Ron Clarke Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2007

Ron Clarke has a simple formula for getting quality work and time efficiency out of his 800 employees at FleetCor — he makes sure they’re doing the right work, and he gives them short deadline cycles. The combination of making sure they work on the most valuable tasks and reviewing the employees frequently keeps productivity and progress high at this fuel card processing company. Smart Business spoke with Clarke, chairman and CEO of FleetCor, about how he keeps employees focused on the job at hand and why reviews are critical to producing useful work.

Know your job. My job is to make sure the attention and energy of every single human being that touches my company is working on the right work. Every second that I lose is leakage, which means I lost valuable energy of people to things that aren’t important. Leaders that minimize leakage win.

If you know what the right work is and you can get them to work with 5 percent leakage, you’ll beat, every time, the competitor that has the same amount of resources but isn’t on the right agenda, and he’s got 50 percent leakage.

Determine the agenda. Great leaders figure out how to spend the most valuable resource in the world, which is time. Agenda is job one, and it’s job one every day because if you don’t know, how can the company perform well?

Reverse-engineer the financial statements. The report card of businesses is numbers. If I look at the report card of your company, I can quickly figure out what needs to be worked on. Is there a growth problem? A margin problem? A product mix problem? A cost-competitiveness problem? You can see the smoke signs of what needs to be focused on first in the financials.

Once you’ve looked at the report card, then get outside of your company. The game is in the marketplace, so it’s getting out and getting clear on your customers and prospects and competitors and figuring out where you are, there would be the second place.

Then go through the entire executive team next and reverse-engineer their agendas. Call them all in and [say], ‘Tell me the top three things you’re working on.’ Consolidate those 30 responses, and in a short period of time, you can figure out the gap of what’s being worked on in a company versus what should be worked on in a company, and they’re never right.

Document and clarify expectations. The great thing about blue-collared work was the work was definable. You put a widget in something. White-collar work is incredibly ambiguous, and if you don’t take enormous steps to clarify with somebody and get agreement on exactly what you want to have produced, think about the impact of that as you move down the organization.

If my 10 or 12 guys don’t get it right, then think of their 10 guys and their 10 guys. You want to talk about the world getting less clear.

Specify the work in advance. Maybe I’ll make you say it back to me, and you’ll say, ‘OK, Ron, I got it. Leave me alone. I’m clear now.’ Taking that clarity exercise almost to an extreme has tremendous return.

There’s nothing as useful as documenting things that people can go back and look at what their commitments are. Getting it written down and then reviewing it is important so people would be able to measure how they’re progressing as the year rolls on.

Establish strict deadlines. Tie it to financials. If you have a new product you’re supposed to launch on July 1, and we think we can sell $1 million a month, I spend my entire life telling you, ‘$6 million. Don’t miss, you got to get it. You got to find $6 million in ’07,’ and I make you sweat with me to deliver the number.

The only way you can deliver the number is to get started on time because if you wait an extra quarter, you’ll be at $3 million, not at $6 [million]. If you didn’t have deadlines, who knows when they’d actually start doing the work?

The only way you can be sure that people are doing the right work and producing useful work is to review it. I’ll review you to death so that you don’t have a chance to not work.

Read people. As we start to interact, you can see what’s working with people. It’s the old take an action and observe. See what the reaction is, and you’ll get a sense pretty quickly what works for people.

Some people completely get frazzled with deadlines, and others rise to the occasion on them. Pick a course, try it and look and see what you’re getting back.

There’s no science there — you just keep modifying. It’s relatively easy to sense how the relationship is going — not much different than your at-home relationship — what works with your other half. If you want to talk him into going to the movies, and he hates the movies, or you want to go to the museum and he hates the museum, you find the ways that work for that person, and it’s no different for me.

Hire winners. If you’re more than 22 years old, you’ve had to have actually done something. The first thing that I’ll get into is, ‘Have you accomplished anything?’ Most people do interviews and ask people about what they’ve done. I only want to know what did you deliver.

No. 2, I want people that want the ball. If it’s fourth-and-goal from the 1, and you go back into the huddle, and the whole game is on the line, and I say, ‘Do you want the ball?’ and you say, ‘I want the ball,’ and I say, ‘It’s all on the line,’ and you say, ‘Give me the ball,’ I want people who want the ball and aren’t afraid.

Make good decisions. In my mind, I sort them like clothes into small, medium and large. On the big ones that matter, make no decision before its time. They say about fine wine, drink no fine wine before its time.

If the decision doesn’t need to be made today, I wake up tomorrow. If it doesn’t need to be made tomorrow, I wake up the next day. Then there’s a funny thing that happens, and it settles in, and I feel like I’ve got the right decision — there’s a day that I wake up and I go, ‘I got it. Here’s what I’m going to do.’

HOW TO REACH: FleetCor, www.fleetcor.com or (800) 877-9019