business news in context, analysis with attitude

By Kevin Coupe

In addition to writing MorningNewsBeat each day, Content Guy Kevin Coupe also contributes regular columns to a wide number of publications, including Chain Store Age. As an occasional MorningNewsBeat feature, the folks at Chain Store Age have graciously agreed to let us reprint some of these columns.

So there I was, crammed into the cockpit of an open wheel 2.0 liter formula Dodge racecar. It was the final hour of three days that I’d spent at the Skip Barber Racing School in Lime Rock, Connecticut. And one of the instructors, an indefatigably cheerful man named Bruce MacInnes with decades of racing experience and a century’s worth of stories (not to mention a catalog of colorful and mostly unprintable euphemisms), leaned over me. “It’s a race car,” he said. “You have to drive it fast. It works better that way.”

He pointed out of the pit toward the track. “When you go back out there, I want to see the tires smoke and hear them squeal. Now go!”

I’d traveled to Lime Rock to take the renowned Skip Barber course – which is offered at more than 20 tracks around the country - out of some vague sense that, as I approached my 50th birthday, I needed to do something that I’d never done before, something that would challenge me. (Little did I know that several weeks later, at a different racing school in Alabama, an executive at Bruno’s would lose his life during a corporate event.) I also thought that there were life and business lessons to be learned from the experience. More than ever, the retailing business is competitive and even cutthroat…and so is the act of driving a car around a track at high speeds, seemingly daring gravity and physics. As Bob Green, another one of the instructors, told us the first day, ‘It’s easy to drive a car at 65 percent of its capabilities. But it’s hard to drive a car beyond that.” In business, as on the track, we’re all constantly challenged to drive faster and better…so I went to the Skip Barber Racing School seeking enlightenment.

Lesson One. While it isn’t always the case, in our particular group I was by far the person with the least amount of racing experience, limited pretty much to nudging my 10-year-old Miata up to 70 from time to time. There were people in our group who had built cars, who had raced other kinds of vehicles, who were prepping themselves for racing careers. But there was a great lesson just in showing up – it is important in business to occasionally get way outside the normal comfort zone. It makes you think and feel and act differently. Outside the zone, preconceptions often are revealed to be misconceptions. “When it feels good, watch out,” MacInnes told us; if you’re too comfortable, you make mistakes.

Lesson Two. Winning, it seems, is accomplished in a lot of different ways. John Murphy, the lead instructor during the three days, told us that “the only lap you have to finish first is the last one.” The lesson here, it seems to me, is that it is important not to be distracted by the little battles, but rather stay focused on the larger goal. On a racetrack, it is easy to get so preoccupied by little power plays here and there that you forget about the broader strategy…and I can think of more than a few retailers who have made the same mistake in the day-to-day conduct of business.

It’s critical to know where you’re going. “it’s called target fixation,” MacInnes said. “You have to look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go.”

Lesson Three. So, it’s important to stay focused…but not tense. MacInnes told us that studies have been done showing that as people get more and more tense, they tend to develop a kind of tunnel vision. On the race track, the inevitable tension of trying to control the car at high speeds can bring the eyes down, and if there was one overwhelming message of the three days, it was that you have to keep the eyes up, looking at the whole track, seeing the big picture. Look down and you can’t navigate the corners and straight-aways in the most efficient manner. The metaphor here is clear; it is almost gospel that when things get tough in the retailing business, everybody starts talking about getting more focused on fundamentals. But the fact is that most people know the fundamentals – it is when things get tough and tense that you have to keep seeing the big picture, the big strategy. Green put it another way: “You can’t flex when you’re rigid.” And you have to be able to flex to succeed.

Seeing, of course, is critical to success in racing – and failing. “Don’t close your eyes if you crash,” joked MacInnes. “You’ll miss the best part.”

Lesson Four. One of the best messages of the three days, in my view, was the importance of coaching. Too many businesses simply toss people into their jobs and offer training, but not coaching.

I cannot say enough about the quality of coaching that I received at Skip Barber. Murphy, Green and MacInnes were by turns encouraging, prodding, even nurturing when necessary…watching everything, noting our strengths and weaknesses and addressing both with passion and belief in our ability to succeed. Every business should require that its people be not just bosses but coaches, and these people should be compensated and incentivized on their ability to coach the best from their people. And if they need lessons in how to do so, they need go no further than three experts at Lime Rock Park.

Lesson Five. “You have to accelerate into the curve.” For me, there was no more difficult lesson to implement, because it simply ran counter to my instincts. When I couldn’t see what was coming, or was unsure of my ability to control the car, I would either brake or lessen the pressure on the gas pedal. But it is on the curves – where you have to know how to take the right line from one point to the next – that races are won and lost. And it is on the curves where businesses often set the pattern for success or failure.

Which is pretty much how I found myself sitting in 1,100 pounds of racecar, being shouted encouragement by MacInnes – who was determined that I would speed into the curves and send the car screaming full throttle down the straightaway. It wasn’t just about using the car at 100 percent of its capacity – it was about using 100 percent of me.

So I slid down my visor, threw the car into gear and sent the car careening out onto the track. A little tire squeal, a little smoke. Okay, good enough. Into the hairpin turn, then into a series of turns, upshifting where I was supposed to, trying to be just a little more aggressive while still hitting my marks.

Onto a back straightaway, where I feel like I’m going fast…but I get passed by two other cars. Sweat streaming down my forehead, into my eyes. I can’t believe it. Into a curve…and I upshift now, pressing the accelerator. Up a hill, trying not to follow my instincts to slow down, then into another curve, still fighting my instincts, then down a steep hill and into another curve, then a straightaway. I feel like I’m not so much driving as hanging on for dear life.

In my mirror, I see two other cars, both coming up on me. Last chance. I throw the car into fourth, and floor it.

It was at that moment, Murphy joked later, that “the mild mannered reporter became the full-throttle man.” I’m not sure who was more surprised – the coaches who’d been cheering me on for three days, the two guys who found they couldn’t catch my car for the first time, or me.

But it was that one moment of full throttle that I’m using to define my three-day racing school experience. And to use as a model for how to approach business, even life. It was an extraordinary three days of remarkable lessons.

Speed into the curves. See the big picture. Get outside the comfort zone.

Full throttle.

Reprinted with permission Chain Store Age (8/2004). Copyright Lebhar-Friedman Inc., 425 Park Ave., NY, NY 10022.

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