The final interview at Joe Gibbs Racing. We spent four months diving in deep—multiple trips to their headquarters in Huntersville, NC, and race days in Daytona, Atlanta, Richmond. We interviewed the President, Director of Player Advancement, NASCAR writers, the Pit Crew Coach, the Crew Chief, the Director of Sponsorships, the Athletic Trainer, and multiple members of multiple pit crew teams.
We wanted to find out what made this organization so successful. How they moved from a small startup in 1991 who’s business plan fit on a napkin to being an industry leader with multiple championships and a legacy of sustained success and cultural excellence.
Finally, we had “Coach.”
Coach Joe Gibbs is the only member of both the National Football League Hall of Fame and the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He won three Super Bowls as the coach of the Washington Commanders (formerly known as the Washington Redskins). He compiled a .681 winning percentage (154-94-0) in 12 seasons, which put him third all-time behind Vince Lombardi and John Madden. At the time of his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2020, he ranked third in total premier league victories (160), and his teams had won 5 championships.
Our documentary series, Teams Made Well, aims to identify and study high-performance teams to uncover the key factors behind their success. We aim to share these insights in a way that is both engaging and motivating, providing practical guidance for teams and leaders around the globe.
The documentary of Joe Gibbs Racing, titled Chasing Faster: The Next Gen Pit Crew, premiered January 19, 2024, is now available for streaming on YouTube, along with insights and stories from other teams we have studied.
Here, we attempt to summarize and simplify learnings and insights from thousands of lines of transcripts and hundreds of hours of film to share the answer to our question, “What do high-performing teams do to build and maintain success?”
Coach Joe’s first and last answer are perfect bookends to every insight we gained from a top-to-bottom study of Joe Gibbs Racing.
First Question: What is your favorite thing about race day?
Coach: “My favorite thing about race day is winning. I don’t like subjective things… you work hard for six days; you go out on Sunday, and you perform and you look up at the scoreboard in football, and you’ve won or lost. And over here (NASCAR) on the last lap, you’ve either won or lost.”
Last Question: What do you enjoy most about your job? What do you hope people will say about your legacy?
Coach: “It’s the people, and the most important thing that [you] are going to leave on earth is the influence you’re having on others. I like teamwork. I like working with people. So hopefully, I’m making an impact, and a positive one. When I stand before God someday, I don’t think he will be talking about races that we’ve won or football games that we’ve won. I think it’s going to be the only thing we’re going to take to heaven with us is going to be the influence we’ve had on others. So, I think that’s the most important thing.”
How does Coach Joe’s perspective influence the organization he leads? We gained three critical insights from our exploration of Joe Gibbs Racing:
- Culture permeates every aspect of your organization. Fostering culture is intentional and is established with clear expectations and consistent behaviors.
- Innovation is both a mindset and a practice that requires investment.
- Talent (aka people) is the beginning and end. “Who” is the most important decision and investment.
These three aspects are intricately linked, as the organizational culture prioritizes the well-being and growth of its people, while consistently pursuing innovative strategies to gain a competitive advantage on the racetrack.
Organizational culture refers to the shared values, beliefs, behaviors, and practices that shape how people think and act in an organization. Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) has a strong team-oriented culture that values individuals willing to start at the bottom and work their way up. The company values individuals with the right attitude and mentality, and it is essential to find individuals who fit the organization’s culture. Protecting the team-oriented culture is critical to the company’s success.
What does this look like in practice?
- Getting the right people. Coach Joe attributed his success to finding, hiring, and retaining the right people. He didn’t have to be the smartest person in the room; instead, he actively sought out leaders in their craft and equipped and empowered them with a clear vision, expectations, and direction.
- Care for people in the big and small.
Significant Example: With the recent innovations to the Next Gen Car in NASCAR, all race teams were supplied with a stock car, rather than teams being able to engineer and manufacture their own car. This new change eliminated the necessity of a large portion of JGR’s engineering and manufacturing capabilities (they owned a manufacturing plant for which they produced their cars). Instead of cutting the department and eliminating the roles, JGR pivoted its manufacturing from high-performance car parts to equipment and parts for space shuttles. They were able to retrain and retain the manufacturing department, and everyone kept their jobs!
Small Example: Every morning at Joe Gibbs Racing, an optional bible study session occurs, where teams gather for a few moments to study the bible and offer prayers as a group. This practice begins with Coach Joe and his leadership team and is open to everyone within the organization, allowing all to participate.
Bonus example: One team member noted that recently, Coach Joe called a spontaneous organization-wide meeting. Several hundred organization members gathered, and Coach Joe shared his gratitude and appreciation for each department and person. His actions created a meaningful moment for that team member to experience from his boss!
- An innovative culture is a mindset and practice! Dave Alpen (JGR President) shared that when NASCAR announced sweeping rules changes that took away Joe Gibbs Racing’s competitive advantage, Coach Joe didn’t respond with disappointment, frustration, or defeat. Instead, he gathered the team and conveyed the messages below. It gave permission to “go back to the drawing board” and reinvent and innovate on many levels of the organization. Everyone is playing by the same rules now. We have the opportunity to reinvent and find our new competitive advantage.
- Create clear expectations. Top-down, the leadership wanted everyone to understand that their best was expected and that Coach Joe would provide direction and support. He challenged the team to think differently and to innovate in order to be better than the competition. He also reminded them that they had the talent and resources to do so. Dave said it was a powerful moment of leadership and it set the tone for the entire organization moving forward and sought to turn the subjective into objective. As an organization, they identify and define themselves as an engineering company (not a racing company). They define and measure success. Michael Lepp, Senior Athletic Advisor, said, “this whole organization is about one thing. This (holding up a stopwatch).” Dave Alpern, President of JGR, says this, “From the beginning, I think one of the things that made us successful is we had a north star in terms of racing. And that was, we had one question that every decision we made revolved around. Every capital purchase, every hire, every decision we made, we asked this one question, will this make us go faster? Because Joe decided early on, if we go fast, sounds simple. If we lead the most laps, and win the most races, everything else will take care of itself. Sponsorship, recruiting, drivers, talent, people, and that has been the case. And so, we have focused relentlessly as simple as it sounds.”
Innovation is a top-down cultural norm at Joe Gibbs Racing. It influences the mindset and talent the organization brings in and its business and engineering practices.
Brian Haaland, Pit Crew Coach, noted this about innovation (paraphrase): “Innovation requires a long-term mindset. It is not a one-time event but a continuous process requiring a long-term mindset. This means being willing to invest time and resources into research and development, even if it takes years to see a return on investment.”
What does this look like in practice?
- Make it measurable. Crew Chief Chris Gabehart said this, “Like any other sport, we generate tons of data, and develop metrics out of that data, and try to put all the parts and pieces together of whether it be a race car or a pit crew together with those metrics and with that data. But, again, it’s people; it’s chemistry. It’s, ‘Here’s what you have; here are the building blocks, but how will we get better from here? How are we going to take it to the next level?'”
- Equip, Enable, and Empower people. As noted above, Crew Chief Gabehart kept coming back to the significance of “people” in all elements of innovation. “Those people and how they interact, and their chemistry with one another, and their willingness to help each other get better, and make sure that they’re giving this guy the room that he needs, and letting this guy know that, “Hey, I think this would work a little bit better,” and not worrying about hurting feelings, and really motivated to get in the game with each other and grind it out to find those extra tenths of a second. That’s what it’s going to be all about.”
- Organizational and people risk and reward. Investment of time, money, and resources is essential. On the people side, open-mindedness, collaboration, and failure are all key elements of innovation. A leader and coach’s role is to assess the risk of investment vs the reward consistently. Knowing that failure is a necessary part of learning and innovation, and leader needs to know that the outcomes of investment are not certain. But innovation can have huge payoffs if resourced well and the people components are well facilitated.
An example was the reinvention of the pit stop. Intense time and energy went into this project. Ultimately JRG sees the opportunity to cut with the Next Gen Pit Stop to shave 2+ seconds off per pit stop! This is a massive advantage on race day (watch the documentary for more on the Next Gen Pit Stop).
Through every conversation and interview at Joe Gibbs Racing, one congruous theme was the importance of people. People were the drivers of innovation. People were the core of the culture. People were a part of every decision and action at JGR. Coach Joe’s final answer perfectly illustrated that and was modeled throughout the organization.
“I think, when I stand before God someday, I don’t think he’s going to be talking about races that we’ve won or football games that we’ve won. I think it’s going to be the only thing we’re going to take to heaven with us is going to be the influence we’ve had on others. So, I think that’s the most important thing.”
This was not a cushy, feel good, “people first” catchphrase. It translated into a motivational mindset and actionable behaviors.
What does this look like in practice?
- Maximize human performance. JGR understood things clearly. First, to survive and thrive as a business, the organization had to produce an exceptional, winning product. Second, recruiting and hiring people who are internally motivated to grow, improve and advance was key. A critical culture identifier for each team member is they are motivated to do their best and get the best out of others. This could be in coaching, athletic training, or individual performance. Everyone did their role with maximum effort and sought to find a competitive advantage in everything.
A specific example: JGR sends all of their athletes to a specialist physical training lab in California. Here each athlete’s physical ability is monitored and measured. This data helps each individual and athletic trainer create a specialized physical development plan to maximize physical performance over the season. (Fun Fact: Mike Hicks, 15 year tire changer vet, is in the top 2% of all athletes across all sports this facility has ever measured!).
- Chemistry is king. Joe Gibbs Racing sees chemistry as a competitive advantage. Recently, they changed their preseason training away from keeping teams intact to every year, evaluating pit crew teams’ chemistry overall. They seek to create a well-balanced, cohesive team. Each team blends experienced vets with rookies, various physical abilities, and personality types. Everyone practices together during the preseason, then teams are selected based on various factors, with the intent of maximizing team chemistry and thus performance. They believe chemistry is the oil that keeps the team engine running smoothly.
- Character is core. To have good chemistry, you must first find people with the right character. Coach Joe identified three key character traits they look for across the organization. These align with and reinforce their values and culture.
- A team-first mindset and philosophy.
- Owning your role and being the best you possibly can be at it.
- Sacrificing for the sake of the team.
Coach Joe shared this, “It’s a lot of things, but you’re looking for the teammate that you can lean on. If you were going to pick a person that you would go to battle with, somebody that you felt like could really support you and be a teammate, those are the people and that’s the way you look at people. And those people become very important to you.”
That’s a wrap…
This just scratches the surface of our experience with Joe Gibbs Racing. Each team member of the pit crew, talent development, sponsorship, marketing, engineering, athletic training, and leadership were consistent in voicing these three themes:
- Flourishing organizational culture is intentional both in mindset and behavior. It engages and drives human performance and creates an environment where people bring their best to work.
- Innovation is a choice. It is a choice to invest personally with your time, openness, and checking your ego at the door in order to find the best possible solution for the team/organization. It is an investment of resources over the long term trusting the people and process will produce improvement.
- People are the core of every component, especially as an engineering company that produces race cars and teams. The right people, put in the right place, with the right resources is what drives a flourishing and productive team and organization.
Check out Chasing Faster: The Next Gen Pit Crew, our documentary of Joe Gibbs Racing and their innovative journey to find the competitive advantage as NASCAR introduces its Next Generation Cars (releasing soon on YouTube and Amazon Prime!). Then, join us for a team retreat or open-enrollment leadership development experience to learn how to lead and team in a way that cultivates a culture where your people are fulfilled and your purposes are accomplished.