Rewind: What I’ve Learned About Running A Business By Driving A Racecar

I posted this on LinkedIn last year, and it was widely shared in the biz world. Thought I’d recycle here. Enjoy!

 

I don’t spend a lot of time in my office—after all, this is 2017 (well, it was then—B.), and with my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Air, my virtual office is with me wherever I go. As a result, my actual office isn’t adorned with the usual diplomas, plaques, and photographs that you’ll see on the walls of most work stations. There are only two photos: one of my kids and me taking in an MLS soccer game, and one of my other “family”—my amateur auto racing team.

We’re standing on the podium at on of the world’s greatest racing circuits, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, proudly displaying our champion’s trophy, the result of nine hours of actual blood, sweat, and tears. I don’t have this picture in my office to show off my hobby to visitors. No, it’s there to remind me that the same principles that apply to driving a winning racecar apply to sales, coaching, and management. Here’s what my years behind the wheel of a racecar have taught me about business.

Slow in, Fast out

When you’re driving a racecar, the most important elements of the track are the corners. Anybody can mash the throttle and hold on for dear life on the straightaways—it’s the turns that separate the pros from the amateurs.

When learning how to drive, many new drivers try to carry far too much speed into the corners. The result? They go too far into the corner, and they miss the turning point. They have to slam on the brakes, bringing the car nearly to a halt, and then they end up losing all of their momentum.

Experienced drivers know that corner entry speed is important, but that mid-corner speed is more important, and exit speed is most important. They apply firm braking, then trail off as they enter the turn. Once they begin to straighten the wheel again, they apply the throttle, assuring themselves of maximum speed for the ensuing straightaway. This has led to the creation of the well-known racing axiom, “Slow in, Fast out.”

Business is no different. Too often, we rush to be first into a new space or a new marketplace. We carry too much speed, missing important data points or essential steps to success. So what do we have to do? We have to slam on the brakes, bringing our business and our processes to a halt. As a result, we lose our momentum, and we watch our competitors, who may not have been first into the marketplace, leave us behind.

While being first to market is important, setting ourselves up for long-term success is more important. Make sure to remember “Slow in, Fast out” the next time you’re rushing to enter a space.

Don’t Race In Your Mirrors

New racers are prone to looking in their mirrors for oncoming traffic. They are so concerned with what’s happening behind them that they forget to drive the track in front of them. This can be extremely dangerous, for both the racer and the traffic around him. This is known as “racing in your mirrors.”

In business, we race in our mirrors all the time. We spend exorbitant amounts of time worrying about what’s happened in the past. When we are working with clients who have had a negative experience with us in the past, or employees who’ve made mistakes, we focus exclusively on the antecedents, so much so that we negatively influence our current behaviors.

One of the most dangerous sayings in business is “We’ve tried that before, and it didn’t work.” We focus only on the negative consequences, and we gloss over the behaviors that might have caused the failure. Often a good idea is ruined in its execution. While the old saying “those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it” is still true, there’s no reason to relive the past on a daily basis. Look forward and deal with the challenges that you’re facing in the now and the challenges you will be facing in the future. Leave what’s happening in your mirrors in your mirrors.

You Can’t Win Without Strong, Consistent, and Fearless Communication

On the racetrack, there’s no time for feelings. The driver’s job is to communicate exactly what’s happening in the car to his crew chief. If the car isn’t turning properly, or if there’s smoke entering the cabin, the driver has to radio in immediately and let the team know that there’s an issue.

But communication is a two-way street. If a driver is off the pace, the crew chief has to provide him with the data he needs to improve. The driver has to know where he’s losing time in comparison with the field, and the numbers are black and white—the clock doesn’t lie. It’s the crew chief’s job to provide factual, honest feedback.

The same is true in the workplace. Too often we foster environments that aren’t conducive to open lines of communication. If employees are afraid to tell their managers about conditions in the marketplace that are preventing them from being successful for fear of retribution, then the whole company might as well be driving with a blindfold on. We have to trust the opinions and observations of our frontline staff—they’re the ones dealing with the customers face-to-face, they’re the ones seeing the impact of the competitors firsthand. We have to encourage honest, brutal truth, and then we have to take action based on it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we permit excuses or obscure truths. When an employee’s performance isn’t up to par, we have to provide coaching in that very moment. The numbers are black and white, and while they might tell a story that’s uncomfortable to deliver, we owe it to our people to tell them the truth about their performance. Just like a racecar driver, they deserve to know the data, and they deserve an opportunity to correct their behaviors and “get up to speed.”

Great Drivers Don’t Always Make Great Crew Chiefs—and vice-versa

In that picture in my office, you’ll see no fewer than nine people standing on the podium. Six drivers, three technicians. Everybody has a part to play. I freely admit that I’m probably the slowest driver on the team, and sometimes, there are races where I don’t even get behind the wheel.

But what I am particularly good at is managing strategy. I am able to plan out an entire race, schedule each pit stop, and ensure that everybody is doing his or her job as needed. I man the radio for the other drivers, keeping them cool-headed when things are going crazy all around them, providing them the data and information they need to win, and relaying their feedback to our mechanics so that the necessary adjustments can be made in the next stop.

And yes, sometimes that means that I have to swallow my pride and put one of the other, faster drivers back in the car rather than taking my own turn in the driver’s seat. It’s all about doing what’s best for the team.

In business, we too often take great individual contributors and try to make leaders out of them. Everybody seems to know that this isn’t the right thing to do, but it happens anyway. Often, it’s because the sales leader on the team says “it’s my turn,” having been passed over for a promotion two or three times. Sometimes we even design our compensation plans poorly, so that a great individual contributor has to get promoted out of his competency in order to make more money.

We also fail to recognize that the best potential leader among our team might sometimes be one of our weakest individual contributors. The skillsets just aren’t the same. Just as I can be the best crew chief on my race team but the slowest driver, sometimes our worst salespeople can be our best sales leaders.

And I’m Still Learning

When it comes to racing, I’m mostly self-taught. I’ve never gone to a full blown racing school. But I make it a point to never miss an opportunity for track time. Each and every time I get behind the wheel of a car on the track, I try to make sure that I’m practicing a new skill, or learning from the car I’m following, or asking a more experienced driver to sit in my passenger seat and coach me. It’s this continued learning that helps me slice tenths of a second off of my lap times. I’ll never stop trying to get faster, even if it’s happening one lap at a time.

Unfortunately, our current business environments don’t allow for this type of growth. When I take salespeople out of the field for training, too often I hear complaints from either their managers and directors or from the salespeople themselves. We never practice new skills with each other. Instead, we direct employees to take an online training module, and then we make them go and practice on our customers. Just take a moment to appreciate how insane this is!

It would be just like taking somebody who’s never sat behind the wheel of a racecar and asking them to go win the Indianapolis 500. Or asking somebody who’s driven a NASCAR stock car to go run at the front of a Formula One race. Maybe they might have some idea what they’re doing, but they’ll quickly be overtaken by racers who practice driving those cars every day.

Make time for training and practice. Don’t call it “role play,” call it what it is—call it practice. We’ve conditioned our teams for years to dread role play. It’s boring, it’s not the real world, and it’s uncomfortable for everybody involved. Remind them that they’ve spent the rest of their lives practicing other skills they wanted to improve—dancing, music, sports, whatever it is. And then, actually give them the necessary resources to practice their skills.

Yes, It’s Dangerous, But It’s What Makes Life Worth Living

I’ll close by saying this: every time that somebody finds out that I race cars as a hobby, their first question is normally something like, “Aren’t you scared? Isn’t it dangerous?”

The answer is, of course, “Yes.” I’m at least a little afraid every time that I take the wheel. I’m anxious. I’m nervous. I want to do well for myself, of course, but I mostly want to perform well for my team.

If you don’t have people surrounding you who are a little nervous or a little anxious about what they’re doing, or if you don’t have butterflies when you go on a call, then you have to ask yourself, “Is this their passion? Is it mine? Do I deeply care about what I’m doing here?”

If not, then I encourage you to go find something that gives you those butterflies in your core. I hope you’ll find a career that inspires passion within you. I hope you get the same feeling in your chest when you win a deal that I do standing on top of that podium.

It’s that passion that makes racing, and life, for that matter, worth doing. So go find your own racecar, put on your firesuit, and get behind the wheel.

15 Replies to “Rewind: What I’ve Learned About Running A Business By Driving A Racecar”

  1. Felis Concolor

    To your excellent words – and a nod to Jack’s earlier “The Man in the Arena” post – I’ll add a quote from the late, great Bill Jordan: though it refers to gun fighting, it dovetails perfectly with your “Slow in, Fast out” section; “Take your time fast.” You definitely need to move, but excessive haste is just as bad as indecision.

    While I have sent a few books Jack’s way in the past, I feel a few others I have read would prove enjoyable, entertaining and enlightening to you as well. May I submit a few unrequested tomes for your perusal? I believe Jack has my email address for contact purposes, along with that’s attached to this account.

    Reply
  2. E. Bryant

    Solid article, Mark – I sincerely enjoyed it.

    I’ve had thoughts of writing similar pieces based upon the application of my experiences with cycling to the business world, but never acted upon those urges. Your work here might have given me the necessary inspiration to pick up that project and make something happen.

    Reply
  3. stingray65

    Mark, Mark, Mark – how do you think you can get away with writing such words of violence. I’m writing this after an hour in my safe place playing with puppies and Play Doh, but am still shaking so please excuse my rough language. First, who do you think you are talking about winning and finding ways to do better in your sport or in work – don’t you know that you are supposed to check your privilege and let those who never win and never learn have first crack at each opportunity? Second, you again are showing your white male privilege in assuming that society benefits from assigning the most qualified/skilled person to every job. Don’t you know that meritocracy, winning, and learning are triggering words that can harm mediocrities without privilege? You might as well punch them in the face with all the violent words you have spouted in this piece – its time to apologize and check your privilege young man.

    Reply
  4. -Nate

    A _lot_ of good points here ~ I wish the management at my last gig understood even a fraction of it instead of everyone being terrified of anyone else doing better constantly and blocking or and bagging those who actually tried .

    After a few years I gave up and kept my eyes on the brass ring at the end of the road and quietly made my self the go to guy for all manner of problems .

    “it’s the turns that separate the pros from the amateurs.” ~ true, this, why I’ll never even make amateur status even though I have great fun behind the wheel/handlebars .

    -Nate

    Reply
  5. John C.

    I know all of that management by scientific process is what they taught many of us in business school. In my case and generation, the vaunted W Edwards Demming teaching the Japanese what the American corporatists’ were too short sighted to learn. That fit the narrative of the professors baby boomer politics but did not explain or do much for Japan when the bottom fell out exactly when I was being taught it. My politics also color my business theories which are mainly a great man theory of advancement when lucky geniuses pull off an advancement. It seems the rest of us are left to find ourselves a place in the resultant organizations and go along for the ride.

    The scientific process style of management has a lot to do with the hollowing out of all the business organizations that are so rampant. Things are not going well because the less than genius committee at the top has not innovated. Than a sensible on paper rationing of diminished resources that will allow the bottle to be kicked down the road hopefully a little bit.

    Seeing this strategizing go on in car racing seems bizarre to me but probably comes down to teams of mediocre club drivers driving less than optimum rides bought off the shelf. The goal really being a pleasant diversion for the club members. The system even allows for video game looking videos for later scientific review.

    Is it any wonder that the early car races like the Mille Miglia that actually featured brave geniuses wrestling state of the art machines on unfamiliar public roads did so much better in capturing the public imagination. No crew chief coaching sweet nothings in the ear just excited crowds at roadside telling you to go faster. At the end, not videos to watch but a stiff drink, an adoring crowd, and a warm groupie. A better system?

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

      It was the novelty of the automobile, and then of the fast automobile, that captivated the crowds back then. That, and a world where there wasn’t so much as a single TV station to provide amusement on demand. People turned out in droves for the Mille; they also walked fifty miles to see a butter cow.

      We manage the process now because the racing is so much faster and closer than it used to be. The “greats” of the Fifites and sixties wouldn’t be within 5 seconds a lap to today’s orthodontist “pros”. The cars were dogshit slow and had a Geo Metros worth of grip.

      My Accord is considerably faster than a Moss-era Benz or Ferrari and the races are decided by seconds, not half hours. Sad but true.

      Reply
  6. Eric L.

    Pretty good stuff. Honestly, though, I’d be interested to see you connect the theory of constraints, lean manufacturing principles, or kanban’s philosophies to your race career. Kaizen applies well enough, but can you visualize the flow of work on raceday, limiting WIP to increase repair speeds and get back on the track faster? If lean works for all flavors of knowledge work and actual manufacturing, can it be applied to winning races?

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.