After a hugely successful, over 30-year career in racing, Jost Capito put off a planned retirement and took over the role of CEO at Williams Racing, one of the most successful British teams in Formula 1 racing history.
The new role will be a challenge. Formula 1 is not only a sport, but also a large business with Williams Racing employing over 800 people. The company has a lot at stake, including upholding the lineage to founder Sir Frank Williams, who started the team in 1966.
In the last few years, the group’s performance has lagged behind its competitors that possessed significantly larger war chests to build sophisticated and technologically advanced racing cars. Fans and employees are placing their hopes on Capito to stem the losses and lead the team to victory and profitability.
The chief executive started with the organization when Covid-19 raged around the world. At the time, Capito was based in Germany and unable to meet his management executives, engineers, mechanics and drivers in person, as he couldn’t travel and only had remote access to his team.
Despite the initial challenge, Capito, who was a Formula 1 fan from when he was young, excitedly embraced the opportunity. He accepted the position, believing he could turn things around and restore the Williams brand to its former glory.
Although Capito had great success at Ford Motors and Volkswagen, he knew this would be challenging. To learn about becoming an effective leader, he read up on business and leadership books, but soon realized that the best thing he could do was be himself.
His philosophy is that to win races, everyone has to be involved and invested. This includes the janitors who make sure dirt and debris don’t gum up the car engines, and engineers, drivers, machinists and designers focused on doing their best.
It’s critical to keep up morale after suffering defeats. This entails bringing a positive energy that is contagious. He knows he needs to motivate his employees to find ways to improve and innovate. Capito has a “no-blame” culture and offers psychological safety. Understandably, mistakes occur, but workers won’t be called out in front of their peers. In One-on-one or town-hall meetings, the team will assess the positive and negative things that happened, learn from their mistakes and move forward.
Capito lays out the strategy and the team sticks with it. They celebrate every little victory as if they won the race. Being realistic, Capito defines success, at this juncture, as getting “some points.” Winning it all will come later. He provides clear objectives for what each person needs to achieve. The CEO champions Objectives and Key Results, a goal-setting framework to define measurable goals and track their outcomes. The results are broken down to each department to know where they are in the process and what is required to excel.
He believes in a non-hierarchical approach to management and communication. Anyone can talk to anyone. Capito has an open-door policy. The Williams chief executive took down the walls of his office and sits in an open architecture, where everyone can walk through and ask questions, cutting through time-wasting bureaucracy.
He subscribes to “skip-level meetings.” This is a meeting where a manager’s manager meets directly with employees, without that direct manager hovering around. The benefits include unfiltered access to information about what’s really going on in the organization–good or bad. People can have conversations, introduce themselves to colleagues, brainstorm and learn from one other. The key is to find solutions together and break down silos to ensure collaboration.
He also believes in loving what you do for a living and having fun at work. Capito said that he enjoys the pressure, and the more pressure, the more he thrives. He finds losing to be “physically painful.” In addition to his team, the new CEO needs to balance interfacing with New York-based private equity firm Dorilton Capital, which reportedly purchased Williams for about $200 million.
Beginning With A Listening Tour
When Capito was appointed as chief executive, his first order of business was to hold a “listening tour.” He spoke with managers, drivers, factory workers, engineers and others to hear their thoughts, concerns and suggestions. He wanted to learn what needed to be changed and what he should do to improve the organization.
Capito asked five questions to all the management personnel first. He listened for one month, and received feedback, constructive criticism and an overview of how to move forward. He then incorporated others into the conversation. There was some initial trepidation about how open workers could be when interfacing with the CEO. His response was, “If you tell me everything is great, nothing will change.” He only asked to start with something positive before launching into a negative diatribe. Here are the questions he asked of his team.
- What is great at Williams?
- What should be changed?
- What do you think you should change?
- What is your advice?
- What do you really want to tell me?
It’s A Team Effort: Nothing To Lose And Everything To Gain
Being an underdog was the team’s strength. “It is more fun being in the back,” said Capito. By trailing the pack, the Williams team had nothing to lose and everything to gain. The new CEO’s strategy was to take risks. He felt that if the team acted like everyone else on the track, nothing would change. Everyone from the factory workers to drivers, pit crew and janitors needed to contribute.
Formula 1 is the epitome of racing around the world, and a multibillion-dollar enterprise. The stakes are high, as it’s one of the few sports where the participants risk permanent damage or death. One tiny error when going at 200 mph and you can end your career.
Capito acknowledges that his team did not perform as hoped for during the 2022 F1 season. Although it was a “rebuilding season,” it was still frustrating to be at the bottom end of the spectrum.
In response, Capito worked hard to keep up morale. He offered transparency and allowed people to speak up. Invoking the legendary Williams history, he motivated the team to succeed.
Success wasn’t defined by winning it all. Other teams benefited from the advantage of having considerably more funding. His goal was to improve incrementally. Over time, the team will climb up the ranks and ultimately restore the glory.
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