I thought I knew how to drive. I mean, I’ve been driving for 30 years. But not like this. Skills that are second nature to me at 50, 60, even 70 miles an hour suddenly seemed foreign at speeds approaching 100 or more. I felt clumsy and uncoordinated, like a 15-year-old.
My experience at the BMW high-performance driving school was humbling. Many experienced executives feel the same way when they go through leadership coaching. As with driving, the ones who benefit the most learn to put discomfort aside, to learn new, high-performance techniques to improve leadership skills they thought were second nature.
My driving lessons became a lot easier once I got out of the mode of thinking that I really ought to know how to do this and accepted that I was there to learn. Here are a few of the insights I came away with that have uncanny parallels to the best executive leadership.
Don’t look where you’re going
When people go off the track, it’s typically with the car in full control and with the wheels pointed straight ahead. In a high-performance driving situation, we must look where we want the car to go instead of simply looking ahead to where it is already going.
Look at where you want to go and the body will naturally follow where the eyes lead. At slower speeds, you can make adjustments as you go, but in high-performance situations you don’t have the luxury of time to do that.
Leaders run into the same thing. At slower speeds, they can get by with staying on the same path they’ve been traveling. But once things start speeding up, or they hit obstacles, they can’t afford “business as usual.” They have to actively steer their organization where they want to go by focusing past the next quarter or next year, or they could miss the turn entirely and drive right off the track.
Learn how to brake
So maybe it’s best to slow down if you know you have problems (corners) coming up? Didn’t we just say that corners are easier to take when you take them slowly? Ah, yes, Grasshopper. But the kicker is that a 40-mile-per-hour corner is a 40-mile-per-hour corner no matter how fast you are coming up to it.
Any idiot can hit the accelerator and go fast. The best drivers are those who master braking and corner entry. I had to relearn how to brake, enter and exit corners so I could get the most speed onto the straightaway.
The leadership lesson here is that business moves fast. You can’t slow down in anticipation of problems. But you do have to slow down in the right spots to speed up on the straightaways. Organizations need skillful leaders who can get in and out of problems quickly to get back up to speed.
No sudden movements
Finally, when pushing your vehicle near its limits, make smooth adjustments. BMW driving materials state, “If you’re driving at only 50 percent of the car’s potential, you’ll be able to get away with rough gear changes and braking, accelerating and steering aggressively. But near your car’s limits, these actions can lead to loss of traction, poor track times and increased risk of an accident.” Nobody wants loss of traction, not on the racetrack and not on one’s team.
When you’re pushing your business hard, it’s not the time to suddenly replace parts of your entire organization. Don’t mistake high performance for aggressive leadership. On the contrary, the high-performance organization demands smooth, skillful handling.
BMW has an onsite team that ensures cars are continually invested in and returned to racing shape. It brings in service people from the field to break down and rebuild the M car fleet. It is a true learning organization that practices continually and shares its learning with customers.
Who knew that a weekend high-performance-driving class would bring into focus so many leadership principles? I learned a lot and, believe me, I’m a much more focused, safe and aware driver than I was before and—don’t tell the Washington State Patrol—I’m also much, much faster!
IAN MCKELVIE is founder and partner of Becauz, a Seattle-based organizational and executive coaching firm that transforms leadership and builds high-performance teams.