Be Ready to Admit When You’re Wrong

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PHILADELPHIA—Agility and innovation are critical to leadership success, but leaders also need to be able to admit mistakes, said National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) CEO and Chairman Brian France, speaking June 18, 2014, at the Wharton Leadership Conference at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

France spoke candidly about how NASCAR, a family-owned business, stumbled in 2007 when it launched the Car of Tomorrow, a homogenous-looking racecar, which was supposed to be safer and have fewer maintenance costs. But it was panned by drivers, the media and fans alike. France admitted he failed to get total buy-in for the car in a sport where everyone identifies with vehicles that resemble their favorite brand—a Chevy, Ford or Toyota.

“I’m looking for leaders who do big things but [make] no big mistakes, and I made a big mistake in that respect,” he said about launching the Car of Tomorrow.

Growing Innovation

France said he and NASCAR’s HR team look for high-energy leaders who fit its “self-critical” culture but are willing to take calculated risks on the road to innovation.

One innovation is a high-pressure air and heat system to help reduce track-drying time by up to 80 percent after a rainstorm so the race can go on, and television and fans in the stands don’t have to wait—or change channels—during rain delays. The system has drawn interest from other industries and sports.

And a $400 million retrofit of the Daytona International Speedway will include 11 football-field-size social media engagement areas for tech-savvy younger fans to use mobile devices to interact with the race. With heavy competition for TV viewers and selling tickets for seats on race day, NASCAR sees the expenditure as a calculated risk.

Successful Leaders Differ Markedly from Lagging Companies

Agility and being fast to act are critical to innovation, according to a recent Accenture study, Traits of Truly Agile Businesses. Accenture was a sponsoring partner of the Wharton conference.

Leading companies differ markedly from low-growth organizations in how they structure leadership teams, approach decision making, leverage data and analytics, and engage partners. The global survey of about 1,300 C-suite and senior-level executives defined leading companies as ones reporting 10 percent or greater increase in sales in the past year.

Leading companies stand apart from poor-performing organizations on nearly every dimension. Key among them: 62 percent cite building the right leadership team as the primary factor to improve organizational agility, versus 44 percent of lagging companies.

Leaders also have a strong bias for action: 51 percent indicate their organizations have made changes to accelerate decision-making, compared with 26 percent of laggards.

Tesla’s Bold Move

In a separate telephone interview with the Society for Human Resource Management, Richard Metheny, leader of the solutions for exceptional leadership practice at executive search firm Witt/Kieffer in Oak Brook, Ill., said innovation and boldness that’s “assertive, energetic and visionary” is increasingly an essential CEO competency.

The recent announcement by Elon Musk, Tesla Motors’ CEO, that the company was releasing electric car patents to bring the technology to the masses is one example.

“[Musk is] involved with solar power, space travel, electric motors and cars,” Metheny said. “He’s immensely confident and competent.”

Sharing technology will likely bring more electric cars to market, thereby benefiting Tesla. It also may have tangible HR benefits when it comes to talent, since if Tesla is seen as always cutting edge, top talent will want to be a part of that, he added.

“More than anything, innovative people want to be in an environment where they can be creative and showcase their ideas and talents,” Metheny said.

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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