Opportunity Knocks Softly

While watching Ford vs Ferrari with my wife and two youngest sons this past weekend, I was struck with the example of a management style that creates a toxic environment. If you are unfamiliar with the film, or the story it portrays, let me catch you up.

In the mid-sixties, Henry Ford II decides to go after Enzo Ferrari in his own backyard at a race that Ferrari practically owns, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Getting a win means having a car and drivers that can handle the punishment of running flat out for 24 hours on the French country roads of Le Mans to get to the finish line. So, Ford hires Carroll Shelby, an American automotive designer, racing driver, and entrepreneur. Shelby brings Ken Miles along. Miles was a British sports car racing engineer and driver who was eventually inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. Together they won Le Mans in June of 1966.

That’s the good part of the story. The bad part of the story is the way Shelby and Miles were treated as they literally risked their lives to win. Of course, movies are often sensationalized versions of the truth, but the eyewitnesses to the story confirm the important details. Henry Ford II wanted a win at Le Mans. Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles knew how to win. However, some of the Ford leadership continuously refused to listen to Shelby. They were too busy listening to themselves to hear the quiet knock of success present in the Shelby-Miles team and demanded control over details of the race program that they knew nothing about. It had to be frustrating, infuriating, and stressful to know what would work and have the people they worked for not listen to them (and these are guys that go 200 miles per hour as their day job!)

The sixth way that leaders communicate that they respect and value their team is to Give Them A Voice

When a leader acknowledges they don’t have all the answers and listens to others, they reinforce the belief that our identity is not what we do, rather, it is who we are. If our value is intrinsic, we can let our ideas compete without our identities competing. There are several significant additional reasons to listen to our people.

People support what they help create. As a leader, you can certainly tell everyone what to do. However, if team members have input and help create the solutions, they will then continue to support and maintain them. The problem with command and control management is that you can’t always be there to command or control. Which leads to the next reason:

Giving people a voice builds a sense of ownership. What every leader really wants is for the people on their team to care about the “result” as much as they do. How is that even possible if the people on the team are just “following orders” rather than contributing to a common goal? By including people in the destiny of the team, that destiny becomes their destiny. They own it as much as anyone. And they should because of the last reason:

The people most knowledgeable about a process, product, or procedure are the people who do it every day. As leaders, everyone wins when we have the wisdom of the crowd powering the strategies being used to accomplish our goals. However, to promote people being willing to bring their ideas forward and take the risk of vulnerability we have to ensure a few things. Ideas must always be met with respect and value, never belittled or dismissed. We must love people and use ideas; the other way around never works. If we want other people to be vulnerable, we must be the first, take the initiative, and ask for help.

Ken Miles died, tragically, shortly after the Le Mans win in 1966, driving the successor of the GT Mk II at the Riverside International Raceway. Ford went on to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans again in 1967, 1968 and 1969, in cars that were a result of Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby’s ingenuity and experience. Ford should have listened better and earlier.

As leaders we have a choice to make every day. Do we continue to support the myth that something about being in leadership makes us right all the time and bestows on us the solutions to all our team’s challenges? Or, do we acknowledge that we need help and are surrounded by people who intimately know the processes and products they work with? Good leaders don’t give people solutions. They give them goals and let them come up with the strategy.

If we are willing to be vulnerable and lead with open ears, minds, and hearts, we will be rewarded by seeing people truly engaged in their work, secure in their value, and ready and willing to go 200 miles an hour to get to the finish line first. The word “listen” contains the same letters as the word “silent.” Sometimes we need to be quiet and present long enough to hear that soft knock of opportunity. It is really the smartest thing a leader can do, and it is The Kimray Way.