Agent of change sounds like yet another business seminar catchphrase. We’re told, “Don’t just manage; be a change agent and you’ll achieve excellence, a promotion, or something good.”

A fleet manager looking to move a fleet — or career — to the next level needs to define change. What creates change? How can it help achieve your lofty goals?

‘If All You Ever Do…’

There is a saying in the state of Texas, “If all you ever do is all you’ve ever done, then all you’ll ever get is all you ever got.” Read it again and think about it — there is wisdom in those words.

Perhaps Einstein’s words are more succinct: “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.”

Sometimes, or most of the time, we are all consumed with the “conventional wisdom,” or thinking and acting based on how we’ve always thought and acted, and that makes the results all too predictable.

Being an agent of change in your organization requires creativity, confidence, leadership, a bit of salesmanship, and, most of all, it takes the courage of one’s convictions, a fearlessness that can overcome doubt.

Fear of Failure

The single biggest obstacle most people have in the way of being a true agent of change is fear of failure. We all tend to not want our fingerprints on bad decisions, so all too often we avoid making decisions altogether. It is certainly impossible to introduce change unless hard decisions are made.

Take replacement cycling, for example. The fleet “conventional wisdom” is that replacement should be a function of a time/use algorithm: Replace at “X” months or “X” miles, whichever comes first. We’re told over and over again that replacing too soon will hit depreciation hard, while replacing too late will result in increased maintenance and repair costs, and risks major component failure.

Changing this mindset (not just adding or subtracting a few months or miles to the policy) would stand in the face of decades of fleet lore, and, after all, are things going so badly that such change is needed? The short answer is no, they’re probably doing just fine as is, but there again is that Texas saying — doing what has always been done, generally has the same results as usual.

Is there a better way? Perhaps, but no fleet manager will find out unless they “think outside the box.”

With the new vehicle technology and extended warranties of today, vehicles can be kept safely and efficiently a great deal longer — up to 100,000 miles or more. Or, perhaps, with new car sales stagnant, the used-vehicle market is strong enough to replace vehicles sooner, perhaps even every year.

Relying on a “that’s the way it’s always been done” attitude is a sure-fire barrier to bringing about change in any organization. Playing it safe may well be safe, but it isn’t the path to excellence.

Qualities of Change Agents

There is no real dictionary definition of “change agent.” There are, however, a number of qualities that real agents of change have, enabling them to break out of the pack and introduce revolutionary change to an organization.

  • Sensitivity. It may sound odd, but sensitivity is important. Change agents must be sensitive to how others perceive change, especially radical change, and what they need to do to address such perceptions.
  • Communication skills. Few qualities are as important as communication when introducing change. Selling, persuasion, and clarity will help make the job of bringing change easier on everyone.
  • Enthusiasm. Clearly, unless change is proposed enthusiastically, the fear of failure that others have will be difficult to overcome.
  • Leadership. You’ll need people to follow your example and feel confident that you’re leading them in the right direction.
  • Networking. Being able to work with colleagues at all levels of the organization, from staff who will implement the change, to the managers who will have to approve it.
  • Creativity. The aforementioned ability to “think outside the box,” as well as apply that thinking in a practical sense to bring about positive change.

These are some of the more critical skills an agent of change must have if he or she is to be successful. Along with these more personal attributes, any fleet manager who seeks to change their organization must have the skills, knowledge, and experience to get deeper into the process.

You cannot simply make sweeping suggestions without the detail justifying what you’re trying to do. That detail comes with technical fleet management experience and knowledge, and is a necessary compliment to the personal qualities above.

[PAGEBREAK]Change for Change’s Sake

One of the errors some fleet managers make when attempting to introduce radical change is to make such changes simply for the purpose of doing so, also known as “change for change’s sake.” It is one of the more serious errors a manager can make.

Remember, even successful agents of change cannot be right every time. There will be mistakes, and some change won’t work as intended. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work. Add to that a manager who, in his or her zeal to introduce serious change to the organization, simply does so without the requisite study and communication with others. A new manager is sometimes eager to “clean up Dodge City,” make his or her mark on the organization and the fleet operation, and this can lead to a flurry of uninformed, radical change for which no one is ready. It sometimes is also an attempt to draw a contrast versus a predecessor. Whatever the reason, it can be disastrous.

For example, in 1979, the country, and the fleet industry, was in the midst of the second major oil shock of the decade. The fleet industry scrambled to meet the challenge, with new models and technology to boost fuel efficiency. One large Midwest fleet manager decided to take a leap and replace his entire fleet with new, retrofitted diesel models, which soon showed frequent failure. The company lost millions of dollars in resale over the ensuing years, not to mention additional millions due to increased repair costs and downtime. The fleet manager, not surprisingly, lost his job.

This is a prime example of “change for change’s sake.” Making radical changes in vehicle makes and models, equipment, or fleet policy without serious purpose, or worse yet, without the careful analysis and application of experience and knowledge can decrease the possibility of success.

Too often, the purpose of change is self-aggrandizement — a new fleet manager looking to make his or her mark, erase the record of a predecessor, or simply to make an effort to prove his or her influence and authority.

What Can be Changed?

What, in a fleet operation, can be changed? The core answer can be found in the basic mission of the fleet manager: to provide, and operate, a fleet of vehicles in the safest, most cost-efficient manner possible.

A change agent will take safety issues and bring them to the next level. A fleet manager’s goal should not only be to have and enforce a fleet safety policy, but to create a safety culture that permeates the organization. Use social media to draw family members into your organization’s safety culture. Make it interactive, encourage participation, and get drivers to help spread the message that the company cares not just for the safety of its drivers, but that of their families and friends as well. Also, consider introducing a safety award program. Reward excellence with recognition or prizes, such as an upgraded vehicle or equipment.

Go outside your comfort zone to find help. If your company has a manufacturing function, for example, it likely has plant or factory safety managers, and the culture permeates everything production employees do. Ask them for help in bringing the same focus on safety to drivers in the field.

Just having a safety policy, and penalties for violation of that policy, is how it’s always been done. Bring real change to that process by including others into the culture, making every driver think about safety every time they get behind the wheel.

Prepare to Fail

Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Ever hear of Traf-O-Data? That was Bill Gates’ first, failed, business venture. Harland Sanders, Colonel Sanders of chicken fame, was rejected more than 1,000 times before any restaurant agreed to accept his chicken recipe. Henry Ford started five businesses, all of which failed, before founding the Ford Motor Company.

Not even the most iconic figures in our culture and in business sport a perfect record of success; indeed, most of them battled failure more than once before hitting a successful note. However, all of the aforementioned were agents of change. But, although they are defined in the public mind as successful, it is their failures, and their own refusal to accept those failures, that in some way define their successes.

Now, it isn’t likely that any radical change a fleet manager brings to an organization will vault them into the rarefied air occupied by the likes of Jordan, Ford, or Gates. But, within the industry, true change has always been brought about by those who have the courage to try, the willingness to fail and learn from those failures.

There are limits, of course, and a savvy change agent will start small. If, for example, the analysis shows the replacement cycle for the fleet can be extended well beyond current limits, it isn’t a good idea to impose that change en masse. Start with a control group of vehicles, and track the results over some period of time. If the numbers work, bring more vehicles into the mix, until the entire fleet — and the full positive effect of the change — can be realized. The same goes for any other radical change in the fleet operation. Begin with a test group of vehicles or drivers, perhaps with a region or small number of branches, and build up the change as the results call for it.

But, be prepared to explain your failures. If, for example, the vehicles with extended replacement cycles end up with higher maintenance costs or depreciation expense, you can call off the change, regroup, and find out why it didn’t work.

If you test some vehicles outside of the maintenance management program, and you find that the instance of need for mechanical expertise is greater than you figured, you can call that off, too, and analyze the results to find where you may have been wrong.

Change for the Good

It’s an old adage, “Change isn’t bad, it’s only different,” and nothing could be more true, provided the change has purpose, and not merely made for its own sake. Keep in mind what you’ll need to do, how you’ll need to do it, and do a little self examination to see if you have what it takes to be that change agent that brought excellence to the organization.

Never change simply to say you did. Don’t change things simply to differentiate yourself from a predecessor, or to try and impress subordinates or management.

Make certain that you have the personal qualities that successful change agents should have: sensitivity, leadership, creativity, communications and networking skills, enthusiasm, with a little salesmanship thrown in for good measure. Be honest with yourself; remember that “success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan.”

Assess your experience and background skills in the fleet profession. Make sure you have the knowledge you’ll need to bring about excellence. If you don’t, find a way to get it.

Don’t fear “rocking the boat.” Agents of change do exactly that.

From a practical standpoint, do your homework. Gather the information you’ll need to develop your plan, network among peers to help you, and most of all, keep good records as your proceed. If it doesn’t work, you’ll need all the detail you can get to find out why, and explain it to others.

Managing a fleet is a challenging and rewarding job. It can become very comfortable, however, as you face the law of diminishing returns in your efforts. Keep in mind, though, Einstein’s, and that unknown Texan’s words. Doing things the way they’ve always been done will just get you only what you’ve always gotten. And looking to solve problems that were created with the same level of awareness simply doesn’t work. Your task as an agent of change is to challenge the conventional wisdom, to step outside your comfort zone and be ready to accept risk. The rewards, despite the occasional setbacks, can be substantial.