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Leadership lessons from Formula One, McLaren and Ron Dennis

This is today’s post from the Leaders in London blog I write. Thought you might find it interesting:

So, just one cut corner robbed Lewis Hamilton of another victory for the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes Formula One team over the weekend. I used to work for McLaren, interviewing their designers and engineers and then piecing together what it is that makes them such a formidable team, and writing it up.

In the post, below, on the Hadron colider, we talk about ‘conscious companies’, in which people at all levels are always thinking, always communicating, always assessing what works and what could be improved, always restless, never satisfied. That’s what I found at McLaren. They seemed to read each other’s minds.

I’d talk with the head of a production department and the head of a design division together and, whereas in other manufacturing organizations I went into and analyzed, where there was a thinly-disguised resentment between design and manufacturing (“Those guys always design stuff it’s impossible to make!” vs “We design a winning design and they always push back and say it can’t be done!”), at McLaren, the equivalent heads of department were so in tune with each other they’d finish each other’s sentences.

What I noticed as a characteristic of how McLaren operates is absolute trust and respect, lack of turf wars, unity behind a common purpose (winning the next race), which combined to destroy the old truth in manufacturing – that quality and speed were two great irreconcilables; that the faster you designed and made something, the lower its quality would be. Maybe everywhere else in manufacturing, I discovered, but not at McLaren.

It takes Ford two years to design, prove and build a new suspension system. When I was interviewing a McLaren designer once, he was designing a new suspension system on his Computer Aided Design system. It was needed in two weeks for the next race, as Ron Dennis and the rest of the team were unhappy with the performance of the current system in the race just finished.

Within two weeks, McLaren had designed, proved and manufactured a new suspension system, flown it out to whatever part of the world the cars were in on the global Grands Prix circuit, fitted it to the cars, tested it, tuned it, and were racing it. Two weeks where it takes Ford two years. They really are an extraordinary group of people.

And at their head is Ron Dennis, an extraordinary, quietly-spoken leader who has made McLaren the most successful British Formula One team of all time. Until Ferrari’s resurgence with Michael Schumacher, McLaren were the most successful F1 team of all time, full stop. With Lewis Hamilton driving for them, whom Dennis himself nurtured and mentored, they aim to reclaim that position and are heading that way.

When I asked McLaren if Ron Dennis would share his approach to leadership at Leaders in London later this year, and talk about how that organization is led in a way that produces extraordinary results, I’m delighted to report he said yes.

Also on the Leaders in London blog today: Lessons in leadership from Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, courtesy of Richard from the RSPB.

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