The Profile Dossier: Toto Wolff, the Most Powerful Man In Motorsport
"Motto: 'See it, say it, fix it.'"
When Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton crosses the finish line, the cameras typically pan to Toto Wolff cheering behind the scenes at Mercedes’ mission control on the pit wall.
Wolff, the Austrian CEO and head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport, thrives under pressure. Under his leadership, the Mercedes Formula 1 team has won seven consecutive F1 world titles.
“Sports are such a good environment because you either win or lose,” Wolff says. “In business, you can get away with things. In politics, you can have explanations. But in sports, explanations aren’t worth anything if you haven’t won.”
But Wolff has a much deeper (financial) incentive to win. He's the principal of the team, of which he owns a 33% stake. It's his racing, investing, and entrepreneurial acumen that has made Wolff so successful. At this point in his career, his estimated net worth hovers around $602 million.
“I don’t see myself at this stage of my life as somebody that’s been successful and achieved his targets. It’s halftime in an entrepreneurial life," Wolff, 49 says. "Hopefully if I’m healthy, I can go another 30 or 40 years.”
Wolff credits the trauma and hardships of his upbringing for the ambition he has today.
When he was 8 years old, his father was diagnosed with brain cancer, which ended up being a 10-year battle. His parents divorced shortly after his diagnosis, and his father died when Wolff turned 18.
"Our life wasn't the easiest one because I lost my father very early on, and there was the constant battle for financial survival," he says. "Because my upbringing was in a difficult financial environment, I had additional motivation to make it."
Wolff had a short-lived racing career in the Austrian Formula Ford, but it ended after a few years when in 1994, his main sponsors pulled out of racing completely.
Wolff decided to shift his focus from racing to the business of racing, and he enrolled in the Vienna University of Economics. From there, he dropped out to take an internship at an investment bank in Warsaw. After a few years in banking, Wolff took a sabbatical in the United States.
He landed in San Francisco in the late 1990s just as the dot-com bubble was heating up. He co-founded his own investment firm called Marchfifteen in order to back early-stage startups. It became one of the first tech-focused venture capital firms in Europe, and it grew to have offices in several cities.
His timing was spectacular, but so were his investing skills. He invested in several high-profile deals, which included Austrian content delivery software provider UCP, which was eventually sold at a valuation of $275 million.
Wolff then turned his attention to his original passion: Formula One. In 2002, he started a new venture — he co-owned a racing driver management company alongside two-time Formula 1 World Champion Mika Häkkinen.
After purchasing a 30% stake of Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix in January 2013, Wolff became managing partner. Later that year, he was announced as the head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport.
He went on to become the head of the entire Mercedes-Benz motorsport program – from Formula 1 to DTM, sports cars, and the Formula 3 engine program.
Even though Wolff had to give up his racing career as a teenager, he's been able to merge it with his passion for business and create a career for himself he never knew existed.
"You tend to forget that you're still able to develop new skill sets," Wolff says. "You shouldn't stand still even if you're as old as I am now."
Here's what we can learn from Wolff's strategy for risk-taking, innovation, and leadership.
On his winding path to F1: In just a few years, Wolff has maneuvered himself into being perhaps the most powerful man in F1. Yet despite his face being broadcast on tens of millions of TV screens, few people know much about his background and impeccable business record. Until now.
On his racing career: Before Wolff was a motorsport executive, he was a racing driver. In April 2009, he tried to break the lap record of 7 minutes and 7 seconds in a Porsche 911 RSR. He did it on his first attempt: 7:03.28. Then there was the unofficial – timed by a hand-held stopwatch – Niki Lauda record from the 1970s: 6:58. Wolff wanted to break that too, but it ended in disaster.
On paving a new career: Wolff has tried a few careers in his life — one in racing, one in private equity, and one in F1 investments. His path eventually led him to a career that merged his passions for business and sport. In this Q&A, Wolff shares his thoughts on retirement, leaving a legacy, and his son's secret links to motorsport.
On becoming a high-performer: In this wide-ranging conversation, Wolff opens up about how his early years of life shaped the way he approaches leadership today. "My experience with high-performing individuals is that they either suffered trauma or humiliation or both," he says. It's the hardship that tends to develop an above-average level of drive and ambition to propel them forward. This is a must-listen.
On how he built his wealth: With a net worth estimated at about $602 million, many wonder — how did Wolff become so wealthy? He went from a failed racing career to the top ranks of Formula 1. This short video breaks down exactly how Wolff embarked on an entrepreneurial journey that helped him build his business empire.
On cultivating a dream team: Racing champion Lewis Hamilton and Wolff have been called "the Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson of F1." In this honest conversation, they admit that they are friends, colleagues, and mates all at the same time. When they have a disagreement, they take a break from the situation, let things cool down, and then discuss it openly. "We've always been transparent with each other which is why our relationship is as healthy as it is," Hamilton says.
On seeing himself clearly: Wolff says the biggest mistake a leader can make is to surround themselves with 'yes men.' He believes that the key to his success within the organization is that the people around him act as mirrors that aren't afraid to show him the truth about himself. He is someone who tends to explode easily in emotional situations. "It's a massive weakness," he says. "It has put me into trouble several times, but I have my helpers around me who see me going near the cliff and they drag me away."
On managing conflict: In this interview, Wolff is asked the question: "How do you draw the line between approachability and openness?" When there is conflict, he says, the brain tends to go into "combat mode." And the antidote to combat mode is genuine curiosity and a no-blame culture. "You must not blame the person, you blame the problem," he says. This is a really good one.
Be specific in defining your purpose: How do you define your purpose? Wolff says he once read that happiness is built on three pillars: somebody to love, something to do, and something to dream of. "I think purpose is very much a combination of the latter two," he says. "You need to enjoy what you do and you need to have a dream of what to fulfill that acts as a target."
You need to live your words: Wolff believes that trust isn't established through fancy words. Instead, he looks for action. "[Trust] grows in the difficult moments where the other person realizes they can rely on you because you haven’t let them down although it would have been easy to do so," he says. His motto is to live his words. "Everyone can put words on a PowerPoint and present them," Wolff adds. "You need to live them every day and cascade them through an organization." To cultivate loyalty, you must lead by example.
Create a mental health routine: Like all of us, Wolff experiences various stress in his personal and professional life. In addition to being a father to three children, he also has to travel to 22 races in a year. Wolff has developed a mental health routine that brings him back to the present moment. He uses his five senses — touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste — to ground himself no matter what he's doing. "It's a very simple exercise," he says. "It's about being aware of how the water in the shower feels on your back, being aware of brushing your teeth, being aware of taking a sip of water and how that water tastes." Realize that the moment you're experiencing right now is a moment you will never experience again. Practicing mindfulness sharpens your senses and keeps you emotionally sober.
Expose yourself to elective hardship: When Wolff faces difficult moments, he doesn't see an impossible situation. He sees a moment of adversity as an opportunity to put his skills to the test. "It's an opportunity to grow, develop, and become stronger," he says. Wolff believes that we shouldn't wait for life to deal us a difficult hand; rather, we should go and seek out challenges on our own in order to develop thicker skin. "You should never feel comfortable, because the moment you think it's easy is the moment you fail," he says. Mistakes lead to failure which leads to learning which ultimately leads to success.
Seek out objective measures of success: How do you avoid complacency and ensure that the motivation to win stays at the forefront? To Wolff, it's all about setting objectives. “I like to benchmark myself," he says. "Whatever I do, I like the competition and what we do today needs a stopwatch, and the stopwatch never lies. You can come up with lots of explanations why it went wrong or right, but in auto racing, you’re either too slow or fast enough." Every year, Wolff and his team get together and set personal and professional objectives, write them down on a card, laminate that card, and keep it in their wallets for the rest of the year. Remember, you can only move what you measure.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
"Motto: 'See it, say it, fix it.'"
"Humility is a super important factor in all of our lives, and I try to remind myself every evening in front of the mirror, 'Just calm down.'"
"You need the right balance between data and gut feeling."
“How you cope and behave in moments of failure is, in my opinion, is the way you can see right into the soul of somebody.”
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