Q2 · 2021Get it done for the team

In past editions of Spotlight on Performance I’ve drawn on a couple of examples from the world of elite sport to highlight important lessons for business leaders. That’s because great athletes compete on a very public stage, so we can all see and admire the qualities that enable them to triumph, often under intense pressure. We are inspired by their mindset and determination, and we can learn from them, because many of the behaviours they display are equally important for success in business.

“How much is down to teamwork?”

In my keynote talks, when considering the success of world-class sports stars, I often get asked by business leaders how far such great individual performance is down to teamwork. The answer is a lot – probably much more than you think.

Success in individual sports is often viewed one-dimensionally – as a performance delivered by a single outstanding athlete. That’s understandable because, of course, as spectators we only see the executed performance by the athlete that takes place in the stadium or on the track. But this view is highly superficial. In so many cases, a massive amount of work, involving many different people, takes place behind the scenes, by amazing coaches and experts, working together in an extraordinary display of teamwork. I have witnessed this in the past with sports champions such as Roger Federer in tennis and Dominique and Michelle Gisin in skiing.

Now, I’ve just seen it again – with Simona di Silvestro.

Staying focused on execution

Simona is one of the few female drivers in the world of motor-racing. She was recently described in the media as “probably the best all-round woman driver in the world”. I have been working with her over the last couple of months in preparation for her season, and particularly for the ‘Indy 500’ race in Indianapolis.

Now, for those of you who are not so familiar with the demands of this sport: the IndyCar Series is one of the world’s toughest motor-racing competitions and the dominant form of the sport in North America. In particular, the Indianapolis 500 is by far the biggest race in the IndyCar Series. The prestige of the Indy 500 is illustrated by the huge crowds it draws. When it took place in May this year, it was the world’s biggest sporting event since Covid-19 emerged, attracting 135,000 fans, despite being restricted to approximately 40% capacity because of the pandemic. The gruelling 500-mile (800 km, 200 lap) event lasts approximately three hours, with five pit stops, and sees the cars reaching speeds of around 230 miles per hour (375 km/h).

It takes extraordinary mental strength to withstand the massive intensity of the speed and direct competition from the other cars, to stay focused and take advantage of opportunities, and to execute a pre-agreed race-plan in such an adrenalin-charged environment.

What made this year’s race even more special – and brought even more expectations – was that Simona was chosen to be the lead driver for Paretta Autosport, the first female-led IndyCar team, where over 70% of the personnel are women. This was a historic moment in the male-dominated world of motor-racing.

Historic appearance

Simona’s reputation has not come easily. It has taken many years of dedication to get where she is today. Now 32 years-old, she has also shown enormous courage. To give just one example, in 2011, she received second-degree burns after a mechanical failure caused her to crash during practice for the Indy 500. The accident saw her car sailing into the catch fence before flipping and landing on its left tyres. Just two days later, she returned to qualify for the race in a back-up car, clocking a four-lap average speed of 224mph.

Paretta’s historic appearance in this year’s race ended at the final pit stop because of an unfortunate technical hitch that also affected other drivers. But not before Simona and the Paretta team had proved it has become a powerful force at the highest level.

Even to qualify for the Indy 500, Simona showed she had the ability to withstand massive pressure. As you may know, qualifying for the race is a significant achievement in itself, with each driver having to earn their spot on the grid the weekend before the actual race. For this, Simona needed to be within the first 33 cars of a super-tight field.

Doing it for the team

Simona has built up the capabilities to deliver outstanding performance when it really matters. But there is something about her that I have found even more impressive than her driving excellence and her mental resilience – she is a true team-player.

This struck me when I spoke to her after this year’s successful Indy 500 qualification. The first thing Simona said in our de-brief conversation was: “You know, everyone worked so hard on the team, I wanted to get it done for the team.”

Like Roger, Dominique, Michelle and other great champions, Simona is highly aware of the team supporting her, and feels a strong responsibility to deliver her best performance not for only for herself, but also – and especially – for her team. It is the opposite of ego, status or arrogance. It is the expression of the humility of a true athlete to know that they cannot succeed alone, to not only acknowledge the valuable contribution of others, but actually to be motivated to perform and succeed for their team and their organization.

What we can learn

There is a very important lesson here, for those of us in business as well as those in sport – striving to perform well for our team and our organization.

In today’s ‘celebrity culture’ it is fashionable to laud and elevate individuals, often ignoring the valuable contribution of others. Instead, try to focus primarily on the overall success of your team and your organization. In doing so, you will strongly motivate yourself to deliver your best performance. At the same time, you will be sparking the co-creation of synergy – a powerful multiplier effect, inspiring the people around you to work for each other, for the team and the entire organization to achieve outstanding overall success.

Simona has shown us we should believe in ourselves, pursue our passions, be confident and strive for big goals. She has become a motor-racing figurehead, a role model for girls and women, and an inspiration to us all. And she has done it all by being a team-player.

Wishing you lots of success,