‘What is it that you talk about when speaking at conferences?’

‘I don’t think my staff/clients/suppliers are that interested in Formula One.’

‘Most of our delegates are women, so I don’t think your background will be that relevant…’ (!)

It’s interesting to look at the things people say when they are introduced to the notion of a business speaker whose background is in Formula One motor racing. So many preconceptions, yet the reactions are perhaps understandable.

Fortunately one of the privileges that comes with being a business speaker is that my clients determine the topics; not me.

Another is that senior executives share their hopes, fears and aspirations for their businesses, and tell me what it is that makes them lie awake at night. They tell me which leadership challenges they are interested in solving and the business issues that require solutions.

As a result, I do not talk about Formula One, but rather on the topics that are important to clients. Naturally this means using experience gained whilst working in leadership roles in the sport to deliver insights and illustrate key points that will resonate with businesses, irrespective of their size or sector. The encouraging takeaway from this process is that most businesses face very similar challenges; the scale may vary, individual sectors have unique issues, but there are some fundamental challenges that we all wrestle with from time to time.

After twenty years of client events, the notes compiled from each engagement make for interesting reading. So it’s always worthwhile taking the time to flick back through my note books and reflect on the topics which come up time after time; from pharma to aerospace, IT to energy, financial services to healthcare.

Take the last 12 months, for example.

There have been six key topics of interest;

Managing Change & Transformation

The world is changing, and fast. Disruption abounds, technology alone sees to that, but economic cycles witness extremes and external factors over which businesses have little or no control can hit at any time; think Brexit. From changes in compliance and regulation to old assumptions being washed away, new business models are emerging. The fear of change* is perhaps understandable, but mainly because people feel they are going to be worse off. If we can explain the ‘why’ more clearly and progress to the ‘how’ we are going to be in a better place, the conversation becomes a lot easier. This is a great topic to discuss, because Formula One teams have had to cope with huge changes in compliance, business models, economic cycles and technology over the last 20 years. The lessons are clear; change is ever present and we all have a choice as to whether we weaponise transformation or sit tight and wither.

Promoting Team Work & Collaboration

The challenges of leading people in business are many and varied, especially in a business world made richer by increased cultural, ethnic and gender diversity. How can I get a group of people to work together, become fully aligned, be prepared to take responsibility for their actions and accountable for the outcomes? To get the best out of a team requires the leadership to be confident in empowering people, creating a learning environment where everyone is focussed on delivery and execution. A culture in which people do what they say they are going to do and also consider how their performance impacts on everyone around them. A high technology sport such as Formula One demands excellence in this regard, whether in meeting the 20 non-negotiable deadlines represented by World Championship events, or in empowering 20 personnel to complete 36 tasks during a 1.9 second pit stop during a race.

Driving Performance

This is perhaps a more obvious topic for someone involved in Formula One to speak about; how do we create great performance? In reality there are 10 Formula One teams, and not all of them achieve world class performance. Second place is the first of the losers. All the teams are good engineering companies – designing, manufacturing, developing and operating a complex, fully compliant product which happens to be a Formula One car. However ‘Good’ is not enough; we want to go from Good to Great. This means learning from our past mistakes so that we practice continuous improvement, learning rather than blaming people when things go wrong, and requiring that everyone who works for us contributes fully. It also means having a brutally honest assessment of how we are doing at all times, benchmarking our performance not just against our previous results, but against the most important measure of all – the competition.

Safety & Risk Management

From HSE executives through to Risk Managers, the topic of how we can avoid negative outcomes in our working environment comes up time and again. For some businesses a catastrophic failure can lead to fatalities, whether involving employees, contractors or customers. The human cost combined with the legal, financial and reputational damage can be significant. Others face negative outcomes that are purely of a financial nature, yet in reality that can become an existential threat if it is serious enough. It may not kill people, but it can kill your company. It may come as a surprise to learn that Formula One teams are as focussed on the management of risk as on performance, but in reality the environment within which we compete requires this approach. Effective safety and risk management are key priorities for our businesses.

Embracing Digitalisation

Three to five years ago companies were asking me to talk about how Formula One uses data. Big Data was the common topic, but we have now moved past data analytics into machine learning, AI, robotisation and, if I listen carefully, the end of the human working environment as we know it. Since we are now in a year when we will see motor racing without a driver, thanks to Roborace, and where McLaren’s Applied Technologies division takes its rigorous use of data-driven decision making far beyond the race track and into a wide range of industries, this is a topic which will run and run. Some see it as a threat (*see Fear of Change, above…) but the opportunities are golden. The key comes from seeing how technology can transform in such a way that the positives far outweigh perceived negatives. Fortunately we have some great and entertaining examples in a sport that is entirely data-driven.

Developing Agility

Thanks to a combination of the above, including digitalisation, change and transformation, businesses need to be agile. Strategies flex, tactics change, and we should be resilient enough to cope with whatever our market and customers demand. It also means that our people have to develop a sense of urgency; things are moving so quickly that waiting for the weekly catch-up, monthly meeting or quarterly review can take too long. In Formula One we adjust race strategy real time; as soon as the lights go out and the race starts we know that our strategy is going to have to flex in the face of a number of variables. By having the right people, processes and culture in place, we develop the confidence to pre-empt problems and react decisively.