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  • Sam Decker

High-Speed Leadership: What’s Your (Biggest) Problem?

If you haven’t seen Formula 1: Drive to Survive on Netflix, stop what you’re doing and watch it. Even if you’re not a car enthusiast, this documentary is a rollercoaster of drama and adrenaline.

In Season 2, we follow the Haas F1 team—a scrappy underdog with a budget that’s a mere fraction of what giants like Mercedes and Red Bull spend. Haas built their 2019 F1 car from a hodgepodge of outsourced parts, unlike the big teams. Surprisingly, they performed well in their first race. But then the engineers decided to tinker with the car setup for the next race, aiming for more speed. Their hypotheses were off the mark, and the car got slower. They tried again, and again, only to be slower each time. The frustration mounted across the 100-person team, including the two drivers and the owner who shells out $100M annually.

Guenther Steiner, the Haas Team Principal, was livid. “The car was not a piece of shit. So why do we develop a car that goes slower?” he barked at the head engineer. Crickets. “Find out the problem and make progress out of it instead of ‘this is better.’ It isn’t!”

The problem could have been anything—twenty different things, in fact. But Guenther knew they had to prioritize. Could they identify the biggest problem? By solving the biggest problem, again and again, they could make the fastest progress.

In racing, the biggest problem for speed (aside from equipment) is often a gap in skill or a mental block. In a company, it’s something broken in people, processes, or technology. There are always numerous issues to fix or optimize, and they likely interrelate. But there’s always one “biggest thing” that, if fixed, unlocks potential. If you could only fix one thing to increase speed, what would it be?

Identifying your biggest problem, let alone fixing it, isn’t easy. On the racetrack, it’s tough to pinpoint what’s holding you back without telemetry (car performance and input data) and video feedback for comparison.

Once, I got telemetry data compared to another driver—an Eastern European engineer from Microsoft (both of us pictured below)—who was beating me by 2 seconds on COTA in an AMG GT. His data revealed he got on the throttle earlier than me after most corners. We had the same line, apex, and braking points, but I hadn’t figured out how to get on the throttle as early as he did. The tricky part wasn’t just “getting on the throttle.” To do that, I needed to unwind the steering wheel quicker after the corner, which meant improving my vision through the corner to see the exit point.

About seven years ago, when I was learning to drift and stunt drive, my big problem was trying to steer the car with the steering wheel. Crazy, right? I learned that "75%" of your steering is in your gas pedal when you’re sliding sideways. More slide means more turn, or yaw. I was overdriving the car, thinking my steering and weight shifting would do all the work. Nope… it’s all about balancing between grip and slip with the right foot.

In driving, the big problem could be vision, corner exits, concentration, reaction time, stamina, track knowledge, braking points, trail braking, smooth inputs, car feel, courage, or something else. But the fastest path to speed is finding and fixing the biggest problem. You find your biggest problem with data, feedback from coaches, and comparison to a higher standard.

Finding (and Fixing) the Biggest Company Problem

Speed in a company is usually equated with revenue growth—quarter on quarter, year on year. The biggest problem to revenue growth could be product/market fit, pricing, packaging, sales execution, marketing, product reliability, customer success, support, etc. There’s always some broken capability, function, process, technology, or person. The path to faster growth—finding your biggest problem—is similar to driving. Use data. Use feedback. Listen.

Here’s why it’s so hard for fast companies to find their biggest problem: They’re wired to innovate. New projects and ideas multiply like rabbits, and everyone’s juggling too much, too close to everything. It’s hard to listen.

In 2008, after a few years of phenomenal growth selling a reviews SaaS software platform to e-commerce retailers, we set our sights on luxury brands like Coach, Tory Burch, and Michael Kors. Within months, we were getting nowhere. After several sales calls and trips to NYC, I learned that luxury brands didn’t want customers to “rate” their products. They felt it was antithetical to their brand voice. So, I asked the team to remove the rating and invented a new product with a few lines of code. We called it “Bazaarvoice Stories.” Instead of writing reviews, luxury customers would write stories about how they used the product. Maybe it was a story of wearing that dress on an anniversary or taking a vacation with a new bag. By listening and pivoting, we met the market where it was.

One of the primary ways to unearth the biggest problems is through internal voices. By listening to your people and those in your company who talk to customers most, you uncover the biggest growth obstacles. This approach isn’t about listening to the highest-paid opinion in the room. It’s about listening and prioritizing with the team to validate the biggest problem and get alignment for a cross-functional solution.

My co-founder of ClearHead, Matty Wishnow, wrote a book called Listening for Growth. As CEO of Clearhead (I was Chairman), he built an incredible culture that listened to the entire company to identify the biggest business problems slowing growth. We used surveys, voting, and Asana for project-managing solutions to fix these problems and free teams to move faster. Our company was a master class in listening for growth. In five years, we grew to 150 people with over 100 top retail clients before selling to Accenture.

As an aside, Matty founded a new consultancy called facts & feelings to help organizations grow faster. I’m an advisor and investor because we share similar operating systems, and it works! If you’re interested in some playbooks to unlock innovation and revenue to grow “FastStrong,” let me know!

Oh, by the way, if it wasn’t clear, the point isn’t just to find one big problem. Once you fix your biggest problem, there’s the next one. It never stops—just one big problem after another, like a Pez candy dispenser. By fixing the biggest problems in order of importance, you’ll go faster. You’ll build a culture that can consistently identify the biggest problem, fix it with the best solution, scale it, and repeat.


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