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  • Elaine Gosden

Leadership lessons from Formula One (with Ross Brawn and Nicole Bearne)

We are delighted to announce that we’re the Headline Sponsor at the Brawn F1, Making it Possible event in London on 16th May. Blue Gnu CEO, Elaine Gosden and her family are huge Formula 1 fans and feel passionately about sponsoring an event close to their hearts and in support of a fantastic charity, Hope for Tomorrow


In the high-octane world of Formula 1, the spotlight often illuminates the daring drivers and their lightning-fast cars. Yet, beyond the glamour of the grid lies a vast ecosystem of teams and leaders, each playing a pivotal role in attempting to steer their drivers towards an F1 victory. 


The multifaceted teams of Formula 1 


Formula 1 is a uniquely demanding technical and human challenge, requiring the right alchemy of cutting-edge technologies, high-performance management and elite teamwork to deliver results. The teams operate in a volatile, uncertain and highly competitive industry – and they are publicly audited on live TV every two weeks in front of millions of viewers globally! 

Everything has to come together – human, machine, team - and the margins of success or failure are tiny. Thousandths of seconds can make a difference between winning and losing. 

But F1 is as much about culture, philosophy and approach as it is about technology. For the team to perform at its peak, each individual team member needs to also be operating at their peak performance. For this reason, the leadership place people at the very centre of the organisation, aiming to understand who they are, what they think and how they perform best (like any sports team or athlete). 


When Ross Brawn led his team Brawn GP to their first constructors and drivers World Championship title in 2009, the pressure was on in the most immense way possible. Honda had announced that they would be leaving Formula One at the end of 2008 due to the global financial crisis, leaving a team with a critical choice. Pull out of F1 and make hundreds of people in the team redundant or buy the team himself and attempt to lead an F1 team without an engine sponsor. 


Ross bought the ENTIRE Honda F1 team for a SINGLE British pound. What came next was a season that went down as the most remarkable David and Goliath story in Formula One history. How did Brawn GP beat other teams, that had been established for decades? We asked him about his leadership in these tricky months and the year that followed, and this is what he had to say: 


“The primary Brawn GP challenge was survival, and no one from the team had experienced before the situation we faced. There had been huge investment in the team and the car from Honda prior to 2009, and we were living off of that previous investment, so there was no reason why the car shouldn’t have been competitive. 
Survival was the key, and once we passed that hurdle and we realised the car was good, the competitive instincts kicked in and we changed mode. I think all members of the team found this project was far more personal to them than anything before or after. I certainly did, and that brought a huge energy and greater commitment to succeed.” 

This pure instinct to survive, and then thrive – and beat the rest - shows that leadership isn’t just a nice to have – it's an essential part of the ecosystem of business. Beginning with the end in mind and creating optimal pressure (to survive!) for the team became the basis for their unprecedented success. 


Navigating challenges with strong leadership 


The stakes in F1 are monumental, not just in terms of competitive success but also in the financial and technological investments involved. Challenges range from the technical intricacies of car development to the logistical hurdles of a global racing calendar, compounded by the constant pressure to outperform their competitors whilst racing under a cost cap. Here, strong leadership and teamwork isn't just beneficial; it's critical. 


Effective leaders in F1 need to harness these challenges to ensure they create environments where creativity flourishes, strategies are agile, and resilience is built into the team's DNA. The Brawn GP team had almost no money and were operating with extremely limited resources, as compared to their opposition. What was it about that team pulling together that made all the difference? 


We asked Nicole Bearne, Ross’s Exec Assistant during the 2009 season and Former Head of Internal Communication at Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team for her view on the critical role of teamwork within the team that year and beyond. Nicole has over 25 years of experience in the F1 industry and has helped her teams to win 9 World Championships along the way – that's no mean feat! Here’s what she had to say: 


“Looking back at the culture at Brawn GP and Mercedes-AMG Petronas, there were some key elements that helped those teams achieve success. Firstly, there was a highly motivational leadership direction, which ensured the team maintained its resilience and kept going through the difficult times. 
From the outset, leaders provided a very clear mission for the whole team with well-defined objectives. Each team member understood the direction and could then focus their work to achieve the goals. This helped reduce the stress of uncertainty and created alignment throughout the team. A team can be more effective when they know what they need to do and why. Even if the sea is rough, at least everyone knows which direction to row in! 
Another key approach was to have open and honest communication. At both Brawn GP and Mercedes-AMG Petronas we made sure there were regular updates from senior leaders and the race drivers throughout the year. We debriefed every race weekend across the company with candour, celebrated the successes and discussed openly where improvements could be made. It was a two-way process and we encouraged everyone to share their voice. When possible, these debriefs were held face-to-face so that people could ask questions – even for the night shift! 
At the end of the day, success isn't just about the technology or technical expertise, but also about fostering a great team culture where each person feels supported and empowered to perform at their best.” 

Blue Gnu’s formula for success across any industry 


The principles driving Brawn GP's success are universally applicable and at Blue Gnu, we embrace these methods in our bespoke leadership and management training. At the heart of our approach is the belief in unlocking potential, helping teams understand their individual components and team-mates well, creating environments where teams feel motivated, empowered and engaged in their roles. 


Just as in Formula 1, any organisation thrives when its leaders are equipped to inspire their people and align diverse teams towards a common goal, and when teams are mobilised and motivated to achieve greatness. Using tools like Motivational Maps and Insights Discovery, we help leaders understand and leverage the unique drivers of their teams.


Speed, strategy, and success: 


The story of Formula 1's unseen teams underscores a universal truth: behind every great achievement lies great leadership and teamwork – and this sings to our purpose! We’re so delighted to sponsor the event on 16th May and we’ll be sure to share lots more from the incredible speakers and amazing charity, Hope for Tomorrow


 

Article written by Blue Gnu CEO, Elaine Gosden - April 2024


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