Under the motto of “Team spirit in motorsports – Is it possible?” Coverdale conducted an in-depth interview with Mr. Ulrich Fritz, member of the HWA AG Executive Board and Mercedes-AMG DTM Team Chief since 2014, on his experience in working with Coverdale.
Excerpts of the interview are provided below:
The fascination of motorsports for a DTM Team Chief
You were infected with the “motorsport virus” in 1992 at the age of 15, when Klaus Ludwig won the DTM championship in a Mercedes. That was the day you decided that your future was with Mercedes. Would you have dared to dream back then that you would one day become DTM Team Chief?
No, definitely not. I just went along to the racetrack one day. I was a clueless young guy and really did not know quite what to expect. I was immediately fascinated by the technology, but even more by the emotional atmosphere and the sport itself. Then Klaus Ludwig won the title, and from that point on I knew I wanted to be part of a team like that one day. But that I would eventually be given the chance to lead that very same team was certainly not in the focus of my thoughts back then.
Apart from the technology involved, what exactly do you find so fascinating about motorsports?
The fascinating thing about motorsports is that it has so many different facets. It’s not just about driving, it is also about strategy and technology.
But what is most important in my eyes is that racing is a team sport. When all is said and done, you can only be successful if the members of your team mesh together like gearwheels – to put it in technical terms – and everybody does their part. That starts with the driver but also includes the crew in the box, the engineers and even the truck drivers. And that is precisely where I see the greatest challenge and source of fascination: In shaping a team that goes on to be successful on the racetrack.
Before we move on to a detailed discussion of “team spirit in racing", I’would like to go back to you for a moment. The idea of actually driving a race car yourself didn’t really appeal to you that much. Have you ever driven one of your cars on a race course?
Earlier in my career I was once responsible for the AMG Driving Academy, a program devoted to driving dynamics, and in that capacity I did gain some experience behind the wheel. But for the most part I’d have to say, yes, I’m fascinated by high-performance cars, and that is surely one of my greatest passions. But driving a car on a race track is not really one of my biggest talents. I definitely have other strengths to contribute to this team.
“One Team – One Vision“
On the road to success - together
A great deal of public discussion revolves around cars, tires, the weather on race days, temperatures, performance weights and other technical aspects. However, as you mentioned, there is yet another essential factor that comes into play long before a race begins: The interaction of everyone on the entire team, in your case the whole HWA company, for the purpose of achieving a high-performance culture as the basis for success on the race track. What elements or components do you consider especially important?
Above all, it is important that the teamwork is based on strong mutual trust. In my view, trust, openness and a good feedback culture are absolutely essential prerequisites for success. And I think that applies not only to our sport but to every organization in which people work together in a team situation. Aside from trust and the need for a feedback culture, it is also important that every individual member of the team has an area of responsibility he can manage independently. The opportunity to make a personal contribution is a major incentive and thus a significant motivating factor when it comes to fostering outstanding individual performance on a daily basis.
How was this “one-team” approach – a culture with a strong sense of togetherness – implemented?
Following a change in personnel in the spring of 2014, we realized that we could only continue to exist and – ideally – get much better, if every individual assumed responsibility and based his own decisions on the needs of the team. Communication became the focus of all our activities. We made an effort to demonstrate to our people how to communicate as much as possible, how to offer feedback appropriately and how to approach problems and processes effectively. And that was surely one of the keys to our success last year.
Where do you stand in that respect today?
It is a long-term process, and I’d guess that it is going to take two or three years to achieve our goal completely. And even then there will still be room for further improvement. We initiated the change process in mid-2014, and I think we have made considerable progress; otherwise the success we have achieved last year would not have been possible.
We added several new members to our team at the beginning of the last season in 2015, and it is going to take them a while, of course, to get settled and get familiarized with these topics.
What differences do you see in the “one-team" approach at HWA when you consider the company as a whole, the DTM drivers and the engineers and mechanics, for instance?
There are no differences in terms of the basic framework and values. Communication, feedback and openness are absolutely essential values and always key success factors.
But differences arise in specific cases, of course. Take the drivers, for example. They are top athletes, and in order to be successful in this sport at the highest level you have to bring along a healthy dose of selfishness. The challenge consists in instilling and maintaining the team concept in the minds of the drivers.
The challenges a team of mechanics or engineers or a production team are faced with may be different in certain ways, but the basic values remain the same.
How did employees react when you introduced the “one team" approach in mid-2014? That was surely quite unusual for them.
I think the change was welcomed for the most part. To put it boldly, following a series of victories in our biggest project – the DTM – we struggled through four years with no success. So, I am sure that all of our employees had been convinced that something had to change. I remember the first workshops, in which no one really dared to speak up. That has since changed completely, in my opinion.
Thus, I think, as I said before, that we are moving in a very good direction, although we still have a way to go. But acceptance by employees was definitely a basic prerequisite for success in this process. No one can claim that there is anyone here who does not want to succeed. Everyone wants to achieve top performance, everyone wants to achieve success in the sport and everyone wants the company to succeed as well. We have been fortunate in that politics have never played much of a role here. What has always counted instead is holding a trophy after the race on Sunday.
Have you experienced special moments of joy during the process?
Winning the DTM title last year and the behavior of our drivers on the track made me very happy, of course. The path we chose proved to be the right one. We didn’t have the strongest car or the strongest technical package last year. But we never gave up. Our engineering performance was very good, and our mechanics did a terrific job. We worked together as a team and pursued a team strategy, which would not have been possible without the commitment of every member of the team.
In summary, what is your formula for success in the process of implementing a high-performance culture?
First of all, the organization must be ready to accept changes. Then, everyone must focus on the interests of the team. That definitely happened in our case. And then you need the basic ingredients, such as effective communication, good processes, a feedback culture and a relationship of openness and trust among all members of the team.
After winning the DTM title, you were asked to name your highlight of the year 2015 aside from the racing performance and the title. In response, you said that the team-building event in advance of the season in Spain, which was accompanied by Coverdale, was a key moment, as it helped you grow together as a team. What was so special about that experience?
Every professional athlete – and that definitely includes drivers – focuses first of all on himself. And in the natural course of events, an athlete who wants to become a champion has to beat seven fellow team members first. That naturally conflicts with a team-oriented approach.
We discussed this issue at length with our drivers in Spain and implemented appropriate measures. That was the first time that the camp was more than just a week of sports activities. We cooked meals together or went out to dinner in the evenings. And for the first time, I had the feeling that yes, the will to win is definitely there, but also the will to be part of a team in which everyone pulls together.
The DTM title was the product of a combined effort by a great team in which every contributing member counted. That that is not merely an empty claim was expressed best by Pascal Wehrlein, who cried out “We did it! – We did it as a team!” immediately after the win. But further proof is provided by a “Wall of Fame”, on which the name of every individual appears along with a word of thanks to the team.
Was that your idea of a way to be seen, and to make the pride in the shared success of the team evident in every corner of the organization?
I don’t remember whose idea it was. But I thought it was great.
The fact that the idea came from the team also shows that we are on the right track. That is what sets us apart today. It is also very important to show to our colleagues that their efforts are appreciated. And that doesn’t always have to be expressed in monetary rewards. It can take many different forms. And in my view, a “Wall of Fame” is definitely one of them.
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