Published on: November 23, 2010by Michael Sansolo
For many MNB readers, Monday’s sports update had a glaring omission. Kevin forgot to mention Jimmie Johnson winning his fifth consecutive NASCAR championship. It’s a moment we shouldn’t let pass too quickly because in many ways, Johnson and NASCAR provide better business lessons than nearly any other sport.
I’ll be honest: I’m not a big NASCAR fan. While I’ve watched races and can name more than a few drivers and teams, I don’t come close to exhibiting any of the passion the sport inspires in its followers. My awareness is largely based on two incidents.
First, I was flying out of Florida in early 2001 immediately after Dale Earnhardt’s fatal accident at Daytona and I was stunned at the level of grief I saw from his fans. The connection these spectators had to man they never met convinced me that something about NASCAR was special beyond belief. It still amazes me.
The second was when I stumbled into a news story about the amazing Jimmie Johnson suffering a bizarre injury while celebrating his first championship. Apparently, Johnson was riding on the roof of a golf cart and a man who easily controls a car at 200 mph fell off and broke his arm. Because I love irony, I immediately started following Johnson.
But the lesson of his championships provides an excellent discussion for business people. People who know NASCAR far better than me say there are three key aspects to a winning season and they are in order of importance: car, crew and then driver. It’s a wonderful metaphor.
Johnson would obviously be nothing without the car, must as any business must have the basics down to compete. The car has to be fast and tuned to the track in NASCAR, just as in business the basics of location, facility and logistics must be sound. Without those, you simply cannot compete.
The crew is more complex. In auto racing, the team performs a mind-numbing set of tasks in just a few seconds to make certain the car is back on the track as quickly and as capably as possible. More than a few races are lost in the pit area where the crew works. Johnson actually encountered a number of crew issues this year and at one point swapped crews with his teammate Jeff Gordon.
In so many ways, it’s just like the teams many of us lead. Those teams need the same understanding of purpose that Johnson’s crew has, the same cohesion and the same chemistry to make them successful. A big part of that is the leadership of the crew chief, much as it is with middle managers who have to make sure everyone stays on task and focused. Just as in NASCAR, a lot of competitive battles in retail can be lost in the back room with sloppiness or inattentiveness to the customer. There is no small or unimportant job in either the crew or the retail team.
Johnson may get the glory and it’s heavily deserved because he too has an enormously challenging job. His ability to win year after year is testament to his skill as a driver and a competitor in a sport where so many things must go right to win even once, no less dominate for five years of nearly weekly racing. Say what you will about racing vs. other sports, the bottom line is that Johnson’s life is at stake every time he gets behind the wheel.
But without those other components in place, Johnson wouldn’t sit at the top of the pyramid. Without the necessary elements of the car or without the strong leadership of the team, it’s virtually impossible to think he would have won one race let alone five championships. It’s a model of synergy that anyone from a chief executive officer to a small team leader should appreciate.
Simply put, the whole can only be more than the sum of the parts when they all work together.
Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at email@example.com . His new book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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