In the latest in our series of exclusive interviews with team principals, McLaren’s Zak Brown tells @DieterRencken why he is dismantling the infamous ‘matrix management’ structure implemented by his predecessors.
When Zak Brown, F1’s supreme sponsorship hunter, accepted the role of McLaren executive director at the same time as Ron Dennis departed after a showdown with the company’s primary shareholders, the widely-held view in the Formula 1 paddock was that the Californian replaced the man who had led the post-Bruce McLaren operation to great heights before it all came crashing down.
After Dennis’s departure, the shareholders embarked on a consolidation programme, in the process housing all entities under a single umbrella company. Brown was appointed CEO of McLaren Racing – one of three main operating divisions within the revised McLaren Group – with one of his first tasks being to institute a total restructure.
During this process numerous senior personnel members left, including, in chronological order, technical director Tim Goss, racing director Eric Boullier and engineering director Matt Morris, plus a few more heads down the command chain.
In came Indy 500 winner Gil de Ferran – who’d enjoyed a brief management spell with Honda F1 a decade ago – as sporting director, with Andrea Stella simultaneously promoted to performance director, and Simon Roberts granted greater responsibilities as COO.
It didn’t stop there, either: During the run-up to F1’s summer break, McLaren announced that James Key had been hired from Toro Rosso as technical director – ruffling some feathers in Faenza given that the highly-rated Briton is (allegedly) under long-term contract.
Crucially, they all have clearly defined job descriptions, which was not always the case at McLaren after Dennis instituted a matrix management structure at the turn of the millennium. That McLaren subsequently failed to add a constructors’ title to its tally of eight can be no coincidence.
Matrix management was introduced in the seventies, and is the practice of managing individuals via multiple reporting lines, i.e. having two (or more) managers, often indirectly. While such structures can be effective where projects are concerned, in corporate structures they result in confusion and lack of clarity – both no-nos in an F1 environment, and clearly the cause of McLaren’s current dilemma.
As part of our monthly team boss interview series I sat down with Zak in Hungary between practice and qualifying with a view to discussing precisely this point, and its impact on the team. I’m allocated 15 minutes, but, as it turns out, Zak graciously extends the session by ten minutes – in turn delaying a meeting with Carlos Sainz Jnr’s management team, whom I see waiting in the corridor. By now we all know how that one turned out.
When shown into Zak’s office I’m somewhat taken aback – over the years I’ve interviewed various McLaren team bosses, always in the right-hand corner office situated on the first floor of McLaren’s hospitality unit. This time I’m shown to a smaller office on the left. Why the change, I ask as we exchange pleasantries; who now occupies the desk across the way?
“Oh, it’s a team meeting room,” says Brown. “That’s more important than my having more space.” The implication is clear…
I dive straight in, somewhat provocatively: From where I’m sitting McLaren appears to be in utter turmoil. What is going on within a team that was once the benchmark by which all others were measured?
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“If I look back at what got us to where we are today,” he says after a pause, “is [that] we’ve had a continuous change of leadership since – pick a year – ’10, ’11, ’12…
“Ron (Dennis) out, Ron in, Martin (Whitmarsh) out, Martin in, Jost (Capito) in, Jost out, and then at the highest level, [we’ve] had shareholder changes. So I think the team has lacked leadership. Not any one individual person’s fault, but just because of the turmoil, that’s created a lack of leadership and therefore direction.
“Whether it’s a Formula 1 team or a water company, I don’t think any entity can be successful having that degree of lack of stability. What created that, was then a lack of clarity and leadership down into the racing team. So you had racing directors and CEOs; Jost and Eric, you had a structure that wasn’t right…”
I mention the two M words; matrix management…
“Correct. And then because there wasn’t that overarching, consistent leadership no-one was able to recognise the issue. The issue was then probably maxed somewhat by our [Honda] power unit situation,” Zak adds.
I brace for a tirade of Honda criticism, but, no: “While it definitely wasn’t all [Honda’s] fault, clearly we had tons of issues and penalties and blow-ups, so that made it harder, I think, to then go in and diagnose where are we really, because there’s other factors. And then you make that change, you put in a (Renault) power unit that Red Bull shows what you can do with it, and you have a big wake-up call…”
Zak is in free flow so I let him continue: “So it’s been structural, it’s been communication, it’s been leadership. It’s not been a person. I think some of the people that moved on were high-quality people. It wasn’t their fault. It was just not a well-run organisation from the top, because it didn’t have that focus.
“So I think that’s what’s happened over the last five, six years. Now we’ve identified we haven’t had the right people in the right place. We’ve got a lot more right people than I think we appear to have. And so now I’m making changes to address that. I’ve hired a Technical Director…”
“You hope,” I interject…
“I’ve hired a technical director! Start date TBD.” Which could mean ‘discussed’, ‘defined’, ‘decided’ or ‘determined’ in Zakspeak…
“I’ve brought in Gil; I’ve got other things happening. I’ve done some restructuring and it’s not all been public, it doesn’t need to be public. I’ve got a plan. I’m head down. It took us five, six years to get us in the situation we’re in.
We’re not going to fix it overnight. Kind of just like [FOM CEO] Chase [Carey], who’s inherited years of issues, as much as we all want him to fix it tomorrow, it’s going to take some time. So I think I’ve got a plan. People are starting to see it. ‘Ah, a new technical director?’ So they are paying attention.
“Because everyone thought we need, I mean, I didn’t hire one because everyone thought we needed one, but there’s a reason why everyone else has one. And so I think I don’t want to big up the plan, because I think that’s gotten us into trouble in the past, is making predictions and big statements. So I’ve got a plan, we’ve got a plan, people are starting to see that.
“It’s not done, it’s not fully matured yet, and it’s going to take some time but I think we’re confident we know what we’re doing. It’s just going to be head down and get on with it and hopefully people will just see us go up the grid.”
All of which is encouraging for legions of McLaren fans, but I point out that it took McLaren four years to reorganise into its matrix. How long, then, to dismantle and institute a traditional pyramid?
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“I think it will take us a year,” he shoots back, “to the end of this decade, to really be in a position where…
So another year, 18 months from now…
“Yeah, to really get ourselves in a situation where I feel like ‘Right, I’ve got all the right people in all the right places with all the right structure, full-throttle.”
We agree that reversing the structure is not simply about drawing pyramids, that job descriptions and reporting structures need to be institutes, jobs may need regarding, pay grades need revision and perks need revisiting – none of them the work of a day or two. Then there is the change of culture – all before McLaren can again proudly view itself as a proper F1 racing team…
“Yes, yes,” he nods. “By then I think we will be where we need to be, but then things take time to gel, work together. I’ve now got a five-year business plan.”
Starting when? Last year? This year?
“Starting right now,” Zak says immediately, then pauses. “Yes, it’ll take time to get the right people, to get the right structure. Everything you’ve mentioned is correct and we’re on it, and it’s just going to take some time.
“We just want to be head down, focussed on it, getting on with the job, and the results will come in due course, and we don’t want to predict when. Hence my statement, which I don’t think was a good soundbite because it wasn’t intended to be the soundbite everyone picked up on of ‘two to 10 years, maybe somewhere in between’.
“Really what I was saying was “It’s going to take some time, don’t expect miracles overnight.” But the “10 years” was a great headline.”
After another pause Zak modifies that comment to “No timeline”, then adds: “We’ve got a clear plan, but much as we acknowledge the media interest in what is our plan, what are the steps on the timeline, it’s just not productive for us to get into that in too much detail. So it’s not about us being evasive, it’s just about us being sensible.”
I point out that fans are the ones who want to know about the timeline, about how much longer they can expect to wear McLaren gear before once again being rewarded with regular win and podiums and harbour realistic hopes for a title or two…
“Yeah, for sure. I think what the fans need to know is we’re on it, we have a plan, we’re head down, we’re working hard and we’re trying to do it as fast as we can. I think you run a risk of saying ‘We’re going to accomplish this by this date’, because if you don’t, then you lose your fans. I think we’ve made that mistake before and we’re not going to make that mistake again.”
Okay, but how does Brown see McLaren’s structure five years down the road?
“If you look at what we have now: technical director, sporting director, performance director. There’s a certain way to run Formula One teams. I think there’s probably not a big variance up and down the pit lane. So while we’re not done with our restructuring, if you drew it on a piece of paper, or you drew every race team on a piece of paper, everyone’s probably within 90%.
Could, though, McLaren’s slide be blamed solely on its matrix structure, or could there be an element of “forgetting how to win” to it? After all, not winning a constructors’ champion this millennium must be pretty painful for the team…
“So clearly we had enough resources in 2012 and before. It’s all before my time, so I think it’s a little hard for me to go back and go ‘Here’s what happened in 2004’ or ‘Why didn’t we do it in ’05 when we had a dominant car?’
“So all I’m really doing is focussing on looking forward, and how we got to where we are. I think sitting here today, until the new rules come out in 2021, I don’t see anyone other than Ferrari or Mercedes winning in the next two years. Back then there wasn’t the budget discrepancy, so why we didn’t then, especially we had some dominant cars?
“I think the car was fast enough and we had great drivers. I don’t remember all the stats, probably some pretty close seconds and thirds. In ’07 we could’ve won [but for Spygate, which knocked the stuffing out of the team].
“But sitting here today, I think it would be difficult to win the Constructors’ given the resource and engine situation. I don’t think anyone would beat Ferrari and Mercedes. And [we’re] just very happy that Formula 1 has recognised that and are looking to put in changes in ‘21 that would change that dynamic.”
Still, McLaren’s chassis have been dire of late, or so the record shows…
“A couple of things. One, this year’s chassis is different than last year’s chassis, so…Hard to ultimately know, because when you get more power then the chassis could start doing different things. I think when you have three years of poor performance like we did, I think we took our eye off the ball.”
Was there not an element of McLaren arrogance, though?
“I think,” pause, “what’s the right way to answer that? I wouldn’t say arrogance, but not enough looking in the mirror and challenging ourselves enough. For instance, last year our pit stops weren’t great. Sauber and Williams had great pit stops, so I think we took our eye off the ball, because pit stops have nothing to do with chassis and they have nothing to do with power unit.
“So we should still strive to be the best. Launches, things of that nature. So I think if you look, we haven’t been world championship calibre in all the areas that you need to be, the areas under our control.”
Dennis had been very good at controlling the control-ables, but then he seemingly took his eye off the ball when the road car division was formed. Any comment on that?
“I think at the end of the day the Group grew to a size, and if you look at what Ron had to do – he was road car, he was MAT (McLaren Applied Technologies), he was F1; meanwhile not having a great relationship with the shareholders…
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It’s what I believe was a loss of focus, and this leads us into the next area: McLaren’s IndyCar and Le Mans aspirations, all while the F1 team is well off the pace and undergoing a massive restructure. Is that not detrimental?
“So we won’t do those other race series if we feel it compromises F1 in any way, shape or form. So the whole reason why no-one’s seen us saying anything other than that we’re reviewing is because all that we’re doing is reviewing,” says Zak.
“If, when, when, if we decide to into other forms of racing, it will only be because first and foremost it won’t compromise our F1. So do you look at things when the budget cap comes in and we’re going to have extra resources?
“The way we did it in Indy last year with Andretti, so there’s maybe some drain on maybe executive leadership time, which we have to protect and laser focus on F1, but if we were to do something in Indycar or WEC, it wouldn’t be pulling on F1 resources.”
We move onto prospective driver line-ups – a topic that introduces itself given the Spanish armada waiting outside. A fortnight later the team announced Fernando Alonso will not drive in F1 next year, and subsequently confirms Sainz will replace him.
Stoffel Vandoorne remains an option for the second seat but needs to raise his game. The team’s development driver, F2 star Lando Norris, will do first practice in Spa.
Clearly, drivers are the least of Zak’s concerns right now, which leaves him plenty of time to focus on the team’s restructure and sponsor hunting. Both are massive tasks, and the mere fact that he won’t be pinned on timelines proves it.
Follow Dieter on Twitter: @RacingLines
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