly, if not monthly, task. Once an immediate supervisor report format has been established, it is a good idea to check it to see if it can be simplified. The further up the management ladder a report goes, the less time the manager has for review. If too detailed a document, when it arrives at the “C” level, it is likely to be ignored.
Senior managers are interested in trends: are costs moving up, down, or remaining level? Are cost reductions on track versus the plan? Rather than numbers and words, graphic representations of the facts catch the eye and tell the story clearly, simply, and quickly. Whether in an e-mail or intercompany envelope, opening a report and seeing a cost graph with lines moving down or remaining steady tells an executive the fleet manager is doing the job.
Next, don’t hide bad news. Take full responsibility, but make sure the bad news is delivered with a detailed plan for resolution. Fuel prices are a good example. If, in a short period of time, fuel prices double (as they did this past summer) and the fleet manager took steps to keep the company’s fuel cost from doubling, senior management needs to know. Again, graphs are a good way to tell the tale.
Keep the supervisor informed concerning department activity. If a new fleet management system has been installed, let the supervisor know. If a staff member has been promoted, say so. If a major change in policy occurs, such as in vehicle assignment, replacement scheduling, or vehicle selection, don’t simply report the news, explain why the decision was made.
Even today, fleet managers are often viewed as either “grease monkeys,” car buffs, or merely glorified clerks who do little but what fleet suppliers tell them. Lack of communication upstairs is the single greatest cause of such caricatures.
Fleet managers who have staff must exhibit confidence in delegating responsibility. One of the worst career breakers is making oneself “indispensible,” viewed as the only one in the company capable of running the fleet.
Fleet managers must be confident that, if they have staff, someone is ready to step into the job. In addition, senior management must be aware of this succession plan. If the fleet manager is a candidate for promotion, the company must be comfortable his or her position can be filled quickly.
In recent years, with resources increasingly tight, fleet managers have had fewer opportunities for mentoring or delegation, as staff have been cut or eliminated altogether. However, any employee can serve as someone to be mentored. Even fleet managers without staff often have ancillary departments in which fleet is a factor. Make certain they know what is going on and are available to step in to do the job.
Fleet managers interact with many other company functions, such as human resources, legal, treasury, risk management, sales, and services. Each has a stake in the fleet’s operation. Fleet managers know and understand not only these functions and what connects these functions to the fleet, but also who the “players” are.
Learn what risk management does and how it’s done, and the basics of insurance. Research interest rates, become familiar with the various debt instruments treasury uses, and understand the principles of cash flow and banking. Don’t limit contact with these departments to matters pertaining solely to fleet.
When a project involves fleet — researching and analyzing leasing versus ownership is a good example — fleet managers should make sure they know and understand how and what is being analyzed, and what the results mean.
The fleet manager should be a familiar face when and where decisions are made.
Ask for the Sale
It has been said that an unsuccessful salesperson’s single biggest flaw is neglecting to ask for the sale. This is true of fleet managers who remain pigeonholed in the fleet department. Fleet managers interested in advancing to other positions should let other company functions know you want to build on your fleet manager experience.
Keep an eye on company publications and job postings, too. Describe your experience in nonfleet terms. Experience in asset management, lifecycle costing, or analysis reports on lease versus own is more easily translatable to other jobs. With outsourcing becoming more and more common, expertise in sourcing, purchasing, and supplier management is an excellent background.
All in all, fleet managers have skills and experience translatable to a number of areas in the company. However, unless the fleet manager’s career plan is known to those functions, he or she generally won’t be considered a potential candidate. In simple terms, ask for the sale.
Look Within the Industry
Opportunities for fleet managers can also be found on the “other side of the desk.” Fleet lessors, service companies, manufacturers, and any auto industry-related company greatly value fleet management experience. Who better to serve as an account executive or client service representative than someone who knows what is important to a fleet manager?