For the 2021 Legendary Lifetime Achievement Award winner and Hall of Fame inductee Robert Gordon, “helping others who want to better themselves” has been a guiding career principle.
“I truly enjoy helping people,” said the 34-year industry veteran and frequent speaker across the nation. “When I am speaking or someone calls my office with a question or request for advice, I consider it an honor to try to give them an answer.”
Readily admitting he doesn’t have all the answers, Gordon often says to the audience, “Someone in this room will have the answer.” He also intentionally shares his successes and failures. “People respond so much better” to this authentic, relatable approach, he has found.
Gordon received the achievement award, sponsored by cooperative contract provider Sourcewell, at the recent Government Fleet Expo and Conference (GFX) in Orlando. The annual award is presented to a current or past Hall of Fame inductee.
Above all, he credits his wife Sherri, his “lovely bride” of 34 years, for supporting his career and taking care of the home front so he could work early morning and late nights.
The Client is ‘Customer’
Gordon is deputy director of fleet management for DeKalb County, Georgia, which numbers 764,000-plus residents and covers 271 square miles. He joined the fleet operation as a service technician 21 years ago and was promoted through the ranks to his current role.
The DeKalb fleet serves all county departments except schools: police (the largest group), fire, ambulance, off-road, water district, etc.
Gordon also secured funding for a full-time trainer who holds sessions on vehicle repairs and maintenance, and coordinates vendor trainings. The trainer audits the fleet operation for standards compliance, quality preventive maintenance, and improvement opportunities.
Gordon and his fleet team view the departments they serve as “customers,” an important distinction to the fleet leader. “Even though their paychecks are signed by the same county, the vehicles are county-owned and used by county employees, and they serve the public — the real customers,” he explained. “We treat them with respect and take care of them so they can take care of the public.”
Key Values: Empowerment & Accountability
Gordon empowers his team leaders to manage their tasks and crew within the department’s guidelines. “Run your shop and hold your people accountable,” he tells them.
Accountability is another key Gordon value. “Like every operation, ours is not perfect every time. We all make mistakes. The important thing is to address the issue forthright and deal with it. Don’t hide it,” he tells his team. “You’re not alone. People will help you out.”
Gordon considers his team “a great group of people, taking charge of their responsibilities, taking the initiative, and thinking outside the box.” He promotes two-way communication: “Information goes from my office down, and up from techs who have seen a new way to handle things,” he explained.
Fleet crew members attend industry conferences and training opportunities whenever possible, while Gordon and staff members belong to several industry organizations. “We are open to everything possible to stay on top of industry developments,” Gordon said.
Advocate for Young People
Gordon’s long-term and most passionate focus is the next generation of technicians. He advocates for recruiting, training, and retaining a workforce of young people for the industry’s future.
His message to industry colleagues is to “get involved with young people. Help guide them in their career decisions.”
This is especially important because of the technician shortage the industry is facing. “We’ve got to get young people into the tech field,” he said, encouraging fleet professionals to become active in local high school and tech school programs, as well as serving on the schools’ advisory committees and councils.
“Help set the curriculum and speak to young people about a career in tech or another trade,” Gordon urged. “Emphasize that a young person can make a lifelong career in these fields and earn a decent living without the crushing debt of most college education.”
Gordon partnered with a local tech school to establish an apprenticeship program, a “highlight” of his career at DeKalb. The operation now has eight full-time techs who started as apprentices.
His involvement prompted a Georgia State University counselor to request Gordon’s input on alternative career paths for college dropouts. He also supports a local high school, Warren Tech, where students, many with learning difficulties or disabilities, complete 1,500-2,100 hours per year of work-based learning. Currently, 12 employees have been through the program.
“Life’s been good to me; I’ve had a good career,” Gordon said, and he’s determined to “pass along the encouragement and support I’ve gotten along the way.”