Sir Jackie Stewart’s business philosophy
F1 racing great Sir Jackie Stewart shares his thoughts on risk, honesty and over-delivering in life and business
“In my world there was risk. I learned an awful lot from that risk. There was a two in three chance that I was going to die and a one in three chance I would live. That gets your attention,” said three-time Formula 1 world champion Sir Jackie Stewart, getting the attention of an audience of 200 or so entrepreneurs at the recent gathering of The London Entrepreneurial Exchange. “You can’t just accept risk at that level. You have to produce a solution to the problem.”
Sir Jackie Stewart was instrumental in making motor racing safe. It didn’t make him popular at the time, as part of the macabre adrenaline appeal for the racing public was knowing that drivers were risking life and limb each time they took to the track.
Using his status as a world champion and knowing the press would print every utterance, Stewart went on a crusade to ensure that future generations of drivers did not meet the same fate as so many of his friends and peers. “57 of the people I raced against died. It’s been 17 years, two months, and 10 days since an F1 driver lost his life in a racing car.”
When Alan McNish walked away from a horrific crash at the Le Mans grand prix, it was a ringing endorsement of all the hard work. And it has become the norm to see corkscrewing cars disintegrating with every spin eventually find a resting place amid the gravel, only for the driver to unplug and step away from the wreckage.
Risk management is essential in any business and the seemingly impossible can be achieved. For Sir Jackie Stewart, success has been intertwined with perceived failure. Born dyslexic, he was and still is unable to read. He doesn’t know the alphabet and recited the Lord’s Prayer, while at school, a fraction of a second behind everyone else. He wasn’t diagnosed, however, until he was in his forties and presumed that he was “thick”.
Instead he used the creativity he appeared to be imbued with and allied that with energy and enthusiasm. “I learned very early on from being a sportsman, that if you don’t win, nobody knows who you are. And winning is not enough. Success is considerably more difficult as it’s long-term, serial winning.”
Drawing a parallel with business Stewart points to the rich lists, such as the Forbes 500, where making the list is an achievement few could surpass. In top-level sport, that would not be good enough. Stewart thrived throughout his career in sport on discipline and mind management, and retains the same perfectionist’s streak in business life.
He says, though, that success is not possible without surrounding yourself with talent. “Lots of people are frightened by talented people. You need to collect quality people around you though. I always had two people to discuss things with and get advice from: King Hussain of Jordan and Lord King of British Airways. It took time to get them as my counsel,” he quipped.
That’s help at the top end, mentors who can open other doors. But it was great engineers and a back-up team when he was driving and later a team principal. “To finish first, first you must finish,” was his mantra. His car crossed the line first in 27 of the 99 grand prix in which he took part – an incredible record. “The engineers were better than me. That meant I could deliver. When I went into business I used the same principles.”
His newly-formed team won sponsorship from HSBC despite a warning from Stewart that he wouldn’t win a race for five years. “We won a race in 31 months. We got a lot of podiums and 4th in the constructors’ championship. Under-promise and over-deliver. If you do that you don’t get the sack.” 43 years of endorsing Rolex, 42 years of working with Moët Hennessey, and 41 years associated with Ford are testimony to Stewart’s philosophy.
“If you fly with the crows you’re liable to be shot at. They’re vermin,” concluded Stewart. Fly with the eagles and choose carefully who you do business with, he added. And when you’ve done that, add value to all relationships and everything you do. It’s an ethos that has served Stewart well.