Igniting the Blue Flame

May 1, 2007
MANAGERS are a dime a dozen, but leaders are worth their weight in gold. It's not an exaggeration to say that Bill Webb lives and breathes that message

MANAGERS are a dime a dozen, but leaders are worth their weight in gold. It's not an exaggeration to say that Bill Webb lives and breathes that message 24/7 as well as telling it to company executives during the Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) annual meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada March 11-14.

More than a decade ago, Webb began searching for specific tools to inspire leadership for his peers in the trucking industry. That quest to transform organizations and industries for success produced — among many accomplishments — the creation of a leadership training program at his company and a book published this February — Igniting the Blue Flame: Answering The Call To Leadership.

As senior vice-president, marketing operations and stakeholder value for FFE Transportation Services Inc, Webb also authors Catch Fire, a weekly leadership newsletter delivered to thousands of executives. His continuous sermon to FFE and the trucking industry is simple: Get more people away from the mere role of management and inspire them to step up to the challenge of true leadership.

“Throughout the country and in our industry in particular, there is a very serious disconnect among rank and file employees who don't believe they make a difference,” Webb said. “They don't believe they are part of the team. Whether or not this is accurate doesn't matter — it's the way they feel. That is the fault of leadership when employees believe they are not part of the process.

“The farther you move up the ladder of responsibility in your company, the more your responsibility should focus on helping others succeed,” Webb said. “Great leaders — Herb Kelleher, Michael Dell, Jack Welch — help those around them to succeed. They know their ability to get things done is through other people. A study at Standford University concluded that 92% of your future earnings potential will not be based on work history or education. It will be based on your ability to get things done through others whom you've helped.

“So many people have made career changes because they felt they hit a dead end at their company. That is a complete leadership failure. Our jobs here at TCA aren't about moving freight or trucks. It's about supporting people and helping them succeed at moving freight and trucks.”

At FFE, Webb practices the leadership message that he has preached to the White House, national business boards, universities, and the American Trucking Association's Driver Issues Task Force as a former chairman. He spearheads a company program that already has selected 65 candidates who will complete special training for future positions of leadership while they continue their current job responsibilities. While Webb does the leadership training, department heads handle training that covers technical and company-specific issues.

“Leadership is a choice, not an assignment, so we didn't want to make this a mandatory program,” Webb says. “It's not about working more hours. It's about changing how you think — to think more globally rather than just focus on what happens on a day-to-day basis in your department.

“At the conception of our program it was important that we were sending the correct message to everyone,” Webb said. “We didn't want them to interpret their selection as a punishment because they weren't as good a leader as the company previously thought. The main message must be that we want you to be part of our future, and we are giving you the opportunity to grow.”

Working environment

Quoting the results from a major university survey, Webb said employees ranked the opportunity to advance their careers as the most important issue in the workplace. People and their working environment were rated second most important. Salary came in third place.

“The trucking industry is not known as one of the greatest working environments in the world,” he said. “We tend to invest as little as possible in our real estate. So when you tell someone they'll be promoted soon to manager of a terminal that looks like a Quonset hut, it's no surprise they're looking for another job.”

Meetings and training sessions at FFE have to be scheduled not to interfere with company operations. With the exception of life and death emergencies, everyone in the program is expected to attend all sessions or they are removed from the program.

Each month, the challenges of a different industry issue are addressed as part of the training. For example, one month may focus on the maintenance process and why FFE may choose in-house maintenance rather than outsourcing it, the logic behind particular trade cycles of tractors, and the warranty periods for different equipment.

In addition to classroom training, FFE provides trips outside the company. One month it might be to the carrier's insurance company for information about the re-insurance market and what happened after 911. Then classroom discussion might focus on what happens afterwards at the scene of an accident and how different divisions within the company have a direct impact on the cost of risk.

During another monthly trip, a two-hour tour of the Peterbilt facility in Denton, Texas, for example, might be followed by a lecture from FFE's vice-president of maintenance discussing the EPA guidelines for 2007 and 2010 engines. The focus of the classroom training would be why FFE handles maintenance a certain way.

“It's important to have some classroom training at the end of the day,” Webb said. “I don't want trainees going home with the only thought of ‘I've got to get 500,000 miles out of my trucks.’ That's not what will make them successful as a leader. We want to make sure that the people who eventually report to them understand the importance of getting 500,000 miles out of the trucks. The number of miles makes no difference if leadership can't communicate why this is important.”

Each session, Webb distributes reading material, including books about leaders and leaderships, for the trainees to discuss the following month. “I've had the opportunity to spend some time with great leaders outside the trucking industry,” he said. “There is a lot of value in taking ideas from other company leadership programs and putting them into practice in your business.”

Recruiting leaders

In addition to finding future leaders in-house, Webb said other candidates can be selected from college graduates, companies outside the trucking industry, and competitors.

If a company decides to include college graduates as part of its recruiting program, it should send company representatives to the campuses, Webb says. This gives recruiters the best opportunity to make general presentations about career opportunities, see students face-to-face, and hear the type of questions they ask.

“My goal at FFE is to recruit two graduates between now and December,” he says. “Our company needs help in finance, information technology, and other departments. If you can offer other positions other than a terminal manager, it will make your company more attractive to graduates.”

College students generally will quiz recruiters about how fast and where they can move up in a company, Webb said. Company recruiters should not be offended by such questions. “You can't take the attitude of ‘Well, let's get you in the company and get your feet wet first.’ Graduates think their feet are already soaked, and you have to deal with this mindset if you are going to recruit in their market.

“Cradle-to-grave employment is gone. Get over the idea that someone will commit to working for your company for 30 years. Not only will they never make that commitment, but they probably will stay away from your company because of that expectation.”

Leadership training must be a formal process — something that starts with a decision that the company will commit the necessary time and money to support it.

“To succeed, you must have some type of formal process for the training,” Webb said. “Training doesn't happen just when it is convenient. It wasn't on the top of my list when I started at FFE. I was concerned about our trucks running without problems at night, the right volume of freight, the correct amount of equipment, getting billing completed, and then perhaps some training scheduled at the end of the week.

“In the early 1990s, I was placing $2 million worth of driver recruiting ads for the company — personally faxing ads to newspapers throughout the country. As I moved up in the company, I realized my job was less about doing and more about getting it done through others.

Putting out fires

“You can't have your best people putting out fires. You have a customer with a problem and one of your best employees is assigned to handle the problem. Another customer with a problem shows up, and you do exactly the same thing. So now you've taken your best thoroughbreds in the company and saddled them with all of the company problems like a bunch of pack mules. When a once-in-lifetime opportunity comes along, you don't have any resources to take advantage of it because everyone is dealing with problems.”

When a company commits to a training program, it must be an ongoing process , and there must be some method to reinforce it on a regular basis, Webb said. “Those who have completed the program would call me a couple of months later and say ‘The same crap that beat me down before the training has beat me down again. When are you going to have another training session?’ I couldn't offer training sessions all the time because of my other job responsibilities.

“So FFE started a weekly leadership newsletter as a tool that reinforces previous training,” he said. “Even though I'm only meeting with leadership trainees once a month, I'm communicating with them on a regular basis through emails and the newsletter. They continue to get reinforcement from me.”

Webb said he's never believed the trucking industry has a shortage of drivers. A shortage of quality drivers, however, is a very real issue. “You always can find a body to put in a truck. It's the same with leadership and management. Managers are about control. Leaders focus on influence. Management is a job title. Leadership happens through decisions that make a difference.”

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