Leaders Never Stop Practicing

On arrival, late in the evening at Copenhagen airport in Denmark, we looked forward to a long two-hour drive to the second city of Denmark, Odense. This is the birth place of Hans Christian Andersen and the venue for the ground breaking Thinkers50 event. Thinkers50 is a gathering of the world’s most prominent business thinkers. The marketing pitch says it all:
  • Marshall Goldsmith – the world’s number one leadership coach,
  • Professor Michael Porter, the world’s number one business thinker,
  • Lars Rebien Sorensen – the world’s number one business leader.
It looked like something very special to be part of. It was a privilege to be invited by the organisers of the Thinkers50 event to host and compere a panel of contemporary CEO’s (my handpicked guests) and take a challenging and practitioners look at the Future of Business. As I came down for an early breakfast, I bumped into Marshall Goldsmith. After quickly inviting myself to join him for breakfast, without any introductions, we soon got into a friendly and stimulating chat about contemporary leadership. We soon discovered that we had a client in common, Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank. We shared many perspectives and there could not have been a better start to a fascinating day. My sparky and galvanised panel energised the expectant audience with stories and insights from the frontline of business leadership. There were some 300 European business leaders present, joined in the gallery by some 200 Danish business school students. The day had been purposely intellectually stretching, with many leading academics giving their thoughts and visions on what the future shape of business might well be. Our panel was designed to be much more focussed on where the ‘rubber hits the road’.  The provocative thoughts of our gathered and learned academics had made very clear during the day that being a contemporary business leader was nowadays a tough old gig. Our contention was that it has always been tough, and whilst the new age challenges were different and novel, perhaps every generation of business leaders has had to face down the challenges of transformation forced by the disruptive innovation of the day. It just felt so much more compressed and at an unforgiving velocity today. As our session closed, I was soon dashing back to Copenhagen airport to get back to London, as in the morning I would be interviewing Ross Brawn, the recently appointed Formula One Managing Director of Motorsports. I couldn’t wait.

My Interview with Ross Brawn

We arrived early at the beautiful Mermaid Theatre in London. On arrival, I headed down back stage to have a private chat with Ross prior to our 75-minute session in front of a packed house of business executives. Within minutes of Ross’s arrival with his daughter Helen, his business manager, it was impossible to miss their aura of calm and quiet authority. For someone who had won everything and more that Formula One had to offer, there was no discernible ego. There was an agreeable and strong competitive spirit, but this was a little masked by a friendly and trusting exterior. He was already open, transparent and authentic. If I was excited before meeting him, now I found myself willingly wanting to partner with him and bring out the best for our eager audience. Ross quickly established an infectious atmosphere of positivity coupled with a genuine rather ‘old world’ charm. As I stood up and introduced him, with all that he has achieved, he came on and was visibly blushing from the tremendous spontaneous applause that greeted him. “René, that’s the best introduction I have ever had”.  And we all knew he meant it. We opened up with Ross sharing why he had got himself back into the tempest of Formula One.  It was clear that he really did not need to work again, and he was in that wonderful situation, that only if something very special came up would he be tempted away from the quiet world he had occupied for the previous 3 years. We had developed a good rapport in the time we had spent together beforehand. He had the measure of me and I think I had worked him out too. This mutual understanding had laid a foundation of trust and he was visibly relaxed, warm and open to all I could throw at him. I opened with “So why come back when you’ve done it all before?” There were two points that really stood out in his response. First and foremost, when he quite rightly inquired of the new owners of Formula One, Liberty Media, “what was the vision?” He was told “we don’t have one – the vision needs to be created”.  They had him from there. Secondly, when they went on to mention that Bernie Ecclestone, the impresario who had singlehandedly transformed Formula One into the global sport it was today, would be leaving.  That was it. This was nothing personal against Bernie, but much more about a totally brand-new opportunity, and vitally, they might just be able to escape the ‘pull of the past’ with Bernie now moving on. It became clear that here was a special leader who had a special (and maybe unique) past in Formula One. He had started his stellar career as a humble apprentice in the early garage of Formula One great, Frank Williams. He had responded to a local newspaper advertisement for an apprentice mechanic, but hadn’t heard anything for over a month when they eventually called. As it turned out he wasn’t even the first choice, but his luck was in when the selected apprentice decided to leave after a month. Ross would become an engineer, a designer, then a manager before becoming a team principal and eventually an owner, but maybe just as vital, was his ‘relaxed’ stint back home as a fan and a member of the public. He had lots to offer, but as important, he had built trusting and enduring relationships throughout his career.

Never Forget Your Learning Journey

When he started at Williams there were 11 employees, by the time he moved on some 11 years later there were 200 employees. He recalled the power of Frank coming around and speaking to everybody. He would never forget just how much it meant to him to have Frank take a genuine interest in him. Trying to build a competitive Formula One team from scratch is never easy, and Ross recounted having to have a whip round in the early days at Williams to pay the electricity bill! Lessons for life. He would go on to become that rare mix of being highly technical and commercially literate – the only missing ingredient was leadership. Ross would take a variety of roles with different teams whilst remaining upwardly mobile, he was learning his profession – long hand – there are no shortcuts to sustained success or inspired leadership. When he arrived at Benetton things really started to take shape. The arrival of a certain Michael Schumacher would soon forge one of the sporting partnerships of the age. They were made for each other. Their complementary strengths would become the unbeatable and unbreakable partnership. In 1994 when Schumacher won the Formula One Championship, a senior Ferrari executive remarked wryly “but you’re just a T-shirt manufacturer”. Ross pointed out markedly, “I knew my limitations and my strengths and looked to others to bring the necessary knowledge and skills that I didn’t have”. This humility and self-awareness would mark him out for the rest of his career and underpin his sustained success. Ross instinctively repeated two leadership traits that stayed with him and have become part and parcel of his now burgeoning reputation. Firstly, he always walked the shop floor, not only because he could learn so much but he also could connect and engage with his people. Secondly, whilst describing himself as a “friendly dictator”, his approach perhaps gave an insight into his leadership code. “There are always problems that require solving. Get the problem out into the open and lay it on the table, then steer the meeting to a conclusion, ensuring that every voice has been heard. Finally, everybody must be behind the agreed outcome”. A compelling and inclusive ‘more brains are always better than one’ philosophy that always marks out the greats. After a couple of years of outrageous success, Schumacher came to see Ross and told him privately that he would be joining Ferrari for the next season and really wanted Ross to go with him. Ross thought long and hard, but decided that his loyalties had to remain with Benetton at that time. The unbreakable winning unit had been separated. 6 months after Schumacher had joined Ferrari, the world had changed for Ross and after more conversations with Schumacher’s manager he moved to Ferrari. The greatest partnership ever seen in Formula One would go on break all records for dominance and success.

Respect Those You Meet on the Way Up

Ross never forgot to check himself, no matter how successful he became. He carried the same simple and compelling philosophy, no matter how successful he became – “to treat others the way he would want to be treated”. Ross said thoughtfully, “Ferrari had acquired a reputation for being chaotic, but that definitely was not the case, the shop floor had people who were capable, it was management that could be rather chaotic”. “Moving to Italy was exciting and groundbreaking for both me and my family – new language, new culture and of course, Ferrari”. “On one of my early visits to the mechanics, I asked where the toilets were? The mechanics pointed upstairs, and said “the management toilets are upstairs”. I asked again in a slightly different way, where are the nearest toilets? They said, “they are here, but you should be using the ones upstairs”. Ross used ‘their’ toilets. A small thing but a huge symbol of the new leadership approach. He recalled being initially addressed as “Sir”, but he soon had everyone calling him Ross. Another meaningful leadership symbol. His calm and respectful approach started to spread through the organisation with rich and demonstrable benefits. I challenged Ross about ‘luck’ and what part did it play in the building of his reputation. He answered with that warm and engaging smile “Luck is preparation waiting for an opportunity”. That said everything about this careful, thorough and massively engaging leader. His relationship with “Schumi” was based on respect, honesty and trust. They both learned never to lose control in front of others. He shared, “There is a time for difficult discussions and that was always done in private”. “I use firm words but never ever forget to treat people the way I want to be treated”. From the moment he started at Ferrari, he reflected, “it was clear that the workforce was professional, and had huge pride in being associated with Ferrari, many were 2nd  or even 3rd generation employees – most of all they were expert craftsmen”. Ross took his usual ‘common sense’ approach, demonstrating patience and they in turn, gave him their willingness to adapt and change. There were no barriers to what they could achieve – together. Former President of Ferrari – Luca Cordero di Montezemolo said “Nobody in Formula One has won so many titles, so many races as I did. So, Ferrari for me is crucial; it is more than important”. No constant pressure then!

Practice Makes Perfect

Detailed reviews became another of the signature pieces in his leadership style. Immediately after each race he would lead a review of all lessons learnt and plans for correction or enhancement were put in place and delivered. He recalled a lovely anecdote about being invited by the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK to share learnings from the legendary high speed and high-profile pit stops. The focus was on the Accident & Emergency services, especially the arrival of an ambulance at the hospital. He asked when do they do the debrief? The response was startling, “only if someone dies”. This meant no chance for process improvement – it desperately needed a routine. Ross would eventually find himself joining the ambitious Honda Racing Team in the 2008 season as team principal having taken a year’s sabbatical after the glory days at Ferrari. With the growing turbulence from the global financial crisis, Honda announced sadly but predictably, that it would be leaving the sport. Ross and his team decided to try and raise the investment necessary to perform a ‘Management Buy Out’ (MBO) of the business. This would prove to be the most challenging time of his career. By now there were 700 hardworking and committed employees. He stuck to what had always worked for him, despite the precarious nature of trying to raise financial backing during a global financial crisis. He conducted weekly briefings with the workforce and frequent team meetings. They were brutally honest affairs. The car needed developing and he knew morale needed constant bolstering given the precarious (and perhaps unlikely) possibility of raising the necessary finance. By the beginning of 2009, they had the investment and bought the business for £1! They also knew that they would have to let 300 loyal and hardworking employees go in order to deliver against the tight financial constraints they faced. He met with all of them and only 3 cases went to an industrial tribunal, and they were also successfully settled. Many who left found themselves positions in the incestuous family that is Formula One, helped by the high concentration of Formula One teams in and around the legendary Silverstone racing circuit in the UK. Incredibly, the new Brawn GP team won the Formula One drivers and constructors championships in their inaugural season. Ross quickly acknowledged that in their championship year (2009) the car that won was based on the expensive development during the prior year when Honda ran the business. Typical humility and more proof of why he’s so revered and so successful. As we drew to a close, Ross had answered a myriad of questions from the audience, his grasp of the detail coupled with his inspiring vision for a different future shone through. He closed with advice for our hungry business executives in the audience, “leaders need to be consistent – when someone comes into your office they need to know who they will meet”. He explained that when he was highly focused or not in the right frame of mind, he would prefer to rearrange meetings with his people, so that they experienced a proper and fair hearing. I reflected back to my experience of the first class Thinkers50 European Forum in Odense. Why did it feel so different to this wonderful experience with Ross Brawn? Enzo Ferrari, the late legendary founder of Ferrari gives the most telling insight to this: “We will fight as long as we have gasoline, as long as we have ideals, money, courage, hands, arms, the air we breathe and blood in our veins.” Odense was beautiful strategic thinking without the complexity of the day to day running of a business, in a massively competitive environment, where innovation is happening everywhere and all the time. With the added pressure of the glare of global publicity and scrutiny, plus the microscopic difference between winning and failure measured in nanoseconds. The theory is always helpful, but it’s the ongoing practice and experience that is vital: Humility always works
  • Make an ‘emotional’ connection with all your people
  • Trust your people from the start
  • Take a genuine interest in all members of your team
  • Every employee has a leadership lesson for you
  • Your mistakes are the best learning
I left Ross signing copies of his best-selling book; Total Competition – Lessons in Strategy from Formula One – to a long snaking queue of all who had attended. I left with my prized signed copy of his book. I noticed a beautiful quote on the front cover from the Wall Street Journal – “The closest thing there is to a certifiable genius”. And all those who were present at the Mermaid Theatre know that is NO theory.


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