Business Lessons from Auto Racing?

Published on: March 7, 2010

Ever since childhood I have been an avid “car guy”. Back in 2007 I started competing in autocross (included a video below of what it is like). I never thought I would be learning business and leadership lessons while burning some rubber.

When I started in Chicago, I did very well for a novice. But once I have moved to Boston, I have encountered much more skilled competition and it has taken me awhile to move up the competitive ladder. So as I was pondering my strategy and goals for the new year, I realized that some of the rules of racing are also very useful analogies for the world of leading companies. Here is a sampling of several things I have learned in racing that directly apply to business:

  • Anticipate what is coming and let your peripheral vision and instincts deal with where the car is now. In racing we look one, two, or even three corners ahead and trust our instincts, experience, and training to handle where we are at the moment. If you spend a lot of time in the office studying your spreadsheets, reports, etc. instead of going out and talking to your customers, attending every networking event pertinent to your industry, and meeting people with the same fervor as if you were looking for a job, then the unexpected will blind-sight you.
  • Multi-tasking is over-rated. You only have so much cognitive “cash”, so spend it wisely. In racing we remove all possible sources of distraction (including ignoring parts of the course that don’t matter). We never fidget with switches, mirrors, or do anything else besides driving. We prepare and learn to trust our cars, so we can focus on the road ahead. Micromanagement is the equivalent of multi-tasking when you are leading. In order to lead an organization effectively, you need to make things “instinctive”. What do I mean by that? Be very clear about your expectations and communicate them, delegate work without delegating responsibility, automate the mundane tasks, outsource the frivolous work, and empower your team to make the right decisions.
  • A good driver can win even with a sub-par car. Buying a better car does not make you a better driver. Same goes for business. Better tools should only come after your team has developed sufficient skills. People with more powerful tools and lack of skill cause more damage to their organizations than if they were using something that limited them. I bet you have seen police reports of some yahoo crashing his high-performance sports car 10 miles from the dealership. Business world is no different. It is littered with “crashed” companies that were full of inexperienced and poorly trained people.
  • You can’t make hard turns and change your speed (break/accelerate) at the same time. Driving organizational change is a balancing act. In racing we call it a “friction circle”. The same concept applies to business. Don’t change everything all at once or you will “over-drive” the organization and end up off-course.
  • Small changes can make a big difference. Skilled drivers make small adjustments all the time. For example, they tweak tire pressure in small increments until they get exactly what they want. Focus on the impact that little details will have on the large picture. Those who make drastic changes usually end up with horrid performance, spinning out, or damaging their rides. Especially in the startup world, it is better to fail small and often, because you learn, improve, and live to try again another day.
  • Smooth drivers win over crazy drivers. Fluid measured motions make the physics work for you. In the business world, the best of the best let their business dynamics work for them. It is easier to innovate when you are not battling the world. Trying to turn the market in a drastically different direction does not work.
  • Going full throttle will only last so long before something will break. You can’t subject your team to non-stop high intensity work without risking a catastrophic breakdown. The goal is to last the entire season, not just win one race before your car breaks down.
  • The best drivers always look for feedback and opportunities to learn. I have seen the most gifted drivers ask for other good drivers to hop in their car and give them some feedback or tips. Learning and improvement never stops! Those who invest heavily in learning are the ones who get the trophies.
  • You are only as good as your competition. It is easy to win trophies when all your competitors are rookies. But that gets you nowhere in the long run. There will come time when a real competitor will come by and take away all your “glory”. In the business world I hear some entrepreneurs exclaim in their naiveté that they have no competition. I pity their investors, because fire sales are soon to come!  For those of us who are not naïve, we know that competition is a mother of evolution. We look for it, we better ourselves, and we are always vigilant.