By Mike Antich
Today's fleet managers are increasingly scrutinized for their every action and for every dollar spent. In this environment, fleet managers are constantly being second-guessed by citizens, politicians, and user departments on the efficacy of their policies. In addition, fleet managers are constantly dealing with the newly elected "fleet expert" politician who assumes their fleet operation is not run efficiently or cost-effectively. These politicians believe anyone can run a fleet and no special skills are needed. In this micro-managed climate, fleet managers need to do a better job educating elected officials and taxpayers that fleet management is a very complicated profession, requiring expertise in a multitude of areas. However, many fleet managers have not been successful in changing these misperceptions because this type of second-guessing continues to be a perennial issue.
One exception is the City of Troy, Mich. Five years ago, the City started the Citizens Academy to allow citizens and elected officials to visit different city departments to gain a first-hand understanding of their operations. The Citizens Academy is an eight-week course, requiring participation one night a week. Over the course of the eight-week program, weekly evening meetings are held at eight City of Troy departments - fleet operations, finance, public works, police, fire, assessment, building, and the treasurer's/clerk office. The purpose of the Citizens Academy is to educate citizens about how these city departments function. This program isn't unique to the City of Troy; a growing number of other cities have also adopted similar Citizen Academies.
Educating Taxpayers about Fleet Operations
The City of Troy holds two Citizens Academies per year. Interested citizens fill out an application on the City's Web site.
One of the departments showcased in the Citizens Academy is the City of Troy fleet management department. At the start of the fleet workshop, attendees assemble in a lunch room for a one-hour presentation on what's done in fleet management.
"After the presentation, we take them out on the shop floor to view different specialty vehicles in different stages of work," said Sam Lamerato, superintendent of fleet maintenance for the City of Troy. "It is a live demonstration with crews working on actual equipment. Citizens get to see the type of work our fleet technicians perform on these vehicles. These live demonstrations include a variety of tasks, ranging from the installation or removal of emergency equipment to rebuilding hydraulic systems. These citizens soon learn fleet involves more than just changing oil and oil filters."
The City of Troy limits attendance to 18-20 citizens because higher attendance becomes too unwieldy.
"We look for people who really have an interest in city government. For instance, every member of the city council and the mayor has gone through the Citizens Academy. They tell us they really find value in the [program]," said Lamerato. "The feedback we get is it is a real eye opener. If you think of everything that goes on in the city, it is difficult to have an in-depth knowledge of city operations until you go through the Citizens Academy."
Upon attending all eight sessions of the Citizen's Academy, participants are honored at a graduation ceremony. Upon graduating the eight-week course, the City of Troy asks each participant to complete a survey and evaluation form. "When answering the questionnaire dealing with the fleet department, the majority of participants say: 'Wow, all we thought fleet did was replace brakes on city vehicles, change tires, and drain oil. We never realized the variety of specialty work performed by your shop. We are so fortunate to have such a fleet division. As taxpayers, we feel proud knowing our investments in state-of-the art equipment are being taken care of in a professional manner,' " said Lamerato. "This is how you get citizens to be on your side."
Fleet Managers Need to Elevate their Stature
However, educating your constituents about the value of fleet goes beyond Citizens Academies. As a fleet manager, you must increase your exposure with senior management and continually educate them as to what fleet is doing.
"You need to get your face known to management so they know you are a player," said Lamerato. "Your goal is to become someone whom management consults when making major decisions. You want them to call you into their office or include you in conferences to ask your opinion."
Lamerato suggests setting up periodic meetings with the City's HR director, purchasing director, fire chief, and police chief.
"When something of fleet interest comes up pertaining to one of them, ask if they have 15 minutes to come over to your shop. As you show them how things are done in fleet, you are educating them as well. Often, they may be unaware of your department's capabilities. For example, the fire chief may be sending trucks or apparatuses to a jobber not realizing you can do the same work. In the process, you may insource more work," said Lamerato.
Another area where a low profile hurts fleet managers is with personnel selection. At some cities, fleet managers have limited input when hiring new technicians.
"Fleet managers need to take charge of who is hired in their department. You need to be involved in the posting. You need to be involved in determining the qualifications and be involved in the interview process," said Lamerato.
The bottom line is that fleet managers need to elevate their professional stature in the eyes of senior management. If you don't take the lead in defining your reputation as a professional fleet manager and showcasing your value to the management team, someone else will do so, which is often the source of these misperceptions.
Let me know what you think.