Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Leadership at the Indianapolis 500

Leadership at the Indy 500 for the teams who get themselves on the victory podium is specific and definite. There is a common thread to the behavior of leaders in the complex sport of auto racing. The 2011 Indy 500 showed that when good decisions are made the giants of the sport can be toppled. Some of the enclosed information is drawn from Performance at the Limit, a book written by a friend of mine, Richard West.

If we consider that successful auto racing teams achieve performance levels at the limits of their financial, technological and human potential, lets ask the question, how do they do that?

The motor sport industry encapsulates many of the challenges faced by today's manager across many different types of organizations and sectors. Challenges such as increasing knowledge creation and transfer, working in global and virtual teams, managing across boundaries, enhancing innovation and creativity, accelerating speed to market, effective execution of strategy, creating transformational change and, above all, through all of these challenges, creating sustained levels of performance that competitors are unable to match.

What does the behavior of motor sports leadership look like:

They make a decision, live with it, and if it is the wrong one learn from it as quickly as possible and move on. Change for the sake of change is not embraced. It has to be realistic change for the sake of performance. The key for maintaining success is to actually disbelieve in the sustainability of your own performance. To continually feel that you could have done it better, and to continually strive for the unattainable goal.

Success requires a 'portfolio of leaders'. In affect these teams succeed because there are individuals throughout the organization who are willing and capable to accept the responsibilities of leadership regardless of their formal authority.

All too often organizations lose sight of the external relativity of performance and focus too heavily on performance enhancements relative to their own internal benchmarks; in auto racing, performance benchmarking is always relative to the competition and a team's performance is only as good as the last race. These factors create a context where there is no let-up in the search for both short - and long-term performance gains.

There is the constant pressure of competition and for successful motor sports teams a key issue is that standing still, means going backwards. Auto racing teams combine many different resources such as human capital, technology, marketing and finance to achieve a performance outcome that hopefully is superior to those of its competitors. The best leaders in auto racing integrate by providing flexibility and clarity for those within the organization. Successful auto racing teams are almost diametrically opposed to the big-business model. Nothing will be achieved through oppressive bureaucracy and burdensome processes.

Auto racing leaders look for people who think laterally, who never accept that something is impossible and who are prepared to work hard. They would be individualistic in their thinking, but team players in their action.

Auto racing is a complex and dangerous sport and its business model requires specific leadership, skill sets and attitudes. Successful auto racing teams have internal organizational speed of operations by combining two key elements; 1/ having the right people in the right positions doing the right things, and 2/ by removing the speed bumps that slow them down.

The auto racing high performance model when overlaid over other industry models might just be the ideal model for organizations that believe that the speed of business will continue to get faster in the next decade.

Derek Daly

Source: Performance at the Limit, Richard West