Formula 1’s Ross Brawn on leadership, strategy, and why he’s a reluctant entrepreneur

The Formula 1 mastermind explains why he's a reluctant entrepreneur

When it comes to Formula 1, Ross Brawn has the Midas touch. The engineer and strategist dominated the sport with Ferrari and Michael Schumacher at the beginning of the new millennium taking home both the Constructors’ and Drivers’ championships five years in a row. But it was last year that his own name made it onto the car after he led a management buy-out of the Honda team. With British driver Jenson Button behind the wheel, the newly formed Brawn GP team sped to victory saving hundreds of at risk Honda jobs in the process. Now Team Principal and shareholder for the new Mercedes GP Petronas team, Ross is once again directing former champion Schumacher. We caught up with him between races to grill him on the values of leadership. Here’s what he had to say:

What is it that makes you such a successful Team Principal?

In my business I can genuinely say I’ve done everything. I started in a very minor position 30 years ago working for Frank Williams and since then I’ve worked at every stage of the business. I also think the people that work for me are the same – they know most of things that need to be done at every level of the business and that’s a great asset to me.

What qualities are essential for great leadership?

Clarity is always vital. After every race I sit down with the management team and we’ll have a full and frank discussion about how it went, what went well and what was bad. We’ll establish our priorities for the next race, the next few months and even the next season. Making sure everyone understands what you’re trying to achieve is essential so I see my staff, especially first level management, several times a week.

In my environment it’s pretty stressful and people can get excited, but it’s critical the people at the job keep their heads. If something’s wrong I prefer a quiet discussion somewhere private. I don’t believe in showmanship management. When I joined Ferrari it had a reputation for being chaotic but it was just chaotic management filtering through and affecting performance. We put a calm, logical management team in place and every thing else just fell in line. Leadership isn’t complicated, it’s just the simple fundamentals that people often forget.

The Honda buy-out which gave rise to Brawn GP happened quite suddenly with you at the helm. Would you describe yourself as a reluctant entrepreneur?

Very much so. I’ve never sat there and coveted a position I wanted to get to. My career has evolved as opportunities have come along. It was the same with Brawn GP. I went to work for Honda, a team I viewed as having fantastic resources but poor results. When they withdrew, quite frankly we had no choice but to carry on with the team otherwise 750 people would have been out of work.

It was all self-funded. The money came from Honda and the prize funds that were due to the team from the commercial rights holders. We knew we had enough money to run the team and the rest came from later sponsorship deals. As soon as the team started performing, we had a lot of companies join us. That’s what enabled us to do such a good job last year because we put those funds back in the team to develop the car.

How is your time split between race and commercial strategy?

Most of my time is spent with the business. Although my profile is very much connected to racing, 95% of my time is spent in the office or at the factory. All a race can do is maximise what you have or spoil it. You can never do more than the car you arrive with so most of our important work is done away from the circuit.

Given the success that a career in engineering has brought you, would you like to see more done to encourage British engineers and manufacturing?

We should be doing more to encourage apprenticeships. I came through a mechanical engineering apprentice, but the training school I went to, the Atomic Energy Authority, closed its apprenticeship scheme some years ago. The education and training is where the efforts should be made.

Should the UK be focusing more on its manufacturing efforts rather than relying on financial services for its economic stability?

I’m in a bit of bubble because the UK leads motor racing and it’s a relatively buoyant industry.  The majority of teams and technology are here, and the teams that aren’t in the UK tend to employ a lot of British engineers. But a strong manufacturing industry is vital. Somebody has to be making things and engineering solutions because everything else flows from that.

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