Artwork By: Isabel Piechowicz
“He who turns least wins.”
While this sentiment from race car driver Ross Bentley is aimed towards racing, it could easily apply to business, as well. As an avid race car driver, I’ve found there are a lot of parallels between racing and business, which is why I apply so much of what I’ve learned on the race track to how I show up as a business leader, and vice versa.
It’s all about the foundation
In racing and business, 80% of it is easy-ish. You acquire a certain amount of skills that create a foundation from which you build. From car control, good brake application, and knowing how to heel-toe downshift, to mechanical skills and the ability to interpret data, these are the things that will enable you to race (and keep you safe) on the track. In business school or through work experience, you learn how to run a P&L, create marketing plans and financial statements, understand basic accounting and law, and all of the other lessons that resemble Business 101.
If I’m being honest, I think anyone can obtain the above necessary knowledge to get themselves started in either racing or business. That’s why I called it easy-ish. It’s that remaining 20% where the challenge – or the fun, depending on how you look at it – resides and is what sets the competition apart. Those who end up on the podium or succeed most in business, who satisfy that last 20% of variability, typically share these same characteristics:
You have a very simple goal in racing; finish first. It’s your North Star and why you do what you do. When it comes to competing in racing, all of the prep, the car set up, the investment you put into it, are driven by the sole purpose of finishing first.
In business, you need to have this same unwavering focus. For us at Studio Science, people are our North Star and the cornerstone of everything we do. From our mission to design better experiences for people, to the methodology we employ to start everything with the customer, down to our operations centered around supporting and elevating our staff, people are what guide us. We know there will be adversity along the way and the necessity to pivot at times (ahem 2020), but we will always be in pursuit of designing for people with people.
Something I’ve noticed as a business leader is that many venture-backed companies lose track of this. They get distracted – by things like funding, board management, internal politics, personnel challenges, etc. – and as with racing, when their mind and focus is elsewhere, they get off course. You see publicly traded companies like Boeing, for instance, who became more concerned about their quarterly earnings than the safety of their customers. As a result, they shortchanged their safety regulations, lost focus, compromised their mission, and it bit them in the ass. In racing, distractions have similar consequences. In 2011, IndyCar rookie J.R Hildebrand’s focus wavered on the final turn of the final lap, costing him a sure Indy 500 win.
While Boeing is one of the more memorable examples of a company who lost their sense of purpose and went off the rails, they surely aren’t the only ones. The reality is it happens more often than it doesn’t. So many businesses do themselves a disservice by losing focus and not talking about and living by their missions, especially when times get hard or when mistakes throw them off their game.
As the kids say these days, the struggle is real. Mental fatigue and the resulting complacency in both racing and in business is a reality we all deal with. We’re humans.
In long distance racing, a driver has to have incredible stamina and focus to stay awake and attentive to the road for an extended period of time. The second they become tired or complacent, when that mental fatigue sets in, is when the mistakes start to happen or they become unable to react to obstacles quick enough, especially when they come out of nowhere. The same goes in business. The most successful ones who have been around for decades and have true staying power, all have a certain level of stamina to stay the course, especially when things like COVID, shifting customer needs, or innovative startups, appear as roadblocks in their path.
Whether you got blocked by a car you were trying to pass or have a surprise tire puncture, nothing ever goes according to plan in racing. It’s those who persevere through adversity and challenges who find themselves on the podium. The woe-is-me crowd who gets hung up about the car blocking them are the ones who miss their opportunity to achieve success. Adobe faced the challenge of pivoting from a license-based company, selling relatively expensive software to consumers every few years, to a subscription SaaS business that relies on subscriptions to thrive. Adobe did the hard work, played the long game, and controlled their own destiny. Instead of making excuses, this hard transition to the cloud grew revenues from $4.4B in 2012 to almost $12.9B in 2020.
When Bentley was once asked about setting expectations to how competitive one should be when racing on a new track for the first time, his response summed this up perfectly for me:
“Expectations are critical, so getting clear on whatever they are is something you should spend time on. I would strongly suggest that an expectation – and goal – of learning would be a great one. In other words, your objective is simply to learn, and then when you get there you focus entirely on learning the most in the least amount of time. When you learn more, you improve more, and are more likely to get the best results. If you go there with the expectation and objective of winning, for example, often a driver gets ‘tight’ and makes more mistakes, and doesn’t perform as well.”
When you practice humility, set clear and achievable expectations for yourself and those you work with, and seek to always be learning, I wholeheartedly believe you’ll be on the path to podium/success. We all inevitably make mistakes along the way, but acknowledging and owning them rather than perpetuating the “culture of excuses,” as I call it, is a surefire way to create a culture of action. And action breeds results. If you’re always making excuses, you’re bound to never go beyond that 80%.
I’ll end this massive metaphor with one more. In both racing, and in business, I’ve found that you’ll have to look in the rearview mirror at times. Sometimes you’ll be looking at what’s behind you, other times it’ll be necessary to look at yourself. Ultimately, you’ll need to look forward, keep your eyes on the road ahead, hands firmly on the wheel, prepared to shift gears, tap the brakes, and punch the gas when it counts. Most of all, try not to make too many unnecessary turns.