Trucking is such a bottom line business it is easy to lose sight of another line, the front line. And the people who hold it — and by doing so, advance their company's business goals mile after mile, day in and day out.
For a rifleman in an infantry squad, the most perilous job is to walk point — to be the lead man on patrol.
The point man is the first to alert his comrades of what lies ahead. And the first to get hit if the enemy opens fire without warning. And no matter how he comes back, no one will ever say he won the battle let alone the war.
Except for the live ordnance that can be hurled at him, the point man's task sounds a lot like the job truck drivers are expected to do.
Think about it. When all else is said and done — when the sales guy is finished calling, when the dispatcher is done dispatching, when the mechanics is done maintaining — it is the driver who is out there delivering the goods. And spending his workday in front of your customers and in the public eye.
No one else is more the visible face of your company. No one else is in a better position to make or break your company in a hundred different ways.
So what should you, the manager, do? For starters, understand that no one but a fool ever walked point without knowing the rest of the squad was backing him up, not to mention the rest of the outfit. And with you in command of said outfit it is up to you alone to make sure the members of your driving force know you are behind them 100%.
How best to do this? Keeping with the military analogy, bear in mind that with the exception of Dwight Eisenhower, no one ever became a legendary commander riding a desk into battle.
Just as Ol' Blood 'n Guts himself, George S. Patton, was famous for showing up on the front line to inspire the troops and to find out what was really going on, you need to get out there with your drivers.
Don't wait for the driver-appreciation barbecue or safety-awards night you diligently hold each and every year to spend some face time with your most valuable employees.
Instead, make it a habit to swing by the driver's lounge when you need more coffee. Better still, figure out a way to schedule say a day every month or at least one every quarter and spend a chunk of it in someone's cab.
And don't settle for riding only with the drivers domiciled at your location. If you have to, fly to where you can catch up with an LTL driver mid-trip or a TL driver while he is crossing the middle of nowhere.
They can drive but your being along for the ride, and maybe even to lend a hand dockside or at a fuel stop, will speak louder than anything else you could do with the exception of handing out a pay raise.
Judging by the times I have spent riding shotgun for professional truckers, there is something about the atmosphere inside a cab barreling over a prairie interstate or just chuffing along in big-city traffic that lends itself to open and honest communication.
It is at times like those when you will most likely learn what drivers want and need from you. What works and what doesn't to keep them coming back for more.
And that after all is the whole trick when it comes to managing drivers. Unless you want to drive the truck yourself, you had better know how to keep him or her driving it for you.
Editor's note: Next month this column will be renamed “Manager's Toolbox” to allow its coverage to expand beyond drivers to encompass all employee-related issues affecting truck fleet managers.