Mercedes’ Toto Wolff shares his tips on leading a superstar team and 2 key values for long-term success
Toto Wolff, team principal and CEO of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team, said he would rather forsake the world championship than his values, and that any success that was procured otherwise would be short-lived.
Speaking at the Energy Asia conference in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, Wolff likened a company’s team culture to the “immune system” of any corporation, and emphasized placing a premium on two values: honesty and loyalty.
“I will give up world championship any day of the week, in order to keep my integrity. I think that that is how we operate,” he said at the Petronas-hosted event, adding that a win-at-all-costs notion should not exist anymore.
“We need to have a degree of loyalty and integrity. And if you’re not, your success is going to be short-lived.” Wolff noted, however, there are some organizations and sports teams that “have nothing of that” but are still successful.
For me, the notion of control freak is: know everything that’s going on, but not interfering in everything that’s going on.
Team Principal of Mercedes F1
“And when you win, have no sense of entitlement… Respect and don’t think that this is going to continue forever. Be humble about it.”
Mercedes is currently ranked second in this year’s F1 constructors’ standings thus far, right behind Red Bull. The ranking gauges the performance of teams, based on the points accumulated by both drivers of the respective teams. Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and George Russell currently stand in fourth and seventh in the drivers’ rankings, respectively.
Mercedes won eight consecutive constructors’ titles from 2014 to 2021. That’s paralleled by seven straight drivers crowns until Red Bull’s Max Verstappen clinched the championship in a controversial finish at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
‘Control freak’ leaders?
When the team principal was asked about his go-to method for resolving situations that go awry, Wolff said matter-of-factly: “I’m responsible for hiring and development, and developing the right people. So I should be empowering.”
Wolff acknowledged that most people’s knee-jerk instinct is to pin the blame on someone.
“[But] in most cases, it’s the process that has failed, not the person… And I think that is very important to actually remind yourself … we blame the problem, we don’t blame the person.”
Additionally, Wolff said leaders should be selective and know when to intervene.
“It’s also an experience of mine that people that run organizations are in a way control freaks, it’s very difficult to let go,” Wolff said.
“So for me, the notion of control freak is: know everything that’s going on, but not interfering in everything that’s going on… and getting that balance right.”
And Wolff acknowledged that equilibrium is not easy.
“I’m an emotional person, I’m very passionate about the sport,” he said.
Wolff was a teenager when he first entered the world of motorsport, but eventually had to pivot to a career in venture capital.
“When I finished school, I wanted to be a racing driver. But obviously that’s a sport that wasn’t affordable for me,” Wolff shared with the audience.
In a serendipitous turn of events, venture capitalism led him back to motor racing when he bought shares of Williams and eventually became the team’s executive director. He subsequently left Williams to become Mercedes’ head of motorsport in 2013.
Ten years on, Wolff said not one day goes past where he does not take time to reflect on how to improve. It’s a trait that he says he shares with Hamilton and something he values a lot in the driver.
“On track, in the car and off track, he’s somebody that seeks personal improvement every day,” he mused.
“Never take yourself too serious… it makes you stay humble. Never stop learning.”
On managing his team and how to get the best out of them, Wolff emphasized the importance of not giving the drivers special treatment compared with the rest of the team.
“I really like to interact with high performance people, superstars. And I have 2,500 of them. I make no difference between the driver and every other employee in the company,” he said.
“And if you’re able to channel that in the right way, you have an organization and a successful team. A superstar team rather than a team of superstars,” he said.
“I stole that sentence, I think, from an Instagram post.”