Five Traits of Effective Fleet Leaders – Operations


 - Photo: iStockphoto.com

Photo: iStockphoto.com

Strategic plans for 2020 have been scrapped. We continue to press on through this unprecedented period of business volatility, where change is the only certainty. Businesses are forced to cope with the reality of our global pandemic and dynamic leadership is more essential than ever. 

It is these uncertain times that challenges the character and ingenuity of the leaders within our business. Executive leaders who effectively develop plans that anticipate change and can adjust accordingly, communicate that plan to the rest of the business in an inspiring fashion, and oversee the data and the execution of the plan, will successfully lead their businesses through these challenging times. 

In addition, fleet leaders who continuously monitor and make incremental changes to the plan, while communicating openly and honestly about the key learnings, will not only be the ones who navigate their fleet and business through this great time of uncertainty, but will also improve their overall effectiveness as a fleet leader and increase the arc of their career.

Throughout my time in fleet management, I have had the privilege of working alongside some superior fleet leaders. In the process of getting to know them and seeing firsthand their ability to thrive in their environment, I have noticed a number of traits that they seem to have in common; traits that help them to understand their business context and develop achievable fleet plans that have the maximum benefit. 

They have the ability to implement plans effectively, regardless of the organizational structure in which they find themselves. And they do it year after year. 

By observing these outstanding fleet managers and how they work, I have come to believe that these traits are not innate, leaders are not born with them; these traits are practiced until they become learned skills. 

Anyone in the fleet space can develop these traits by practicing self-awareness and focusing on the development of these characteristics. By cultivating these skills, fleet leaders are improving the value they provide to the organizations they serve and will be capable of thriving in the midst of any business climate. 

Five Traits of Successful Fleet Leaders

Trait One: Be Comfortable with Change

The first trait has to do with one’s attitude toward change. Most of us have a natural inclination to resist change. An orderly and fixed business environment produces processes where predictable and reliable outcomes are routinely achieved.  

We as humans naturally crave this sense of stability and certainty, so it is no surprise that as fleet operational leaders we like the predictability of a stable business process. We root out any variation in our programs and seek to eliminate it. A tried and true fleet policy becomes easier to maintain, and our efforts tend to focus on maintaining a status quo. 

Due to my time spent in a Six Sigma quality environment, I can relate to this type of thinking. In a zeal for productivity, one begins to see variation (or change) as the enemy. But while change may be uncomfortable, it is inevitable.

The reality is that even in more stable times, the business environment is not fixed and orderly. Companies experience competitive threats, technology disruptions, dynamic macroeconomic environments, changes in customer sentiment, and transitions in leadership. Our business realities are far less orderly and fixed than most would like to believe. While this may make us all uncomfortable, it is how one acknowledges and reacts to the inevitable change that separates outstanding leaders from simply average ones. 

Average leaders will move forward cautiously in this environment, resisting change, and becoming unwilling to take all but the smallest of risks. They think, “Why should I stick my neck out and risk changing the status quo, unless I know for certain it will make an improvement?” 

Outstanding leaders embrace the uncertainty and see it as an opportunity to interact with the change and achieve success. Brené Brown, sociologist and author who has spent years researching the qualities of effective leadership calls this trait a willingness to be vulnerable. 

In her latest book Dare to Lead, she defines vulnerability as the emotion that one feels when they commit to a goal, a process, or a strategic path where the outcome of that effort is uncertain. This willingness to practice vulnerability, embrace change, and plot a course is an essential trait of outstanding leaders. 

They are willing to take calculated risks in the midst of uncertainty. In the fleet world, this means committing to champion improvements to your fleet policy and never being satisfied with the status quo. Outstanding fleet leaders in this context are learning to tolerate ambiguity and get comfortable with being uncomfortable in their inability to predict future fleet outcomes, the impact of their fleet decisions, and their ability to achieve fleet goals. 

Trait Two: Be Curious and Experimental

Practicing vulnerability and getting comfortable with ambiguity is the first step, but it must be accompanied with a genuine curiosity to understand the dynamic context of fleet management. In my experience, outstanding fleet leaders are the ones who methodically test and research any potential changes to fleet policy in order to manage the risk associated with the change. They show a curiosity about driver satisfaction, emerging technologies, vendor partners, and the field context. 

They regularly seek out opinions from all constituents involved, creating a feedback culture in their fleet. Asking vendors for best practices, drivers for feedback, executive leaders for business direction allows the fleet leader to benefit from multiple perspectives. Further, this input has the advantage of getting all constituents “in the game” which will make them more likely to buy-in to future implemented improvements.

Once a hypothesis about a fleet change is developed, then it must be tested. Your fleet is a potential petri dish of possibilities to try out a number of small experimental changes to test your theories about the benefit. 

A commitment to regularly experimenting, reviewing, and making honest judgements about the outcomes will ensure that you are benefitting from the tests and able to extrapolate the results to the rest of your fleet. An example of this might be in adopting a new technology. 

Curiosity around a number of small telematics deployments prior to full launch can yield not only a sense of how much impact the technology will make in its desired goal (costs, safety, control), but also get a sense of how much more effort will be needed to get the desired outcome. 

Gaining this insight will allow for a smoother and more predictable full rollout. Curious and experimental fleet managers cannot completely eliminate the risks associated with fleet change, but they can manage them effectively.   

Trait Three: Never Do Anything for Just One Purpose

A friend of mine runs the entire early stage research efforts for a global pharmaceutical company. When I asked him how he sets up his research efforts and manages the almost unbelievable amount of uncertainty in this field, he told me his most effective technique was relatively simple, “Never do anything for just one purpose.” 

It turns out that the amount of effort that he can muster is finite within his business. There are far fewer research teams than there are scientific unknowns in the world of developing pharmaceuticals. 

He must place bets on the success of relatively small experiments, and in order to improve his chances, he tries to set up his efforts to test as many variables as possible. So even if the experiment fails in its main objective, there exists some feedback and key learnings to guide future research. His team increases their odds of success by gaining as much information as they possibly could from their efforts.

I believe the fleet world works the same way. We have limited resources, limited discretionary effort outside the core task of maintaining our fleet processes, and a short attention span from senior business leaders when it comes to fleet. 

Any experiment for change must yield as much data as possible. For instance, when considering a change in maintenance intervals, set up an experiment where you can not only see the impact in costs period versus period (the main objective), but also gather feedback on driver satisfaction with the change, impact to downtime as a result of the change, differential vendor costs, changes to fuel consumption, etc. 

In this way a fleet leader is maximizing the data gathered from the experiment and wringing out as much valuable information as they can from the discretionary effort invested. 

Fleet leaders who employ this trait are able to get a more complete picture of the opportunities before them, better manage the risk associated with a potential business wide fleet change, and just might stumble onto an unexpected opportunity. 

Trait Four: Communicate Often

As any fleet manager knows, there are many constituents who have an interest in fleet changes. Resistance from any number of stakeholders can hinder even the most well-researched improvement with the strongest opportunity for success. Through clear and consistent communication, outstanding fleet leaders put effort into managing stakeholders perceptions to minimize resistance to a change. 

Possible obstacles include:

  • HR interests around driver engagement and policies of equity.
  • Finance worries about TCO and fleet costs quarter versus quarter.
  • Field manager concerns about the fleet vehicle’s ability to drive the results that they are tasked with in the field.
  • Executive uneasiness about the risk of an unnecessary distraction to the core business.

A fleet manager must stay aware of each party’s concerns and effectively communicate to them regularly. The purpose of this two-way communication is both to get input early in the process of any potential fleet change, as well as to gain buy-in for any implemented change. 

They realize that each constituent may require a more customized message in order to meet each stakeholder’s needs. Keeping all parties aware of your efforts, learnings, and insights will ensure a smooth implementation and dramatically increase the chances of success. 

While the first three traits focus on creating quality improvements, practicing effective communication will build the acceptance for the solution within the organization.  

Trait Five: Be Persistent

Practicing a commitment to continuous improvement in fleet performance requires a persistent review and monitoring of your fleet process.  

Many fleet managers find their time dominated by urgent issues that must be addressed immediately -a mis-ordered vehicle, a delay in upfitting, unexpected vehicle downtime, accident reviews – these issues and others can suck up so much of the fleet managers capacity that there does not seem to be time for anything else. Yet, the outstanding fleet manager prioritizes timely reviews of the entire fleet process. 

They practice routine operating rhythms to review the fleet process in total and to specifically measure the impact of recent improvements. By regularly reviewing these fleet processes, the fleet manager stays aware of how the process is performing. They do this to satisfy their curiosity about the next opportunity for improvement and to monitor the effectiveness of recent changes to ensure they are able to maintain the benefit they initially created. In addition, this allows them to: 

  • Proactively address any performance issues reducing the frequency of urgent problems that take up so much of their time.
  • Create relevant reporting to stakeholders on a proactive basis.
  • Create more time and insight for further experimentation with fleet improvements.
  • Respond to urgent issues raised by addressing the root cause of the concern from a process perspective, rather than simply reacting to remedy the defect. 

The fleet manager who persistently and proactively monitors fleet processes will be better able to manage the uncertainty of the environment in which they find themselves, creating lasting stakeholder satisfaction with the process and generating more significant and lasting fleet improvements. 

The Current Pandemic: The Time Is Now!

Fleet managers can begin to practice these traits in any business environment, but I believe that it is actually essential to focus on these skills in the midst of the current volatile business climate. Most stakeholders now find themselves having to re-think long held assumptions about their business and will expect the owners of fleet policy to do the same. 

By practicing vulnerability and getting comfortable with ambiguity, the fleet manager is able to engage with the dynamic business environment. By staying curious and experimental, the fleet manager is able to create credible hypotheses for improvement. 

Through a comprehensive approach to proving that hypothesis, the fleet manager can yield more insight about any potential change. Communicating often to all stakeholders ensures that the fleet manager can build acceptance in the organization for the change. By practicing persistence, the fleet manager can ensure that they spend proactive time monitoring and evaluating fleet process to ensure consistent high-quality output. 

Use of these traits will build momentum for changes that might not be as easily tolerated in more stable environments. The fleet manager who leverages this unprecedented environment to develop these practices holds the potential to significantly improve their current fleet performance. The fleet manager who continues to practice these five traits can become an outstanding and effective leader as we head into the new normal and beyond.  

About the Author: Brian Wright is a 25-year veteran of the commercial fleet management industry. He has a diverse background in business strategy, product development, marketing, and operational effectiveness.



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