Leadership Lessons from High Performance Driving
From the latest issues of DesignIntelligence Quarterly

It was a beautiful 1964 ½ Mustang. It was fast, and it belonged to my mother. Fortunately, she often handed the keys over to me, a teenager, and I happily put it through its paces. I remember how exhilarating it felt to drive that Mustang alongside other teenagers on the streets of 1960s Charleston.

Twenty-five years later, I drove an IMSA Level One Racing Course on the incredible Road Atlanta track for the first time. It was truly a milestone for me. For years, I’ve been pursuing my dream of driving high performance cars on a racetrack at high speeds. Recently, I realized that the lessons I’ve learned about high performance driving also apply to leadership in architecture.

1. Work as a team.
Although racing seems like a solitary sport of man and machine, winning requires a team of people working behind the scenes to support the driver. On a competitive racing level, it involves many people: the sponsor who provides the funding, the pit crew who keep the driver in the race, the manager who makes the decisions, and even the spotter who tells the driver (particularly in NASCAR) when to overtake another car.

Without careful monitoring of fuel levels, lightning-fast tire changes and re-fueling, and win/lose strategic decisions, a driver wouldn’t be able to win the race. The driver understands the roles of team members, respects and listens to their expertise, and thanks them for their part in the driver’s success. A weak link in the chain negatively affects the performance of the entire team.

Succeeding in business also requires the collaboration of the right people with the skills and expertise needed to bring the team to the finish line. Although they may be in the driver’s seat, wise leaders understand they wouldn’t be there without the efforts and support of the whole team.

2. Focus on where you want to go.
One of the core principles of racing is the idea that the car goes where you are looking. If a driver looks at the wall, the car will invariably go toward the wall—and very fast! Drivers can’t allow themselves to focus on where they don’t want to go or where they already are. Instead, they have to look far ahead in order to anticipate and avoid problems. Plus, focusing ahead on where they want to go slows their perception of speed, giving them more time to respond to obstacles or issues.

The same can be said for leadership. As the Cheshire cat told Alice in Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Your vision will dictate where you end up, so focus on where you want your firm, office, studio, or project to go. Look ahead down the road so you can anticipate and avoid problems and keep from “hitting the wall.”

3. Drive with skill, not just speed.
In my first high performance driving class at Road Atlanta, I was fully confident in my skill as a fast driver. After all, I’d been driving fast since my teenage years behind the wheel of my mother’s Mustang.

But on my first lap at Road Atlanta, I spun out. It was on “the Esses” just before turn five. Talk about humbling. In that moment, I learned that there’s a big difference between “driving fast” and “high performance driving.” Driving fast simply means putting the pedal to the metal, which anybody can do. But high performance driving is a nuanced balancing of many inputs in a measured, deliberate way. It takes knowledge and “seat time” to become skilled. This kind of driving teaches, paradoxically, that sometimes you can go faster by going slower.

Similarly, high performance leadership requires being effective, calm, controlled, and measured. It means not panicking in the pit or balking at win/lose decisions. Leaders like this consider and act upon nuanced, balanced input of many factors in a sustainable way. They know that you win in the long run, not just the first lap.

4. Measure your efforts to get the results you want.
In my early days as a racing fan, I remember not only the thrill of seeing those cars zooming by but also watching people with stopwatches timing them as they passed. Metrics and measurements in racing today are much more complex and comprehensive, from G-forces to tire wear patterns to fuel consumption and more.

Metrics and measurements are essential to success in business, too, particularly in today’s world where data can be a competitive advantage. We use data to assess firm, office, studio, and project performance, consultant expenses as a percentage of gross fee, utilization rates, net revenue per employee, accounts receivable, cash flow, and other key metrics. The data we collect assists us in determining adjustments or inputs needed to become a high performance firm and success patterns that are replicable to other studios or offices.

In addition, architects can mine the data for what sets them apart from their competition. For example, LS3P is creating systems that will help us use data to define us as experts in all of our sectors. If we’re talking with a hotel operator, for instance, it helps to be able to quote “cost per key” on the last five hotels we’ve done and explain why they cost that amount. We can respond knowledgably when clients ask how much of a premium they’ll pay to go from LEED Silver to LEED Gold. Increasingly, just like in motorsports, data will be crucial for an architect’s success.

5. Cultivate a positive attitude.
“The average person has approximately 66,000 thoughts every day, with 70 to 80 percent of those being negative.”

In his Ultimate Speed Secrets, author Ross Bentley writes, “The average person has approximately 66,000 thoughts every day, with 70 to 80 percent of those being negative.” He says that great race drivers seem to be able to turn almost everything into a positive. If you can’t, “you don’t expect to do well, so you don’t prepare, which leads to poor performance, which leads to a poor result, which meets your expectations!” In business, when you add a positive attitude to preparation and knowledge, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.

6. Know when to let go.
Have you ever seen on TV a car deftly sliding into a parallel parking space from a head-on 90-degree approach without touching the other cars? If so, you probably wondered, How in the world can someone do that?

Since I took a stunt driving course in May, I’m living proof that anyone can do it with coaching, preparation, practice, and a can-do attitude. By the end of the two-day course, I could consistently park a Ford Escort in “the box,” a 21-ft long by 9-ft deep space approximating a parallel parking space. The last thing you do in the maneuver, and maybe the hardest, is counter-intuitive: you let go of the steering wheel as you are sliding and trust the car to do its part.

In the same way, sometimes in business the best course to take is to rely on the team, the skill, and the knowledge that got you there and let go of the wheel to succeed. In that moment, everyone wins.

About Thom

Thompson E. Penney, FAIA, joined in 1968 while a senior in high school. After receiving a Master’s of Architecture with honors from Clemson University in 1974, he returned home to Charleston and to LS3P. Thom is responsible for overall firm management and organizational vision as well as the successful integration of professional services, marketing, operations, and finances. His passion is elevating design and its value to our clients and our communities.

Thom was elevated to Fellowship in the American Institute of Architects for Design in 1990, and his award-winning work has been featured in numerous national and international magazines and books. In 2009, he was honored with the Award for Ethics and Civic Responsibility from the Free Enterprise Foundation, and is an honorary fellow and member in four International Institutes of Architecture. He is a frequent guest lecturer and design juror.

Thom is active both in the local and professional communities, having served as the 79th National President of The American Institute of Architects in 2003, and Chairman of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce in 2008. While President of the AIA, he was on the founding board of the National Academy of Architecture for Neuroscience in La Jolla, California, which was inspired by his platform.

In addition to his interest in high performance building design, Thom enjoys high performance driving in his spare time.