Who would have ever thought that compassion would be the key to a winning formula in an ultra-masculine sport? You would think something like car racing wouldn’t even be a team sport, but it very much is. And when I listened to former Formula One World Champion Peter Windsor discuss what was required to win at that level, I wasn’t surprised to learn that he used the same techniques that any smart business leader will use with any team working in any business.
When asked how and why Nigel Mansell was able to win a World Championship in Formula One racing, his Team Manager Peter Windsor (now head of Formula One‘s web presence) pointed out that you ultimately needed two things: an intensely passionate team who had found ways to truly love what they did, and those people had to be as passionate about each other as they were for winning. And so Peter Windsor, a journalist with no real business experience, was able to assemble a winning team in the toughest, richest sport in the world. So why is a guy with no business experience beating people with tons? Because you can go to work and spend 15 years learning, or you can do like a lot of people I know and you can do the same year 15 times and not learn a thing. Peter Windsor learns.
There are two kinds of managers: militaristic and humanistic. The former believes you should listen because of your title and the manager’s title and it’s simply a top-down pyramid where the crap flows downhill. The humanistic manager is much more humble and open. He’s more like oil and his team members are like engine parts. His job is to keep them flowing smoothly. He can’t presume to know how to manage the group because the group dictates that, not the manager. What a ridiculous idea that the same management systems would apply to a different group of people! So a bunch of lazy introverts requires the same techniques as a bunch of A-type overachievers? Hardly. And anyone who thinks so is absolutely going to be a blind manager. Blind to what? Blind to what needs actual management.
Engineers are very often very technical and almost Asperger-ish in their disinterest in human emotion. This is precisely because they see the emotions as being extraneous to the process—which it’s hard to argue—but nevertheless, as the rest of know, those very emotions are often at the core of our efforts. So some of the engineers can be passionately focused on winning by ignoring emotion whereas others on the team will be just as passionate about the teammates themselves. So part of Windsor’s job was to either run interference between these two groups, or to ensure that they are the right sorts of people to be able to communicate effectively without his help. Because you can have the smartest people in the world working together and it will be useless as long as they can’t communicate and share their abilities. And that told me that Windsor would have succeeded in any business he went in to. Because he understands that ultimately what makes a team successful is how well it shares.
Lewis Hamilton is a brilliant, intuitive driver. He’s just come off a winning season but Windsor’s concerned about his next season. They’ve changed engineers from one that was very human and engaged with Lewis as an intuitive. He would listen carefully to Lewis’s intuitive feedback and he would translate it into the numbers on his computer screen. This year they’ve gone with a different engineer and Windsor rightfully picks up that this may be fatal for Lewis’s season. If the person responsible for the car can’t communicate well with the person driving it, then I think you can see that F1 truly is a team sport, because the car will end up being worked on hard and built to some strange standard that lives in the unshared world of two people who aren’t truly communicating. Windsor would know to either go translate, or get a different engineer. That is the smartest kind of management—to see a team as an organic, living being that must be treated like a living thing and not a list of jobs that pull on each other like levers.
If you’re in business and you’re looking to maximize the impact of your team, the most important thing you can do is clearly identify the goal, and then ensure that every team member is genuinely invested in helping his teammates achieve their aspect of that larger goal. So in essence, everyone is helping everyone, which removes what I term friction in a business.
Friction slows a race car down and friction slows a business down. If you have two or more people infighting over something, then the life force that those people arrive at work with each day will not be expended on getting the car to go faster or the business to do better, it will be expended battling against each other. Now that friction can be healthy when used for development of ideas when it’s done in the most positive ways. But it cannot be allowed to drift into personal friction, where people are now battling each other. Once we start yelling we’ve stopped arguing for a point and now we’re arguing for ourselves.
There was a lot of business people at the event this past weekend. It took place at one of my clients, Modern Auto Body, a super-high end auto body shop that more reconstructs high end cars than fixes them. And the audience was filled with financially successful business people. But financial success doesn’t mean those businesses didn’t have even more head room. Because anyone in there that wasn’t running their team with the respect for friction that Windsor has—that business person has left a lot on the table. Because a stronger manager would draw more value from those same people by treating them, not as pegs filling job slots but, as human beings who spend half of their waking life at work. If you can make that work inspiring and have the team feel like a family, then you will have created the hardest, most conscientious workers there are.
I loved the event and I loved spending some quality time with a man who I not only respect for his achievements, but also for his humanity. I think it was summed up nicely when I asked a female non-race fan if she had enjoyed his talk, and she told me that she had loved it, and that it was very impressive to her how much Windsor genuinely cared about his team. She noted that he always knew such beautiful personal details about the lives of his team members, and that he always spoke with such reverence about everyone from the driver and engineer all the way on down to the 160th member of the team. I had the same reaction. It’s the same one I have whenever I’m around the people who’ve lead the most holistically successful lives. Because if you just win races but hate every minute of it, then you haven’t won anything at all. So ultimately it wasn’t the World Championship that made Peter Windsor—it was the love for his co-workers that made him the great man and leader that he still is to this day.
Now go be a good team member on whatever team you’re on, be it at home or work. And always remember to drive safe out there. All the best. 😉