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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

Gas or brake: How to drive your business to win the race

Support can show up just about anywhere in an organization. The main thing is that every person in your pit crew should be able to feel and understand the pulse of the company. 

Gas or brake: How to drive your business to win the race
[Tom Merton/KOTO / Adobe Stock] [Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock]

As you travel forward in your leadership, you’ll hear all kinds of mantras about moving quickly, especially as the market gets more and more global. Those concepts can color everything from the overtime you put in to the funding you try to get. If you internalize them, it’s easy to get caught up in the notion that the only proper way to do business is to have your foot on the gas at all times.

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As a CEO and coach, though, I’ve found that companies need a powerful cadence of gas and brakes. It’s this balance that can ensure you’ll win out.

DRIVE TO DO NO DAMAGE

For a large chunk of my career, I focused on helping turn companies around—fundamentally fixing broken businesses. Through that work, my mentality was always that every business has enormous potential; they just need guidance and motivation to tap into it. I could get organizations to 30% or even 40% growth per year—not by claiming expertise, but by ensuring they believed in themselves and knew the resources and skills they had. And because I enjoy supporting that kind of disruption, my natural inclination is to muscle through and keep the energy going constantly.

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But I’m also a car guy. Fleets are my business. I know about Formula One racing, too, and one of the basics with those vehicles is that a driver cannot operate their car at full power the entire time. If they did, they’d damage the engine and be out of the race. It’s not all that different from someone negatively affecting their physical health with regular exercise that’s too strenuous.

If you’re a business leader, your company is your F1 car and you’re the driver. Can you put the pedal to the metal to pass somebody else or get in a better position once in a while? Absolutely. But if you try to push your team to operate at their max the entire time, they’ll suffer damage. That can affect productivity, the number of patents you file, or even units sold. But it can also negatively impact elements like worker satisfaction and health.

LISTEN, STAY RESPONSIVE, AND TALK TO YOUR PIT CREW

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To prevent problems in your company, it’s critical to tap the brakes once in a while and slow down. Sometimes, you might even need to push the brake all the way to the floor. It can feel counterintuitive to do this, but it’s better to ease up or even stop momentarily than to risk not finishing the race.

How do you know whether to tap or fully press the brake? After all, some things are under the hood and hard to see. But a good driver learns to listen to the engine, not just look at it. They can feel the vibrations in their seat and respond to where forces pull. In the same way, you can listen to your team and take action based on what’s happening. Surveys and watching metrics can be part of this. It also makes an enormous difference to just have conversations with people every day and see how they’re doing or what they think. I regularly walk my office floor to connect with people for precisely that purpose. It helps me understand whether to use more gas or tap the brakes.

Not even the best F1 driver goes through a race alone. They rely on highly experienced, intelligent pit crews. The people on those crews are constantly assessing how the car is performing. They’re the ones who tell the driver to “push-push-push” or “box” for a new set of tires. They give the driver whatever is necessary throughout the race and ultimately protect the team’s investment.

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The people in your pit crew are the mentors you’ve got on speed dial. They’re the managers within the company who come to you with news, ideas, or concerns. In my business, some of these people are on my leadership team, but not all of them. I have worked hard to build relationships with team members at all levels that will provide me with real-time authentic feedback. Support can show up just about anywhere in an organization. The main thing is that every person in your pit crew should be able to feel and understand the pulse of the company.

FIND YOUR BALANCE TO PROTECT WHAT HAS VALUE

Many leaders throw around the phrase “Go big or go home.” Those words adequately capture the philosophy of revving your engine as loudly as possible and never holding back. But only successful leaders know that going all out, all the time, is the fastest way to lose. They know the value not just of the business, but also of the people who make it up, and they’ll do everything they can to protect the organization. This includes backing off when necessary and constantly communicating with people they trust to make good decisions throughout the entire market race. The sooner you find your own pit crew and learn a gas-brake cadence that works for your team, the sooner you can finish the final lap as a champion.

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Brendan is CEO of Merchants Fleet, transforming the company’s business model and creating a new fleet industry category known as FleetTech.

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