MBWA was an acronym that was all the rage back in the '80s. It stands for "management by walking around," and it meant a manager should be open and close to his or her staff and ready to communicate. Most executives like to have that type of comfortable relationship with direct reports; they need to know what's going on and want staff to be confident in telling them.
Unfortunately, this doesn't always work. Particularly in a tough economy, when employees are sweating downsizing and force reductions, there may be some things a fleet manager, for example, is hesitant to tell his or her boss. Here are some of them.
'His' or 'Her' Idea is Really Dumb
Cars can be an area of interest beyond the job; you may well be very proud of your high-line, luxury car and fancy yourself well informed in "things automotive." However, sometimes what makes sense to you can send a fleet manager back to his office wincing and rolling his eyes.
You want to stave off rising fuel expense and it makes eminent sense to you that the company should simply use smaller cars. "If we used four-cylinder subcompacts, think of how much fuel we could save!" Your fleet manager knows, however, this is simply a bad idea. He or she knows a subcompact doesn't have the cargo space to carry necessary point-of-sale materials; that your sales force will be embarrassed when the customer brings three other people to go out to lunch; or that asking that four-cylinder engine to propel what the six-cylinder did will not save fuel, but have a significantly shorter life as well. Keep one thing in mind: Your fleet manager is a professional and has knowledge and experience that you don't. There's no problem with offering ideas; just make sure you defer, up front, to your in-house expert. Let him or her know you value that expertise and won't be insulted if you're told your idea is a bad one.
'His' or 'Her' Idea was Really Dumb
An obvious corollary to being told your idea is dumb is a fleet manager who realizes his or her own idea wasn't the smartest one. A change in policy, moving to a new supplier, overhauling fleet vehicle selection, or all of these situations and more can produce embarrassing results that the fleet manager won't be very anxious to tell you.
Fleet management is a very fluid industry. It changes regularly and sometimes it's difficult to keep up with those changes, particularly when a fleet manager is a one-person department, without staff and with few resources. Mistakes will be made. That new model on the selector will sometimes be subject to a massive recall. The new supplier might not provide the service it promised or might ask to change the prices previously agreed on. It's difficult for any manager to admit a mistake, particularly when he or she feels the job is on the line.
One of the first things any executive should tell direct reports when they're hired (or when you are) is that managers who don't make mistakes aren't really managing. A manager doesn't prove his or her muster when things are going smoothly; it's proven when they aren't. Managing mistakes - how the manager reacts to errors in judgment - will bring out the best in a talented manager.[PAGEBREAK]
The Budget is Blown
Think back to 2008 - fuel prices skyrocketed to $4 per gallon (or more in some areas). Fleet managers who created 2008 budgets in late 2007 used a fuel price of $2.50 per gallon, just to be on the safe side. By September, there was a hole in these fuel budgets a company van could be driven through, and fuel expenses were $1 million over budget. Not an enticing scenario for a fleet manager heading into a year-end meeting.
That's an extreme case, but whenever a fleet manager is over budget or forecast, his or her fear can be palpable. Yes, you'll have to be told, but it won't be pleasant. Keep your cool. The 2008 example is extreme, since no one could have foreseen the crazy roller-coaster ride fuel prices took that year. A fleet manager could hardly be faulted for missing it.
Executives should hold any manager's feet to the fire when expenses exceed budgets, but in a professional manner. Some simple questions can help keep the discussion on an even keel: "What happened? What did you miss when you submitted the budget? Most importantly, what steps are you taking to avoid a recurrence?"
Provided the fleet manager's performance has been solid in the past, a single year or period when the budget is blown is certainly not grounds for a dressing down, or worse.
'We're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat'
That's a famous line from the movie "Jaws." Sometimes, a fleet manager must tell his senior management that the company needs a bigger, more expensive vehicle. Maybe a new product or service requires it, or perhaps those smaller vehicles haven't panned out. The focus is always on controlling or reducing expense, but sometimes this just isn't possible.
Once again, keep things professional. If the fleet manager has done the job right, he or she will have all the data needed to justify moving up to bigger vehicles - with backup from the sales or service group that needs them.
Don't Extend the Replacement Cycle
It's one of the first things many companies do when the economy tanks and there is a concerted effort to reduce expenses beyond the norm: no new vehicle replacements for the rest of the year or until further notice. That way, the logic goes, we'll avoid new car prices and higher lease payments.
A fleet manager will be loath to tell you, but this is the wrong way to go. Keeping vehicles in service beyond what should be carefully calculated replacement criteria may well avoid new car price increases, but these can and likely will be swallowed up by increased maintenance costs, major component failures, tire replacements, and brake jobs, not to mention the soft costs of increased downtime and lower resale values.
You want your drivers to be as productive as possible, and that won't happen if they're standing on the side of the road waiting for the tow truck, or sitting in the waiting room at the tire store while a new set of tires is installed. Extending or suspending vehicle replacements is an overreaction to tough times and can cause far more problems than it theoretically solves. Defer again to the expert; don't stop ordering replacements, instead ask if it is a good idea, whether or not it can save money, and why.
Like for any employee, it's very difficult to be the bearer of bad news; even the CEO isn't happy about having to report lower earnings to the board, or to Wall Street; but that CEO is in the position for a good reason, and so is the fleet manager. They'll make mistakes, but they are the subject matter experts, and you'll be much better off if you emphasize that you respect that expertise, and provided it isn't a regular occurrence, you expect that mistakes will be made.