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  • Ben Kettle

When “Inclusion” Is A Liability🏎

Updated: Jan 3, 2022

Toto, my mistake, and when hiring really matters


My goal with this post is to save you from a mistake I made earlier in my career.


And hey, we’re going to talk about it through the lens of every American’s new favorite sport, Formula 1!¹


So in this post, we’ll talk about Toto Wolff, my mistake trying to be a faux-inclusive boss, and what authentic leadership means for your hiring practices.



Let’s start with Toto


Toto Wolff is the CEO and Team Principal of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team. It’s OK if you haven’t heard of them before; all you need to know is that Mercedes, as it’s commonly known, wins. And it wins A LOT. Mercedes has won the Formula 1 Constructors Championship (awarded to the best team) every year for the past seven years. They’re on pace to win it again this year.


It wasn’t always that way. When Toto took over at Mercedes, they hadn’t won a single championship.²


As you might expect, being the most successful team boss in F1 history has brought Toto a ton of attention from the corporate, business world. Here’s an interesting interview he did on his leadership style and the culture he’s trying to build at Mercedes.



Inclusive Leadership requires Leadership (Idiot)


Early in my career, I was the embodiment of a leader that, as Toto would say, “allowed a very long leash.” Why? Because I was very resistant to being seen as an uncool, micromanaging boss. Frankly, I was afraid to lead.


Specifically, I avoided giving the people on my team clear, measurable objectives. Instead, I told myself that I was being inclusive by letting them “figure it out” or worse, tell me what they thought we should do and adapt our approach to that.


In reality, I was robbing them of direction and lying to myself about the “inclusive” culture I was creating. The truth was our goals were non-negotiable, and everyone knew it (and they certainly weren’t up to the team or me to figure out). Instead of earning the respect of my team, I came across as insecure and indecisive.


It’s embarrassingly obvious now, but since that time, I’ve learned that the best way to be truly inclusive is to be direct on what the outcome should be (the “what” and the “why”) and seek the team’s input on the “how.”


Yes, there have been times when the “what” and the “why” are more ambiguous, and it’s been essential to get team feedback and buy-in. But, for the most part, I’ve found that many of my employees love having clear objectives. The clearer you paint that vision, the better off you all are.


Inclusion happens when everyone knows their role, provides value and feels empowered to do their work. From there, they can contribute in accordance with their strengths and experience. Many people are perfectly happy chopping wood and carrying water as long as it has a purpose they agree with.


There’s now a question I ask to keep myself in check: “Am I seeking this input because I value it, or because I’m afraid of making a bigger decision or having a tough conversation?”

More often than not, the answer is one of the latter two.



Hiring’s role in an autonomous, inclusive culture


One statement, in particular, jumped out at me from Toto’s interview.

I believe it's all about hiring and developing the right individuals, forming a culture and a team spirit around them, and then defining the core objective. Once that is defined we leave to each other in our respective fields to deliver on the core objective. And that is something that you can't simply put on a PowerPoint and it takes many years to actually live it.

If you’re willing to trust and empower your people, then “who” those people become your biggest concern. It’s no accident that Toto starts with “hiring and developing.”


It is no surprise that my interest in talent evaluation was directly linked to my realization that unproductive, performative inclusion was a waste of time.


The sooner I learned managing was about objectives, people, and trust, the more seriously I took my hiring practices. I sure as hell wasn’t going to leave it up to my intuition.


Candidly, I wish I had discovered Toto’s philosophy sooner.



tl;dr

  • Please make sure you value your team’s input before you seek it out. If you don’t, there’s a good chance you’re avoiding more challenging questions or conversations about what you’re trying to accomplish, or you lack conviction. It’s a good sign that you need to think more deeply about what you’re trying to accomplish and the people with whom you’re trying to achieve it.

  • If you trust your team to do their jobs, then how you hire and develop your people is crucially important. If you don’t have a system that provides clear and measurable feedback loops, you probably aren’t taking hiring as seriously as you need to.

  • It’s People → Objectives → Work → Repeat


 

1 I maintain that Netflix’s “Drive to Survive” is the most successful marketing move of the past five years. Formula 1 has been trying to grow in the US market for decades. Who knew that a Netflix reality show was the key?

2 Fun Fact: Toto got a significant equity stake when he became CEO of Mercedes. Thanks to his team’s winning ways and the sport's growth, that stake has made him a billionaire (on paper anyway).

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