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Life Imitating Executive Development

Oscar Wilde wrote, "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life." He did not mention that sometimes life imitates professional development programs.

Recently, we have seen headlines like: “Volkswagen has officially confirmed its intention to see the Audi and Porsche brands on the Formula 1 grid in 2026.”

In 2002 Prof. Mark Jenkins, Richard West, and I designed a 2-day workshop for a global law firm based in London. Our task was to provide their mid-level lawyers with a concentrated dose of business acumen and silo-busting teambuilding.

At the outset, we told the participants they are now business consultants. Their mission, advise me -playing the role of Volkswagen’s Vice President of Strategy - on how VW should enter Formula 1 under the Audi brand. With permission of Volkswagen, the firm’s client, I even wore a shirt displaying the VW logo with my name and title to create a bit of alternative reality.

During the two days, divided into multinational and cross-functional teams, participants researched the sport/business of Formula 1, had “meetings” with me to obtain useful information about VW’s intentions, and tapped the deep F1 expertise provided by Richard and Mark. They also participated in the pit stop challenge, changing tires on an F1 car, as a team building exercise.

They needed to decide on one of three strategies for Audi’s entry into F1: start up a team de novo (as Toyota had done at the time), purchase an existing team, or become an engine supplier (as BMW was doing with WilliamsF1).

At the end of the second day, the teams made a presentation including their recommendation to a panel including me, Richard or Mark, and a senior partner from the law firm. The winning team was presented with trophies, and everyone enjoyed a ‘podium-like’ celebration.

The program was a great success. Delivered primarily at the WilliamsF1 Conference Centre near Oxford in the UK, we delivered it 50 times over three years, reaching more than 1200 of the firm’s associates.

The experience encouraged Richard, Mark, and me to write “Performance at the Limit, Business Lessons from Formula 1 Racing,” (PATL) published by Cambridge University Press in 2005. In 2007 the book inspired the creation of an 8-part BBC television series called “Formula for Success.” Now in its third edition, PATL has been translated into Japanese, Turkish and Mandarin Chinese.

In writing and revising three editions, we interviewed more than 100 people connected with the sport and business of F1. The book is a mix of business concepts and examples, supported by quotations from the experts in industry.

Time will tell whether Audi decides to create a team, buy a team, or supply a power unit. In any case, there is much any organization can learn from how Formula 1 teams operate at the limit of their financial, human, and technological limits.

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