Stuttgart. Susie and Toto Wolff, two well-known faces in the motorsport industry, know what it means to stay focused and determined, especially in challenging times. As a couple that works in the same business, they share common experiences and the same formula for success: Pick yourself up and learn from your weaknesses.
Mercedes-Benz Brand Ambassador Susie Wolff is Team Principal and shareholder of the Monaco-based Formula E team, ROKiT Venturi Racing. Born in Oban, Scotland, she drove DTM races for Mercedes-Benz from 2006 to 2012 before working as a test and development driver for the Williams team until 2015. In 2014, Susie made history at the British Grand Prix by becoming the first woman to take part in a Formula One race weekend in 22 years as she took to the track as part of the Williams F1 Team.
Toto Wolff is Team Principal and CEO of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team. In his capacity as managing partner, he has led the team to an unprecedented six consecutive double championships from 2014 to 2019 – including five world drivers’ titles for Lewis Hamilton. Toto and Susie Wolff live with their 3-year-old son Jack in Switzerland and Oxford, England. Toto’s two children from his previous marriage are also part of the family.
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, the innovative automotive and motorsport industries are also having to cope with special circumstances, with events being cancelled or postponed. We interviewed Susie and Toto Wolff during this challenging time. In our interview, they talked about leadership being more about trusting and less about leading in the abilities of one’s team – and what they learned from being in lockdown during the COVID-19 situation.
Susie, having been a very successful driver in various racing series yourself, you are now a team principal in Formula E where you are involved in every aspect of management. How did your racing career prepare you for leadership?
Susie: After spending most of my life in motorsport, this is where my core knowhow – and of course my network – are. But when you’re a driver, you’re mostly on your own, whereas management requires a different set of skills, because you’re responsible for the performance of the whole team. But thanks to my recent role I can now see both sides and I understand what the drivers are dealing with. I now what it’s like for them. And, of course, I had the fortunate opportunity of watching Toto manage a very successful Formula One team over the years, and that really gave me the foundation of knowing what it takes to build a successful team. There was still a lot to learn when I took on the role. But I’m a great believer in pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, so I very much enjoyed the challenge.
Toto, before joining the motorsport industry you worked in finance as an investor. Which of your personal skills do you consider the most useful in dealing with the pressure of meeting many different requirements at the same time?
Toto: In my professional life in finance, one of my responsibilities was the recruitment of capable teams – which means being able to identify talented people. This experience helps me a lot in Formula One in terms of structuring a performance-oriented organisation. Coping with multiple tasks is all about understanding where you can contribute the most and focusing your efforts on your strengths while finding the right resources to complement you in the weaker areas.
What do you expect from the people you work with?
Toto: Being able to adapt to change. Because like Darwin’s principle, it’s not about the survival of the strongest but of the most adaptable. Suddenly, the environment changes, we must cope with a crisis and curve balls are being thrown at us. So, you must be able to think out of the box – and adapt. We learn the most on our worst days. If you’re able to analyse a problem without blaming the person but instead blaming the problem, your organisation will grow even from painful experiences.
Susie: In racing, we’re all competitive people. It’s the brutality of sport that everybody wants to win, but there’s only one winner at the end of the race. In my organisation we are not yet a consistently race-winning team so we need to be robust in moments of difficulty because it’s there where we learn the most. In our current position, we have to cope with failure and, as Toto said, as painful as those days are, it’s the people who are able to pick themselves up the quickest, learn from the failures, and move on who will be the most successful in the end.
With regard to leadership, what’s important to you?
Toto: I struggle to discuss leadership in that context because I believe that in successful organisations, everybody must take responsibility and be accountable for decisions. So, there’s never just one leader – but many. In our team, we established some values when I joined and they have been our core performance differentiator at Mercedes. It’s all about the right mindset. We all have the same attitude about being loyal and transparent in our actions. We always stick with the truth, empower each other, and have a no-blame culture. To be successful as an organisation, you must live and breathe these values every single day, rather than just writing them on a chart on the wall.
Nevertheless, someone has to be in charge of the whole operation. Based on both of your personal experiences – which skills are required for being a leader?
Toto: Empathy. Interest in the people you manage. An understanding of their individual strengths and weaknesses. And an understanding of empowerment and standing by those values.
Susie: One of the many things I learned from watching Toto is that as a leader you must be authentic. My husband and I have very different management styles, but I follow his example in staying true to myself. Toto’s success as a leader is clearly visible from the success of Mercedes in Formula One. This is what’s so pure about sport: it’s very clear from the results if you are doing a good job. This takes away any misconceptions because you are only as good as your on-track performance.
In your opinion, Susie, how important are women’s networks such as She’s Mercedes for the exchange of experiences and the development of management skills?
Susie: Thanks to She’s Mercedes, I’ve met a lot of women from different environments with vastly different experiences – and I think you can always learn something from every successful woman you meet. I always leave She’s Mercedes events feeling very motivated and inspired. Exchange and experience are beneficial to all of us. And I believe in inspiring the next generation to become empowered. There are so many possibilities out there for women – especially in motorsport. There are a lot of talented women doing great things – they’re just not in front of the camera. I certainly never feel disadvantaged by being a woman in this environment. I think it’s important that by initiating She’s Mercedes, the company has recognised the importance of listening to the female voice and bringing women together.
How do you as leaders cope with the current situation around COVID-19 and the impact it might have on your teams – and what are your key lessons from it?
Toto: COVID-19 is a global challenge and of course affects us as much as any other organisation around the globe. Nobody saw it coming. If people had been told six months ago that we would be in a two-month lockdown with the industry being almost fully shut down – they wouldn’t have believed it. To cope with it, we have to accept the new norm and adapt to it. Because as I said before, it’s not about the survival of the strongest but of the most adaptable. It’s not easy to keep everybody energised and motivated because the circumstances we now face not only impact our work but our personal life. I consider myself very lucky to have a superb team that has kept communicating and continues being honest and transparent about what the top management is thinking these days. I think our people appreciate that.
Susie: The COVID-19 situation has given us the opportunity to hit the pause button, analyse where we stood as an organisation and just hit reset in some areas. We reorganised our work using tech to work remotely as we can’t travel to our headquarters in Monaco. This time has really highlighted how we can work in a different and more effective way and achieve a much better work-life-balance – also as we start moving forward and be allowed to resume travelling. Before the lockdown I was constantly travelling to Monaco for meetings – like many of my colleagues who worked remotely. Some of our key personnel were almost burnt out – even though we weren’t at the end of the season yet. We won’t go back to how it was before, I think we can find a better way.
Life as a married couple, your children, and business – how do you manage all this?
Susie: The family has to make sacrifices for us to be able to do our jobs. The huge success that Mercedes has enjoyed in Formula One over the years has taken Toto away from his family a lot. And we all supported that decision and are very proud of what he's achieved. But it has certainly been a sacrifice from everyone. And that's why, when we do come all together as a family, we really enjoy this quality time. So, we focus on quality more than quantity.
I was in the lucky position of not having to go back to work, when I became a mother. But I very quickly realised I needed the challenge of a job. I was someone who'd been very goal-orientated my whole career, and suddenly I found myself without any professional goals on my horizon to strive for. I really missed that challenge. So, I chose to go back to work. I'm very lucky to have a great support system around me and fantastic parents who are willing to step in, because this allows me to do the job that I love. And I think the ability for me to do a job that I enjoy also makes me a better mother. But it does mean that there has to be a support network in place, and it means that everybody has to make small sacrifices for us to be able to follow our passion and be successful in our respective jobs.
Has there been something you experienced together during the COVID-19 situation that you haven’t been able to experience before – because there was simply no time for it?
Susie: Before we were always on a really tight schedule. Now we can take a walk together and don’t worry about what time we have to be home. Now, Toto goes to the supermarket for groceries. I don’t think that has happened in a very long time. He cooks and is there for bath time in the evening. This time has allowed us to appreciate the small things in life and has reminded us of how important it is to spend quality time as a family.
Toto: We tried to see the positives and spend a lot of time with the children. I have been able to spend time with our three-year-old son whom I don’t get to see very often once the Formula One calendar kicks off. And Susie and I have spent a lot more time together. For the last couple of years, we’ve always been on the road – Susie with Formula E and me with Formula One. But now, we have realised that we have spent five months together – split only by two small gaps. For five months, we’ve been together every single day and our relationship is stronger than ever.