Toto Wolff - The Truth about True Leadership
The subject of my next article is one of my sporting and leadership idols, Toto Wolff. As a passionate Formula 1 fan, I have watched Mercedes F1 Team dominate the Constructor’s and Driver’s Championship for the last 7 years winning 7 consecutive double World Championship titles. They are the most successful Formula 1 Team of all time and arguably the most successful sports team of all time. But why?
I wanted to delve a little deeper into what makes Mercedes F1 such a successful organisation and uncover some of the secrets to their success. To understand more, I have listened intently to what Toto Wolff has said over many years watching the sport on TV and more recently on the High Performance Podcast hosted by Jake Humprey and Damian Hughes.
“Relentless Pursuit of Excellence”
Why has Mercedes’ success been such a monumental feat and why haven’t we seen it before? Throughout history F1 has been prone to constructor dynasties. From McLaren’s dominance in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s to Williams’ dominance in the mid-1990’s or Ferrari in the early 2000’s. It’s not new. Why? Typically the team that has an advantage during a specific iteration of technical regulations will carry that advantage forwards for the foreseeable future because it has the best foundation on which to develop for the years to come. However, Mercedes have been the exception to that rule, no team has ever carried their advantage over a change in technical regulations. But Mercedes have, not once but twice, and maybe even three times on the evidence of this year so far. So their competitive advantage can’t be technical, it’s operational.
Normally, after leading the way for so long, you would expect to start to see fractures. Complacency through a feeling of accomplishment, even boredom. It is a team of human beings after all, despite the natural emphasis put on the machinery. But their success has been absolutely unwavering and relentless. The secret to this according to Toto Wolff, is setting targets in such a way to keep motivation high. Yes, every year the goal is the same - win both World Championships - but every year presents new challenges and a new point to prove. Wolff says they achieve this through “permanent scepticism”. In other words they always have a chip on their shoulder, regardless of what they’ve achieved before. The same eye for detail that brings technical success in the car, provided similar success in setting objectives. As Wolff puts it, it was the little “nuances”. In 2015 it was about doing it again, in 2017 it was about being the first to do it over a regulation change, in 2019 it was about beating the all-time Ferrari record of six consecutive constructor’s titles, and today it seems to be for diversity and inclusion.
"You need to wake up in the morning with a sense of purpose and clear objectives, and that keeps you going.”
Culture - A Team of People
Wolff’s biggest contribution to the success of the Mercedes F1 Team is setting clear values which govern team culture. Now the words ‘value’ and ‘culture’ are often banded around sports teams and business organisations but very few implement it successfully. As Wolff points out, “if it were easy then it wouldn’t be a differentiator”.
The key value that Wolff holds above all else is truth. No lies, full authenticity. On the High Performance Podcast hosted by Jake Humphrey and Damian Hughes, Wolff tells the story of how on his first day in charge he gave a team-wide presentation on the team’s future ambitions. After the presentation was concluded and the staff started filtering out, a mechanic came up to the podium and simply said “nice slides”. The team had gone through numerous owners, numerous changes in management, in leadership, and in championship performance. Trust was low and it wasn’t anything they hadn’t heard before. What was going to be different this time?
As all great competitors do, Wolff set about proving those doubters wrong and that started with building trust. He wanted a team of openness, no blame culture and no internal politics. It was to be an environment where people would dare to speak up following Ceri Evans’ See it, Say It, Fix It.
Formula 1 is the absolute pinnacle, not just for drivers but for engineers, aerodynamicists, mechanics, everyone. Excellence flows all the way through the organisation. You don’t make it to Formula 1 unless you are seriously talented so in order to differentiate yourself from your competition it’s not about being more talented, it’s about maximising the potential of that talent. This is what Wolff sees as his purpose within the organisation. It’s not for him to tell Mechanic A how to do their job, they are an industry-leading expert otherwise they wouldn’t have been hired. But it is his job to create an environment where Mechanic A can do the job to the best of their ability. And he believes honesty and openness are the foundations of that.
The key to maximising potential is first to relinquish control. Everyone operates in a slightly different way and needs a different environment in which to extract their potential. As Wolff puts it: "Most important is to acknowledge that we are all different individuals and we need different frameworks in order to perform well." Perhaps the best example of this - Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton has often been criticised for his high activity, jet-set life. For someone in Wolff’s position, it would be easy to think this is going to be to the detriment of Hamilton’s performance on track. However, pretty early on he realised that this is exactly what he needed to take his mind away from racing on his weekends off so that he could give 110% when the lights went out on Sunday. Relinquished control. And, let’s be honest, it’s pretty hard to argue with the result, Hamilton has since gone on to break pretty much every record there is in the sport.
“Sometimes the most creative people, the ones that are able to outperform others and perform on a different altitude, are the ones that live a different life. And you just need to be able to embrace that.”
Turning your worst days against your rivals
"The day we fail is the day our competitors regret"
Complacency - the inevitable doom to any success. But how have Mercedes managed to ward off the inevitable for so long?
We have all felt that surge of motivation after a loss, but how does a team recreate that same unsettledness if they so rarely lose? For Mercedes, it’s all about resetting straight away first thing Monday morning after a race weekend. Easier said than done.
For Wolff, it’s a matter of personality: "Restlessness is an important personality trait that you just want to be better tomorrow" "You can sum it up as a relentless curiosity that drives me.”
For Mercedes, it was about creating a culture of restlessness, constant curiosity, persistence and self-discipline. It’s about no postponement of action, if you want something, do it today, why wait? And nothing fuels that fire more than those rare losses. Wolff explains it as “you fail, but you never let go”. It burns so deeply it has the power to sustain the team long into their longest winning streaks.
Perhaps the greatest case of curiosity comes in the following story: To stay energised it is as important to stay mentally fit as it is physically fit. To support this Mercedes employ physical and psychological coaches for their employees. One example of this is mindfulness. As Wolff puts it: "We have actually rolled out meditation across the whole team of over 1,000 people. You need to utilise those marginal gains in order to extract the most out of your group of people." As you can probably imagine, getting buy-in from a group of highly technical, scientific people can be quite problematic when it comes to these sorts of techniques. And as expected, there was some resistance. Even Wolff himself admits that. But it was his curiosity that overcame his doubts and now he says he practices it regularly and that it has “ increased the quality of my life tremendously”. Always the leader by example, naturally his participation encouraged the rest to follow and soon the feedback was incredibly positive.
If it’s a case of personality, it all boils down to recruitment. This too has an inevitable end. If you’re reliant on key people to infuse that culture throughout the business, when they inevitably move on to new challenges or retire, it’s very easy to lose the magic dust that sustained you. In Mercedes’ case, there are some very high profile losses to note. Paddy Lowe as F1 Director, Andy Cowell as Head of the Engine department, and perhaps most significant of all, the passing of Niki Lauda. However, not only did each of these losses not weaken the team, if anything, it made them stronger. But how do you get a measure of a person’s personality? For Wolff it’s as simple as looking them in the eye; for him, that’s more than enough to feel their ambition and authenticity. He’s after people who, like him, are motivated by the brutal honesty of the stopwatch. It never lies, it tells you exactly where you are against your rivals. And for Mercedes, that more often than not means slightly ahead.
What can we take away for our own businesses?
Now this begs the question - how much of this translates into our own daily lives?
Based on the general theme of the article so far, it would be wrong of me to proceed with anything short of pure honesty. Of course it’s hard to view a sports team as an organisation and, yes, the almost tangible competition felt within sport is different to the often intangible competition felt in business. But I genuinely believe that all of this is not just partly translatable but 100% translatable. In my experience, much the same way that you can get lost in the technical side of Formula 1, most organisations get lost in the product or service that they provide. They forget that all along, it’s a people thing. And with that come the pitfalls of politics and a loss of transparency that sucks the lifeblood out of critical functions like communication and motivation that are so essential to success.
In my experience, it’s often as though companies feel like they have less creative license to operate with the same flexibility as the likes of a sports team. But why? - politics. I think often organisations feel they have to operate in a certain way because that’s the way it’s always been done, an employee should behave in a certain way. Isn’t that the same dilemma Wolff was faced with when working out how best to manage Lewis Hamilton to get the most out of him?
In previous articles, I have spoken about the importance of culture and communication to the achievement of success. I firmly believe the key to success in both of these areas is authenticity and the truth. For senior leadership it should be wholly about getting the most out of their subject matter experts and providing an environment in which they can do that. And for subject matter experts it should be about having the confidence to tell senior leadership about how their environment can be improved. Pure, brutal honesty.