What can F1 champ Jenson Button teach us about digital transformation?
This year’s opening keynote speaker at DTX Europe may not know much about cloud-based data warehouses, as-a-service business models or the merits of value stream management, but Jenson Button can confidently lay claim to be an expert in mental resilience and working with multi-disciplinary teams.
When you’re at the top of your game, racing driver Button told DTX delegates, you feel the mental pressure and it can affect performance.
As a case-in-point the sportsman-turned-TV pundit recalled how he felt during the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2009.
The podium was already in sight for the former British F1 driver, who had already won a record-equaling six out of seven races putting the Brawn GP team on course to win the Formula One Championship.
But then came the pressure, Button recalled, which made him feel on his own and “struggling with the mental side of things.”
He added: “In the penultimate race we qualified 14th and I felt as though I’d messed everything up. I was distraught.”
Fortunately, reassuring words from his dad (the late English rallycross driver John Button) and his team manager Ross Brawn set him back on track and he secured fifth place – enough to lead the team to championship victory.
“One weakness I had was that I couldn’t’ move on from things. I’d make a mistake or a wrong strategy call and that would live with me until the next race. That’s what happened in 2009 and it’s about learning to discuss these things with the right people,” he said.
Breaking the silo
After this experience, Button said that he stopped viewing Formula One through the prism of the driver and started to connect with the many different departments involved developing many friendships in the process: from the physio team to the aerodynamics department to the engineers in the factory and the PR and marketing staff.
DTX messaging this year is all about breaking down silos, and this is what Button essentially did to improve both his performance and his mental resilience.
“To start with I thought it was just me. I’m the guy in the car – but it was much better when realised that I was part of a bigger team,” he said.
“There could be 1,500 people working for Formula One to build just two cars. And you need to be working as one team,” he said.
“There are racing drivers in simulators in Japan 24-hours-a-day working on things for you to try in your next practice session. These teams back at base are so important.”
“There’s a saying in the sport that the people that mess up the least are the ones whose teams do the most work. All I must do is to get onto the track and not mess things up,” he added.
The winning Formula
Jenson acknowledged that his success also came through support from the right leadership too – and praises his former manager Brawn, who led the Honda team following a buyout in 2009.
“I was always comfortable in Ross’s presence; I knew I could talk to him openly about stuff. He was also open to you having an imagination to trying something new without fear of failure,” said Button.
“There’s a tendency in the sport, a fear of trying something new a fear that, if you fail then you’re out. We should be open to imagination in sport – at the pinnacle of F1 you must throw out ideas.”
A keen observer of people, Button shared some insight into his former teammate – the seven-time Formula One World Drivers’ Champion Lewis Hamilton, who he describes as a having a sponge-like ability to learn from those around him.
“Lewis picks up a lot from his teammates. I worked with him for three years in the same team. He would see Fernando [Alonso] was good at getting on the gas at the right point. So, he looked at the data and thought: ‘I can do that because Fernando has’.”
“And he didn’t’ always have the mental strength that he has now. He had a lot of natural ability, but his engineering skills and team skills were not there, and he used to get very upset.
“He could not understand why I seemed to be getting more support from the team – because I gave them the time of day. It’s about everyone in the team, everyone in the factory. That was a big learning curve for him but he is such a complete driver now.”
Button was also asked by presenter Susannah Streeter about how he copes with the safety risks involved in driving a car around a track which is going at an average speed of 181.29km/h.
“That bit’s easy because most racing drivers are a bit stupid,” he joked, but then admitted, the moment he got inside the cockpit and put his helmet on and pulled out onto the track was the “most peaceful place in the world.”
He added: “You see the danger, you understand it, it’s in the back of your mind somewhere, but you’re away from the press, you are away from the rest of the world, you forget about it.”
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