Leading Insights. Alan Says…

…part of the Diamond Dozen 2016 series


Alan Foster, McLaren Automotive talks about

innovation  .  culture  .  customers


Elaine…  You are an executive for a world renowned brand recognised for its innovation and flair, what advice would you give to up-and-coming leaders who want to create and sustain a culture of innovation?

Alan…  If you want to create a culture of fast paced innovation and flair, then as an Executive / Leader you first have to remove the common barrier of “Fear of Failure”. If your organisation believes that they will be branded for failure, then they will be reticent to take that extra step forward. Very rarely will there be a Eureka moment that significantly and game changingly alters the status quo – instead your leadership has to encourage lots of small successive steps – aimed at a common goal. Interestingly however, rather than just setting an arbitrary target, you should 1st uncover the cultural elements of your own business.

In the terms of McLaren Automotive, clearly we have a heritage defined by Racing, one that sans over 52 years now. While not always successful, on balance McLaren F1 has been on the podium more than most, has won acclaim in all major forms of motor racing and always “bounces back”. But there are elements behind that success and heritage. McLaren Automotive, as it set out on its journey to build The Iconic Sports Car Company, established at its core, there was a culture that was:

  1. Obsessive:  not in a geeky cleaning way, but in a precise, relentless pursuit of perfection. That Obsession was then coupled with an environment of innovation.
  2. Innovative:  the 2nd cultural element means sometimes not knowing which route to take, but having the heart to pursue ideas.  Which precisely defines the 3rd element – courage.
  3. Courageous:  you have to be dauntless and focused.  Succinctly different from Bravado and certainly not fearless at all costs – it’s a calculated approach to provide maximum benefit, sometimes not really knowing the full outcome, but prepared to take the shot.

All of these are underpinned by a resolution to plan, again in minute detail. In fact in all cases, as much effort goes into the consideration and preparation as it does for the execution. Any business will have elements, some more, some less that define their culture – they are the things that answer the question, “I love my business / job because…”

Once that is defined, you need to test it – is it real. The test that McLaren Automotive defined is “Does it take the persons breathe away when the encounter it”. Interestingly it does not have to be just the product, it can be the human interface and interaction, the communications, the service or just the way the person feels when they move away from the encounter. To the outsider of that community it may seem like it’s crazy but in their quiet time they will reflect with amazement and wonder “Just how do they do that”.

Specifically as a leader, you need to be humble; you cannot be the fountain of all knowledge and ideas. You should be thinking, planning, laying challenges ahead for your team, but you need to let them trial without interference or criticism – in reality if you think back on the progress of your own career, you will probably recall one or two inspirational leaders on your journey and typically they will have been the ones that encouraged you to step out or step forward. They will congratulate you when you succeed and interestingly, they will talk to you when it doesn’t, looking to pull out learning to reinforce with you, but in a constructive format.


Elaine…  Having visited McLaren Automotive (thank you and an amazing experience by the way) I understand how important the whole customer experience is to you.  How do you encourage and instil this customer-focused ethos in others?

Alan…  At McLaren this is done in a number of ways. At a corporate level, it is one of the 5 values we repeatedly refer to in our communications and are echoed in a performance appraisal system. It’s about modifying behaviours rather than just striving for a result at all costs. In fact for McLaren the overall personal appraisal rating is a balance of results and exhibited behaviours. So Exceeding Customer Expectations is a core principle. It is also enshrined in the 5 business imperatives – set at a corporate level every year. There is always one with very defined expectations and measurements around how customers perceive us. So not only does it appear in individual objectives, the whole company performance of the category is reflected back in as a moderator to the overall business result.

Let me explain – you individually may be excellent at providing a perfect customer experience from within your element of the business, receiving an outstanding grade – but if the company as a whole fails in the imperative, then your score for this element will be moderated down. That means that every person strives to ensure they hit the personal and corporate goals and therefore will work equally hard to ensure that everyone in the business actively participates in this and the other 4 elements.

Another approach is to encourage and engage more people within the business to share their story with customers. Adding the details of a personal journey to achieve customer satisfaction makes the connection and sense of purpose so much stronger when it is related – it makes it human and understandable and because it’s the person who took the journey relating it – its factual and believable, not a script or learned behaviour.

The final element is quite simply defined by the phrase “If you walk past it, it becomes the new standard”. You have to take the time and effort to maintain the highest personal standards. As a leader never under-estimate how much people watch and observe you. Therefore you have to set the tone always.


Elaine…  Many emerging leaders have board-level aspirations, what 3 top tips would you give to them in relation to achieving their goal?

Alan…  Everything in life can be boiled down to a binary decision – Yes or No; Stop or Go; Go left or Go right etc. Eventually time will elapse and as a leader you will have to make a decision. This is one of my core beliefs.

Tip 1:  With respect to your job functionality, never let yourself be rushed into a decision – understand the stakeholders and the absolute delivery time. Gather as much information as you can in the time permitted, allowing yourself time to assess and judge, hence not rushing your decision (all things a relative). By waiting as long as you can – despite top down, lateral peer and upward pressure, not rushing projects calm and means that the “playing conditions” within which the decision has to be made, which could be very fluid and change, can be properly assessed – so that the decision made is the best one that could be made at that point in time with that information. By understanding the stakeholders and their opinions you will understand who your allies are and who you may have relationship pressure from post the decision point.

Tip 2:  With respect to the above and your personal career development, then the binary approach also works. For me personally, when I’ve gone back an analysed quietly to myself “How did I get to this point”, then typically the decision has been not to take the role with the biggest salary, or the largest amount of publicity and limelight – each of my major career decisions can be traced to choosing the route that was going to stretch and develop me most, where I would get maximum learning to become broad and multifaceted. That doesn’t mean that if you want to specialise in a narrow field of science that you shouldn’t. All I know is that my career has benefitted more from me choosing the difficult broader route. If you are already along your career journey, take some time to plot back from the beginning the change points and see if there is a common approach that you have taken, maybe subconsciously, that has affected your current position and reflect that approach into what you do in the future.

Tips 3:  Coupled with Tips 1 and 2 is to understand what makes you tick.  For example, something I did a long time ago was a Myers Briggs assessment to understand my core elements. I am an INTJ which means

  • Introverted – not shy and retiring, but preferring to work in small groups or a 1 to one basis. It doesn’t preclude you from working in large arenas, you just need to bolt on some coping skills
  • iNtuitive – I thrive on data and feel very out of place unless I have information around me. Doesn’t have to be tables of numbers, it can be narrative, but it has to be informational – good or bad
  • Thinking – could be thought of as pondering, but for me it means providing myself time to reflect o the communication and the information to build a picture in my mind of the way forward
  • Judging – again it doesn’t mean I am some kind of Genghis Khan or dictator, but having had the communication, reviewed the data and analysed it – it will require a compelling argument to sway my determination – however when the challenge comes, it will go through the same process and I will use that learning to moderate my assessment and analytical criteria in the future.

This is probably not a text book explanation of the use and benefits of Myers Briggs – but it’s how I’ve used it and seems to have been successful for me.

The final tip and to be honest it’s probably a sneaky 4th tip, refers to you as a leader. It is really simple. “Shut up and listen”. Listen by walking around your business, listen in relaxed surroundings while you have a coffee – enter into conversations, not about work, understand the human assets in your business. You will learn so much. Often as a Leader, everyone shuts up and expects you to speak, learn the art of silence and open up your ears and eyes to the cadence of life and work around you. Indirectly it encourages upcoming talent to speak out, creates an environment of openness and frankness and really aids engagement.


Diamond_DozenLearn more about my Diamond Dozen 2016…

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