Toto Wolff, the Austrian CEO for the Mercedes F1 team has found huge success for his team over the last few years. Most notable are his 7 successive F1 constructors’ championships, more than any other team. Wolff is a highly successful businessman, husband and father. However, Wolff is different from your regular multimillionaire CEO; hardly born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Wolff has detailed his real life struggles as a child, losing his father at a young age and being dismissed from school for being unable to pay fees.
What really sets Wolff apart from other leaders though, however, is his brand of people culture that he uses to help operate his teams, valuing his racers and engineers, valuing people over processes and promoting humility and respect.
Wolff – A Case Study in Business and HR
Anyone looking to find more success in their own business and who want to better themselves as leaders should find great value in some of the advice parted by Wolff through the years. Following Wolff’s recent appearance on The High Performance Podcast, here is some of Wolff’s best advice in business and leadership that he has gifted us with throughout the years.
Be Honest With Yourself and Others
In Toto Wolff’s formative years as part of an investment company, he would overlook a variation of different start up companies and found great value in telling people what he described as “the brutal truth”. This may seem somewhat harsh but as Wolff points out on The High Performance Podcast “It makes no sense to mislead anybody and it makes no sense to mislead yourself”. Wolff credits this level of honesty as probably having something to do with his upbringing, having to always expect the worst.
Wolff makes no secret of when he feels like he and his team require improvements even when in a winning situation. After securing Mercedes first victory of 2021 after an admitted poor performance in the winter test, Wolff admitted “We recovered well from the pre-season test but, if we are 100 percent honest with ourselves, we are lacking quite a bit of pace in qualifying”. Here you can see Wolf acknowledges his team’s accomplishments but keeps a keen eye in where they can progress moving forward.
The practicality of this advice for small business is easily made evident. For example, with performance appraisals, one should be honest with employees when work is not up to standard. Discussions such as this should be frequent too rather than just saved for end of the year reviews.
The Importance of Psychological Security
For Wolff, success is just as much about the individual factors as it is collective. He is a family man and has mentioned before the strength he acquires from his family and friendships. He credits his wife in times of vulnerability for “keeping the ship steady”. Wolff has previously stated that security is “immensely important”. Furthermore, having a strong support structure may contribute to better mental health, which for people in business may translate to better productivity and a happier work environment.
Attention to Detail
Back in 2017, when Mercedes were still the top leading team for Formula 1, Wolff would credit his team’s success as being down to an “obsessive attention to detail”. Thus for Wolff, it is the small differences that can add up to make the winning difference. In reflection of his arrival as the new Mercedes CEO several years back, he tells a story of first arriving in the office about how he felt disgusted by the mess of the room with coffee cups and old newspapers left laying around. He would mention that this was not how a professional F1 team should look and brought attention to what he believed to be a lack of attention to detail.
The practicality of this advice has provided Wolff great success for his team. One example of a small change contributing to success is his dedication in ensuring that his team has a strong sleeping routine. Upon noticing the amount of jet lag experienced by his team when travelling between european and international races, Wolff saw an opportunity to capitalise, hoping to provide a small edge. Furthermore, Mercedes made efforts to change travel plans to accommodate this, focusing on picking specific airlines and times of travel to ensure that his team were well rested.
The value of paying attention to detail is also of utmost importance to any employer. For instance, taking disciplinary action against an employee requires employers to follow a strict disciplinary process. If an employer doesn’t pay close attention to the details as they are written in their policies, they may risk having action taken against them at a employment tribunal.
Communication is Key
People culture is more than just a buzzword. For Wolff it is perhaps the most important aspect that contributes to his success. In practice, people culture is the ability to focus attention on people within a team, what they need and considering them individually to build the strongest team possible.
Communication is a key aspect of the people culture Wolff has set up within Mercedes. In his words “being able to comprehend the individual and what that person needs” is a key aspect of people culture and one that Mercedes pride themselves on. One aspect of this mentioned by Wolff on The High Performance Podcast is being able to allow arguments. One story Wolff tells is of a talk he gave to the team when arriving at Mercedes which was met with a lukewarm reception with one person chiming in sarcastically “nice words” afterwards. Wolff saw from this a distrust in management which may have been caused from previous management. This would open his eyes to the lack of trust within the team and what work would need to be done to resolve this.
The importance of Patience
Lewis Hamilton, while going through some lengthy contract negotiations, a few years back, would praise Wolff for his patience throughout the process. On Wolff’s patience during this time, Hamilton is quoted saying “I think most people would not have been given the timeframe I chose to take, but the one thing it shows is the trust we have between each other”. This patience for one of the world’s most prolific F1 racers in Hamilton would lead to success as the racer credits this patience as part of why he would go on to extend his contract for a further 2 years.
Wolff on the topic of patience has said “LIfe has proven to me that sometimes the things you want to achieve also need patience”. However, although he recognises this importance, he has also previously mentioned that one should avoid “postponement of action” suggesting that where present action can be taken it should be done so without delay.
Reinvention both personally and for the Mercedes team is credited by Wolff as what has helped sustain their success over 7 years. While on the High Performance Podcast Wolff says on maintaining a high level of success “If winning becomes a habit and is not something special anymore, it can create a negative spiral that eventually is going to make you lose “. He’d elaborate that this sort of thinking may be due to fatigue or complacency in the team. To remedy this, however, Wolff would highlight the importance of bringing fresher more junior talent who may come with different ideas and new energy as a way to reinvent the team and maintain success.
In continuation of this interview he would continue to talk about reinvention in his own life, drawing on times where he had lacked motivation and had to be carried by other people. He would discuss the measures he would take in order to gain a new perspective including limiting his social media usage but largely credits books and his enjoyment of reading in providing him with different and new outlooks on life that keep him motivated.
At the core of the people culture surrounding Toto Wolff is the ability to be humble and see things from the perspective of others. As he puts it “Humility is a super-important factor in all of our lives, and I try to remind myself every evening in front of the mirror, ‘Just calm down’. As mentioned above, Wolff and Mercedes have reinvented themselves on multiple occasions to avoid complacency from being a top team. This, however, could never have been possible without some humility and understanding of the fact that no matter how good you are you can always be better.
Back in 2017 when Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari beat Lewis Hamilton in Australia, Wolff was quoted saying that Mercedes must “lose with humility”. He would express his disappointment but give props to Vettel and Ferrari, noting them as worthy winners but would continue saying “we will come out stronger”. In this scenario humility would allow Mercedes to reconsider their strategy, and history shows that they did come back much stronger for it.
Persistence is an essential quality for any business person or anyone looking to be a good leader. Wolff knows this well too well, noting about all the external parties that he deals with in order to ensure the best results for his team. He would say – “Sometimes you need to defend the interests of your team, against the other teams, from the regulators, from the formula 1 commercial rights holders, the sponsors, the public and I may fail but im not letting go”. This dedication to persistence by Wolff is indicative of the people culture he champions as a leader for Mercedes and is a reflection of his dedication to obtaining every small edge for his team to push just a little bit further than his competitors.
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