Building a Leadership Culture to Win - Toto Wolff and Mercedes F1

June 26, 2020

Part 1: Background

In 2010, Mercedes-Benz made its return to Formula One as a Constructor for the first time since 1955 taking over the Brawn GP team. The German car manufacturer had been back in the sport involved as a engine provider, first with Sauber in 1993 and then as a 40% shareholder of McLaren from 1995. The partnership with McLaren had seen some success with 3 Drivers Championships with Mika Hakkinen in 1998 and 1999 and Lewis Hamilton in 2008 and 1 Constructors Championship in 1998.

Brawn GP, with Mercedes power, had just come off the back of a wonder season winning both the Drivers and Constructors Championships in 2009. This was made all the more special by the fact that 12 months earlier the team, then owned by Honda, had faced closure with the Japanese Manufacturer pulling out of the sport with immediate effect, only to be saved by a management buyout from the teams Directors Ross Brawn and Nick Fry. The 2009 season hadn’t been all plain sailing though as a tight budget further to Honda leaving, had meant many redundancies at the team and not much in season development with the team relying very much on its early season advantage via a clever double diffuser design to win the championship. Development of the 2010 car which Mercedes would inherit was also very far behind other teams.

With Ross Brawn staying on as team principal, the 2010 – 2012 seasons saw limited success. Even with the return to the sport of 7-time World Champion Michael Schumacher and promising young talent Nico Rosberg, they only won one race, the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix, which was the overall highlight.

The start of the 2013 season saw some changes with Williams F1 shareholder Toto Wolff and 3 time World Champion Niki Lauda coming on-board to support Ross Brawn on the management side and on the drivers side coming in for the re-retiring Michael Schumacher was McLaren driver and 2008 World Champion Lewis Hamilton.

Toto Wolff had come on-board after being approached by the Mercedes team during the 2012 season to do an external review of what areas the team needed to work on in order to start winning again. Further to this, they offered him the job of being one of the people to turn it around and a 30% share of the team.

Part of Mercedes plan was to take full advantage of the new engine regulations that were coming in for the 2014 season.

However, the new management team of Brawn, Wolff and Lauda wasn’t harmonious with Ross Brawn leaving part way through the 2013 season, leaving Wolff and Lauda to run the F1 team.

From 2014 (further to the new engine regulations that Mercedes predicted would make all the difference!) the team has dominated winning all 5 Drivers and 5 Constructors Championships and around 75% of the races.

They also look set to win both Championships in 2019 which would extend their run beyond what Ferrari achieved between 2000-2004.

So how have they achieved this without getting complacent?

To answer this, we are going to look at the Leadership of Toto Wolff and how he and his management team have created a winning culture.

Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff has led the team to 6 Drivers and 6 Constructors World Championships

Part 2: How to Lead Like Toto

During a recent podcast with Mercedes’s 2016 World Champion Nico Rosberg, Toto Wolff revealed the following 4 areas he has worked on since joining the team:

1. Lead by example and admit when you are wrong.

Not only does this show integrity but Toto talked about how by admitting when you are wrong and being self-reflective, can be a very powerful tool when speaking to members of your team. By you opening up also gives others the space to admit when they are wrong also. This can lead to create a culture of brutal transparency and honestly - which ultimately is better for the team as they can change processes quicker if they are not covering up issues. Overall, Toto states, the Mercedes team has a no blame culture and their mantra across all departments is "See it, Say it, Fix it!".

2. Mindfulness - Encouraging the team to allow time to think away from technology.

In a full-on industry like motorsport, burn out is always a realistic possibility which Toto and his management team are very aware of and keen to avoid within the team.

To help address this, they encourage their team to take time out from technology. Not only can this help avoid burnout but helps with creativity and mindfulness allowing yourself to take time out to reflect.

Toto leads by example on this and in a flight back from the Australian Grand Prix to the team’s base in the UK didn’t use any technology for the whole flight, he just sat and reflected. He said its these moments when you can truly question and understand yourself so also actively encourages team members to schedule time to literally put their feet up and reflect.

3. Being Humble in Victory.

When you are winning all the time it is very easy to get arrogant and complacent. In fact we see examples in sport of this all the time. During this year's Six Nations Rugby, Welsh Coach Warren Gatland said after his team were on a winning streak “We just don’t know how to lose!”. This is all very well but do you know how to win also?

Being the best in any sport can actually be the hardest place to be, as you are the bench mark for everyone else – but where is your bench mark?

I’ll touch on this more in a later blog when talking about “Avoiding Complacency” but ultimately Toto believes you must stay humble in victory and continue to analyse where it went right and also areas you can still improve on.

4. Addressing the Fear of Failure.

Fear of failure is a huge issue for many of us in both business and personal life. When it comes to Mercedes Toto asks himself “Ultimately what is the worst-case scenario when it comes to failure?” and the answer is Mercedes do not win a race. He then has to question is that scenario really that bad? Yes, he doesn’t want it to happen every week but he can think of many worse things for the business, such as a no deal Brexit which will impact the business and its employees potentially far more.

We couldn't get the real Lewis and Nico to stand next to each other, so this will have to do! Mercedes-Benz World, Surrey

Part 3: Conflict Management - How Toto dealt with Lewis and Nico

Judging by the 2014 – 2016 F1 seasons, where Toto's drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were competing for the championship, Toto knows a thing or two about managing conflict.

In the same interview we spoke about in part 2 with Rosberg, Toto talks about the psychology behind conflict and says when it arises he’ll always try and take a step back and think through the following rather than go straight into "conflict mode":

1. “Why is this person’s opinion different to mine?”

2. “What view point are they coming from?”

3. “What is their objective to this conversation?”

4. “How is it different to mine?”

By doing this reflection you can analysis and understand the other person’s position and then you can hope to reach a solution which suits both parties best rather than fight.

Adopting this approach has also helped in other areas of business, such as contract negotiation and getting a better understanding when two parties within your business are not getting on.

Part 4: Avoiding Complacency

In any great sports team after an extending period of winning complacency can hit with phases such as “I don’t know we just keep on winning” turning into “I don’t know we just keep on losing!”.

So how do the Mercedes Formula 1 team try and avoid this?

“Difficult days are the ones we progress the most.” Toto told Autosport magazine when reflecting on the 2018 Belgium Grand Prix, when it looked like Ferrari had finally out developed Mercedes, only for the team to dig deep and come back even stronger “Success is a lousy teacher and its important to reflect on why failures happen”.

In Toto’s mind he has a simple formula “Failure + Reflection = Progress”.

He also reflects that in order to keep energy levels high, its vital to set the right objectives at the beginning of each season and understand how best to motive your staff.

According to Richard Bruce the Aero Dynamics Model Shop Supervisor at Mercedes AMG F1, (in the same Autosport interview) from an employee point of view this ethos and the values Toto sets are shared across the business, as everyone is encouraged to have a voice.

This is powerful as there is an open-door policy, so a member of the team can give ideas no matter what level they are at. This also makes the team feel listened to and as such feel part of something much greater.

Toto finishes by saying “If at the end we all have one joint objective of winning races without the sense of entitlement and being in the position of fighting for championships, we have made a good step already!”

Are you interested in finding out more about Leadership and Teamwork styles used in Formula One and other High Performance Motorsport? If so, why not enroll on one of our Open Personal Leadership and Teamwork Courses, which we run in association with our partners Motorsport Tickets - click here to find out more.

Also don't forget check out our blog on how Christian Horner and Adrian Newey built a High-Performance F1 Team with Red Bull Racing

Nick Butcher

Nick has been an HR & Leadership Professional for nearly 15 years and has held senior HR positions within both Corporate Multinational and SME Companies.
Get in touch >>

Nick Butcher

Nick has been an HR & Leadership Professional for nearly 15 years and has held senior HR positions within both Corporate Multinational and SME Companies.
Get in touch >>
More from the blog >>More from the blog >>