There are few more effective career-killers than being pigeonholed into a role at the company. Fleet managers have long been labeled as a "car guy," the "grease monkey" who spends weekends tinkering with a '48 DeSoto, whose vocation - fleet management - is an avocation as well.

For the most part, today's fleet managers are more likely to have a background in finance, accounting, or procurement. Experiences gained and skills required to successfully manage a fleet of company vehicles are exactly those needed for moving up the corporate ladder. Using those skills and avoiding the stereotype take time and effort, but are well worth it.

Breaking the Stereotype

When fleet management was in its infancy and most companies had no formal fleet manager, ideal candidates were those with experience at a dealership, as a mechanic, or in the military motor pool.

The problem arises when the stereotype of fleet manager as mechanic becomes entrenched. Breaking this stereotype was one of the early goals of the fleet management profession, and still raises its head on occasion.

A fleet manager must make certain he or she is well versed in skills underlying the fleet management position: finance, procurement/purchasing, accounting, and IT. A fleet manager should be able to read a balance sheet, understand the basics of a lease- versus-own analysis, know how various lease types are to be accounted for, and calculate lifecycle costs.

Exhibiting these skills and experience in the course of managing a fleet will help break the stereotype.

Know What's Going On

Part of the stereotype is that a fleet manager is not up on the "important stuff" going on in the company. That "important" stuff - new product development, financial management, manufacturing, human resources - should be left to the "real" managers, we're told, not someone who would be comfortable in a dealer showroom, or turning a wrench in a repair shop.

A fleet manager who wants to break that caricature must make sure he or she is knowledgeable. Know who was promoted, for example, in the executive suite. Send a congratulatory e-mail to the newly appointed CFO indicating you look forward to working together. Prepare quick memos on new product and how the fleet department will fit in.

If an acquisition is made, find out if they have vehicles and what the plan is to merge them into the corporate fleet program. Note anything that might be impacted by, or might impact, the fleet.


Contacts Prove Key

"It's not what you know, it's who you know," the old adage says. Keep track of the most senior executives in the company, from the CEO on down, and establish communications with them. It can be as simple as an e-mail, phone call, or meeting request. A fleet manager may be a long way down the management food chain, but ensure executive management knows who you are, what you do, and how well you do it. An effort to make contact will not be ignored, and may very well be appreciated.

For managers who have the ear of senior manager secretaries, administrative assistants, etc., get to know them as well, and make certain they know you. The receptionist or contact's secretary are gatekeepers; they often decide who gets to talk with management and who doesn't.

Know the decision-makers in all stakeholding functions in the company: human resources, legal, sales, service, manufacturing, product development, etc. Include them in any communications appropriate to their responsibilities, and ask for their input.

Choose a Destination

As challenging and rewarding a job as fleet management can be, young talent can find it to be a dead end. That said, what fleet management requires - the skills, understanding, training, experience - makes it uniquely useful in preparation for a number of career paths:

Financial: From accounting, to finance, to treasury, there are few financial areas that do not in some way, shape, or form touch fleet management.

Operations: Fleet itself often resides on the operations side of the company, with warehousing, distribution, and other disciplines.

■  Human Resources: The provision of a company vehicle involves several HR items, from personal use to recruitment to vehicle qualification and more.

■  Sales/Service: A fleet vehicle is either sales or service.

The primary point is to choose a "destination" beyond fleet. What direction do you want your career to take, and how can you use your current fleet responsibilities and experience to get there? Fleet managers have a unique opportunity to learn about whichever discipline strikes their career fancy.

Most executives are more than willing to mentor those who express an interest in what they do. Use that willingness to further your career.

Education: The Next Step Up the Ladder

Choosing a career destination is only the first step in preparing oneself for the next rungs on the corporate ladder. There is much that can be learned via experience, from mentors, and by paying attention in meetings. However, a fleet manager interested in moving up that ladder should consider formal education as well.

Particularly in disciplines such as finance and accounting, formal training in the basics is a must. A number of routes are available to receive formal training in areas of career interest. Many companies offer seminars and other types of training to their employees, local colleges and universities have night and weekend classes, and some universities offer a business MBA program, meant for working managers looking to move up. Another option is independent and industry training/certification.

With the advent of the Internet, formal training and education is faster, easier, and less expensive than ever before.

To further the education route, some individual initiative will help as well. Know what is happening in the industry: acquisitions, divestitures, mergers, new products, stock performance, etc. Try to move beyond fleet-centric trade organizations and into those within your chosen career path. Get to know "peers" in those areas of interest.

Learn to Communicate Effectively

The single most important asset any employee has is the ability to communicate effectively at all levels.

We live in a world of 24/7 communication, both on a personal as well as a business level. We've moved from paper to the Internet and from telephones to text messaging. However, effective communication is a little different than 30 years ago. Getting your message across, either in writing or orally, will make you a far more attractive candidate for promotion.

Start with the basics: spelling, grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. Executives often lament the inability of employees to use them all properly. Avoid big words and long paragraphs to get a point across that could have been done in a few sentences. Executives in particular don't have time to read through multi-page memos. Use bullet points and graphics to illustrate key points.

One of the biggest phobias many people have is a fear of public speaking, or speaking to groups. The higher an employee moves up the hierarchy, the more often speaking to groups will occur.

First, don't "wing it." Most public speakers have studied and rehearsed their material carefully. Do the same; keep notes handy and rehearse often. Next, try to focus on a few individuals in the group - one each on the left, center, and right. Speak as though you're sitting comfortably in your office with those individuals, one on one. Don't be afraid of silence. Too many speakers try to fill every moment with words, and this results in the infamous "you know," "like," "um," and "uh" that pepper too many presentations.

Finally, keep in mind you are the subject-matter expert, whether it's your job, your idea, or your research. Others are there to learn: teach them.