Leadership in Formula 1: ten lessons from Red Bull Racing’s team principal

Christian Horner OBE is the team principal of the championship-winning Red Bull Racing & Red Bull Technology Formula 1 team. He was recently interviewed by Steven Bartlett. In the hour-long conversation, he shared how he leads the team and what culture allows the team to compete at the highest level. This is not a small feat, as the team employs over a thousand people spread out over 22 departments.

I’ve found the things he shared truly inspiring, and I believe the lessons apply to anyone leading a team or organization.

Here are the ten lessons that I extracted from the interview:

  1. My role is to give the specialists the environment they need to flourish
  2. Create a culture where people always strive to achieve more
  3. To turn around a failing team: listen first, then remove blame culture
  4. Be decisive, but change direction quickly when it is not working out
  5. Don’t hire talented egos that aren’t team players
  6. Embrace regulation changes to gain a competitive advantage
  7. Spend your time only worrying about the things you can control
  8. When under pressure, don’t pass down that tension and fear
  9. At times of intense stress, listen to your body
  10. Be disciplined with managing your time to make time for family

1. My role is to give the specialists the environment they need to flourish

Here is how Christian summarizes his job:

“I’m not a specialist in any one area. So my role is to ensure that I’m putting the right people in the right roles and getting them collectively to work together. Empowering them to do their job, so that they’ve got clear objectives, clear targets that they’re shooting for and then backing them.”

“A lot of my role is to ensure that they’ve got the support and tools around them, that they’re defended when they need defending, and that they’re guided when they need guidance. It’s down to giving the specialists the right tools in the right environment that enables them to flourish and succeed.”

2. Create a culture where people always strive to achieve more

Formula 1 is an environment that is all about details, constantly pushing the boundaries and trying to extract every ounce of performance from the machines. F1 teams, therefore, have a relentless focus on continuously improving.

“You must obsess about the small stuff because, you know, all these different departments, all it takes is a small pocket of complacency for the standards to drop a couple of percent in the car. If one team doesn’t communicate properly or if they just don’t really push themselves to find a marginal gain that can cause a couple of percent drop in the performance of the car, that can lose you a championship.”

“Being self-analytical is a key aspect of performance and never being satisfied, saying, that was good enough because it, it never is.”…”Even when we won and after we’ve celebrated, we’re saying, okay, how can we still be better? How can we improve on this?”

When asked how he gets people to appreciate the attention to detail and combat complacency, he answered:

“I think you have to lead by example.”…”I’m always thinking, what could I do better? How could I perform better as a CEO or as a team principal? Did I handle that situation correctly? Is there another way that we could have addressed that?”

“You can sense complacency. You can feel it. There’s almost a guilt factor that you feel, like, hang on, I don’t feel like I’m busy enough. And so you push yourself, and I think in turn you end up pushing other areas of the business.”

3. To turn around a failing team: listen first, then remove blame culture

Christian became team principal when Red Bull bought the underachieving Jaguar Racing F1 team and was tasked to transform it into a winning team. Five years later, the team started winning championships, essential with most of the team and technical equipment still in place, but with a different culture. His main objective at the start was to listen to the people and eliminate the blame culture he uncovered.

“My plan was to engage with the people, understand what are the issues, spend the next few months just listening and form my own picture. I spent the first months walking around the factory, engaging with people, and listening. Then the picture started to become clear that there were pockets within the team where there was real capability, and talent, but it was just clear that they weren’t working collectively yet. There was this blame culture within the business where the drawing office blamed aero, aero blamed the wind tunnel, R&D blamed production, and the race team was blamed. There was just this blame culture that there was no accountability or collective, you know, responsibility.”

He then hired superstar designer Adrian Newey to provide technical direction, which instilled confidence in the team and enabled them to attract even more talent.

“The core basis of the team hadn’t really changed from what had been underachieving at Jaguar. We just put in clear leadership into a, into a structure and started to instill a different culture.“

4. Be decisive, but change direction quickly when it is not working out

One key ingredient to becoming a fast and agile organization is making more reversible decisions and continuously steering.

“The most important thing is to make a decision. To say, this is the direction that we’re going in. Once you’ve committed to a decision, make sure that you give it your best shot, but if it’s not working to recognize that it’s not working and not be afraid to change, to stick your hand up, say, okay, we got it wrong. Let’s, let’s go another route. Because the worst thing is just repeating the same mistake after mistake.”

5. Don’t hire talented egos that aren’t team players

Christian explains why ego-centric individualists will have difficulty surviving in his team.

“Formula 1 attracts egos. But, there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’. If you have a talented individual that isn’t working in a team environment, they quickly become isolated. F1 is too big of a sport to be an individualist in it. You need to rely on trust in the other people around you, in the other departments around you to be able to fulfill your part.”

“We have a culture of not wanting to let others down, not wanting to be the link in the chain that breaks. This runs the whole way through the business: from van drivers hitting deliveries, to suppliers, to machinists or designers or technicians at the circuit or mechanics or engineers. Everybody’s got that vested interest in seeing those cars succeed.”

6. Embrace regulation changes to gain a competitive advantage

Red Bull Racing has been able to leapfrog competitors, especially when the governing body drastically changed the regulations.

It’s about how you adapt to those changes. You know, you can push against it, but at a certain point, you’ve got to accept it, and get on with it and think, okay, how can we turn shit into fertilizer? At the end of the day, you’ve got to embrace the change, and go with it.

7. Spend your time only worrying about the things you can control

In the interview, Christian reflects on what he has learned over the years.

“When I first came into the sport, I’d worry about almost everything. And I quickly came to the conclusion that there’s no point in worrying about everything. Worry about the things you can control. Don’t let the things you can’t control take your energy, your focus or distract you. Focus on the things that you are empowered to make a difference in. And then I was able to become more disciplined with my time in implying my time more effectively than being spread too thin.”

8. When under pressure, don’t pass down that tension and fear

The pressure is immense when you’re fighting in a tight championship battle. Christian spoke about what he observed in his main rival in the heat of the moment.

“When you see your counterpart smashing up headphones and pointing and ranting at cameras, you know that you’ve got to them because then you know that if they’re their venting in such a way and they’re feeling that pressure that the people beneath them are gonna be offloaded onto as well, that they’re gonna be on the receiving end of that. And that causes people to tighten up. If you are feeling the tension and you’re passing that on, then for me, that’s not a healthy way to lead a team by fear. You want people to be able to feel that they’ve got a voice, and that voice will be heard rather than being afraid to speak up for fear of getting their, you know, their head taken off.”

9. At times of intense stress, listen to your body

In the interview, Christian describes a period in the height of the 2012 championship battle when he started to feel self-conscious of his breathing, caused by anxiety.

“It sort of crept up on me without recognizing it. It’s not a weakness, it’s just your body telling you that, you know, it’s a lot going on here. And it’s, it’s it’s way of protesting. “…“It was just my body saying, okay, stress overload here. You know, gimme a break.”

10. Be disciplined with managing your time to make time for family

In the interview, Christian speaks extensively about how family and his ambition to be the best father and husband keep him grounded.

“We’re on this planet for such a short period of time to do as much as you can with the time that we have here. So it’s important to make time to be able to have that incredibly important family time.”…” I want to be there. I don’t want to be an absent father, because I’ll never get that time back.“…”It comes down to being disciplined with the management of your own time. Otherwise, you know, your phones are always next to you. F1 can take over your life if you are not disciplined in your own approach.”

Source: LinkedIn – Jurriaan Kamer

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