Former NFL coach Bill Parcells was known for tossing compliments around like manhole covers. "Should I congratulate a guy for just doing his job?" Parcells would ask.

Parcells had a point. One of the challenges of managing people is establishing expectations, and deciding what is excellence and what is simply doing the job; when to provide encouragement and when not to. Good managers learn and understand what motivates their subordinates to excel, and how to provide that motivation.

The relationship between senior managers and fleet managers can run the gamut from incessant meddling to hands off to everything in between. Finding the right middle ground can go a long way toward getting fleet managers to excel.

Senior management needs to understand the difference between fleet management excellence and "just doing the job" for the fleet and fleet manager to operate at their very best.

Senior management needs to understand the difference between fleet management excellence and "just doing the job" for the fleet and fleet manager to operate at their very best.

Know and Understand the Job

For years, articles, presentations, and speeches have been telling fleet managers how they can demonstrate to management what they do, how important it is to the company, and how well they do it. One of the most common complaints fleet managers have is the company (read: management) doesn’t appreciate what they do.

Is it the sole responsibility of the fleet manager to make certain management recognizes their worth? One can make the case that no, it is not. It is true that fleet managers need to do what they can to make sure this is the case, but one of the trademarks of a successful executive is that he or she has at least a basic understanding of what their subordinates do, can recognize what is "just doing the job," and what is excellent performance, and communicates both to the fleet manager. This can be put succinctly in the old adage, "I don’t need to know how to play the instruments; I just need to know how to lead the band."

Thus, the first step executives and senior management can make is to take the time to learn the basics of what fleet managers do, and how they do it. Those basics would include:

  • Why company vehicles?
  • Lease or own?
  • Managing operations.
  • Resale.
  • Goals.

There are, of course, myriad other things fleet managers do; however, remember that an executive may have several departments competing for attention, so it’s important to keep things compact and simple.  
The better handle an executive has on fleet management, the more he or she will be able to help the fleet manager excel.

Recruiting the Right Candidates

The very first step in bringing excellence to the fleet manager begins in the recruiting and hiring process. Fleet managers are hired either as a replacement for an existing position or for a newly created job function. The background, experience, and skills required for the two scenarios can be somewhat different.

If the fleet manager is coming into the job as a replacement, direct fleet management experience is less important than overall management experience. Candidates can come from a number of disciplines, including purchasing/procurement, accounting, and administration.

If the candidate is being hired to fill a newly created position, and/or the department has not had professional fleet management in the past, a background in fleet management is a must, with other experience a plus.

The point is that motivating fleet managers to excel will differ in what form the motivation will take depending upon the circumstances of the hire.

Forms of Motivation

Motivations are as different as individuals. Some people are motivated by fear, others by recognition, some by money, and still others combinations of all of the above and more. Finding the right form of motivation is a key component in getting fleet managers to excel.

While motivating by fear — fear of losing one's job, fear of unflattering attention, fear of embarrassment — may seem like it works, it really only motivates a worker to do just enough to avoid any negative outcomes, and not, necessarily, to excel. Positive motivation, which compels a manager to seek reward, is far more effective in getting an employee to go beyond "just doing enough."

That said, what kind of motivation can an executive provide a fleet manager? In what ways does fleet management lend itself to measurable goals that — if they are exceeded — result in excellence?

Finally, how does the executive recognize the difference between "just doing the job" and true excellence? The correct answer to this question will benefit the company substantially.

What Is 'the Job'?

What, exactly, is "the job" of a fleet manager? From a macro perspective, it is fairly general. The job of the fleet manager is to provide the safest, most cost efficient vehicles, which are capable of performing the mission.

In the micro sense, this includes:

  • Tracking and managing (reducing/controlling) operating costs.
  • Supervising supplier relationships.
  • Developing vehicle choices and specifications.
  • Mitigating risk/encouraging safety.
  • Maximizing fuel efficiency.
  • Managing resale.

There is more, but, without getting too far into the weeds, that is the gist of it. An executive doesn’t need to know exactly how a fleet manager accomplishes goals to develop a strategy to push him or her to excellent performance.

The first step is to consider where fleet falls in the overall corporate structure. Employees strive to excel with the primary purpose of furthering their career. If, for example, fleet is within a financial discipline in the company (accounting, finance, treasury), then increasing knowledge and understanding of corporate financial matters is necessary. If it is within purchasing/procurement, the same holds true.

Thus, the executive who is looking for excellence from a fleet manager should not only encourage but require expanding knowledge, training, and understanding of disciplines beyond those strictly related to fleet.

This does not mean that skills directly related to fleet management are to be ignored. Executives aren’t simply looking to help a fleet manager move beyond fleet, but to encourage excellence in the current job, which will benefit both the manager as well as the company. All in all, employees strive for excellence when they know that performance will provide benefits.

[PAGEBREAK]Goals and Plans

There is a quote, attributed to French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery: "A goal without a plan is just a wish." Good managers are adept at establishing goals, both for themselves and within their responsibilities; great managers are equally adept at developing plans to achieve those goals. For fleet managers, this includes career goals, cost reduction goals, productivity goals.

Plans to achieve job-related goals should be the exclusive purview of the fleet manager, who is the subject expert. He or she can, of course, avail themselves of resources and assistance (from peers in the industry or suppliers), but the final decision lies with them alone. However, the executive, who is far more "tuned in" to what it takes to move up the corporate ladder, can and should provide guidance and encouragement as to what can help achieve those goals.

Handing out praise just for a fleet manager doing his or her job won't mean much to the recipient. Excellence alone should be rewarded.

Handing out praise just for a fleet manager doing his or her job won't mean much to the recipient. Excellence alone should be rewarded.

For example, a new fleet manager, coming from a non-fleet related discipline in the company (e.g., procurement or finance), and taking over an existing fleet operation will, of course, need to learn about fleet management, in order to best apply his or her own skills to the job at hand. The executive should:

  • Encourage peer-to-peer networking, the fleet industry lends itself well to interaction between fleet managers, even those from competitors.
  • Suggest joining industry groups such as the NAFA Fleet Management Association and/or the Automotive Fleet & Leasing Association (AFLA), where formal training and the aforementioned networking are readily available.
  • Suppliers can, and are usually happy to, help managers new to fleet learn the business. Often their own employees come from fleet management and can provide a unique perspective. 
  • If circumstances permit, have the new fleet manager spend time with the one leaving, to learn how things have been done, and how the fleet operation got where it is. 

Alternatively, if the new fleet manager is a veteran, with experience in the industry, the executive can help by suggesting immersion in related disciplines:

  • Finance: funding alternatives, lease vs. own, and other issues related to fleet management that have a financial component.
  • Accounting: understanding how leases are/should be booked, the difference between operating and finance leasing,  and tax considerations.
  • Negotiating skills: learning how to negotiate with both existing and competing suppliers, the difference between price and value, and how to avoid leaving money on the table.

The overall goal here is for the executive to help the fleet manager expand his or her existing skill set, learn how to apply new skills to the job, and ultimately prepare themselves for the next step in a career.

Defining Excellence

As Parcells said, excellence isn't merely doing the job. A fleet manager is tasked to do many of the things that are often considered "excellence," such as cost reduction, driver satisfaction, and adapting to change.
When do these things go beyond simple job performance and become excellence?

Recognizing excellence begins with goal setting. Each year, most fleet managers must produce a budget to cover anticipated fleet operating and capital needs for the coming year. Too often, these are merely "baseline" budgets, which are when the previous year’s budgets are used as a baseline, and a flat percentage increase is applied.

Executives should require something more akin to "zero-based" budgets, which are similar to starting from scratch, without regard for what was spent last year.

Budgets should be realistic, and based upon a true analysis and forecast of anticipated fleet costs. Such a well-structured and carefully prepared budget — if met or exceeded — represents excellence both in preparation and execution.

Fleet managers must deal with the unexpected: wild swings in fuel prices, vehicle selections that become unavailable (early build outs, for example), or corporate activity such as the acquisition of a new business unit or introduction of a new product, both of which may add to the fleet budget.

Excellent performance is reflected in the ability of a fleet manager to calmly deal with, plan for, and implement changes needed to deal with such possibilities. Maintaining level fuel costs, minimizing increases during spikes in prices, or having alternative selections available when existing selections are not available are examples of excellence in the presence of high leverage situations.

Creativity is a trait that is important in any manager, and fleet managers are not an exception. Sometimes, when faced with challenges, creativity can help a fleet manager achieve excellence as well. 

Achieving Excellence

Simply promising money or threatening repercussions are not the best ways to get fleet managers to excel, at least not in the long term. Smart and experienced executives know that getting a manager to excel is a multi-step and ongoing process:

  • Know what the fleet manager does, why, and how. Get a basic understanding of the job, and how a fleet manager judges his or her own performance.
  • Encourage, even require, a fleet manager to pursue training and obtain new skills either directly or indirectly related to the job. Experienced fleet managers should be pushed to learn new financial and procurement skills. New fleet managers should learn job-specific ones.
  • Make sure the fleet manager knows the difference between goals and plans, and how the latter is necessary to achieve the former. Make certain that goals (such as budgets and forecasts) are realistic, reasonable, measurable, and achievable; the performance bar should be set neither too high nor too low.
  • Communicate regularly what the next steps in the fleet manager's career might be. Make certain he or she knows first, what promotions or new jobs might be available, and, second, what is expected from them to be considered.
  • Know and understand what represents excellence, and what is simply basic job performance. Don't  give pats on the back indiscriminately, which can cheapen them. Save the kudos for true excellence.

Fleet managers, like most employees, want to do the job well. It is the responsibility of the executive to participate in the process, and both of you will enjoy the results.