The Nascar Parallel

Forget stock markets. Two new research papers say finance executives can learn a whole lot from stock cars.
Lisa YoonJune 13, 2003

Looking for the perfect Father’s Day present? Dale Earnhardt Inc., the racing team founded by the late Nascar champion, has an idea: the Dale Earnhardt Tribute Concert at the Daytona International Speedway. The Web site is offering two-for-one tickets in honor of the old man.

Whether or not you take them up on the offer — the concert is on June 28, almost two weeks after Father’s Day —- it’s hard not to pause and admire the made-for-each-other combo of Dad and Nascar. In fact, Nascar itself is known for its racing dynasties, including the Earnhardts, the Pettys, the Marlins. This is no coincidence: Dads and Nascar have a lot more in common than a love of fast cars. They’re also both rich sources of career advice.

That’s right: experts say you can learn a lot about career choices from watching Nascar. Two research papers examining stock-car racing patterns show a remarkable similarity between racing and corporate behavior. In one paper, researchers from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business analyzed the effect of crowding in races and the propensity to crash. The findings are eerily similar to the way executives react when their competitors are on their heels. Another paper on draft lines by RAND researcher David Ronfeldt offers something of a cautionary tale about exercising prudence in choosing career allies, not to mention jobs.

In the Chicago research, assistant professor of organization and strategy Matthew Bothner and his colleagues Toby Stuart and Jeong-han Kang found that drivers don’t crash as often when they’re trying to outplace the driver ahead, but when they’re feeling competitors closing in. To preserve their position, drivers tend to act more aggressively — at the risk of crashing.

The same thing happens at corporations, at both organizational and individual levels. When Oracle put a hostile bid on PeopleSoft last week, some — including PeopleSoft CEO Craig Conway — saw the move as a desperate measure to block a merger between PeopleSoft and J.D. Edwards, a union that could pose a serious threat to Oracle’s place in the market. The move was also potentially risky, which Bothner says is a key aspect of aggressive behavior to avoid crashing. In an interview with Dow Jones, Conway suggested that Oracle’s move might confuse customers.

Similarly, if a controller feels that another finance executive is emerging as a threat, the controller may take aggressive measures to save his/her place in the race — measures that could be potentially risky. The controller might, for instance, suddenly increase hours spent at the office –at the risk of health or personal relationships. “Over the course of a career, there’s always implicitly a tournament going on; you’re always being ranked by someone,” says Bothner.

The sudden awareness of competitors is something that “happens all the time,” according to CFO recruiter John Wilson of J.C. Wilson Associates, especially with controllers, often the next in line in internal CFO successions. Controllers “can get lulled into a false sense of security,” Wilson explains. This is not smart. “Controllers have to understand that you’re a controller today, but you need to project a CFO image.” Translation: lose the green eyeshades and become a strategic player.

Another finding in Bothner’s research is that the effect —- that is, the increasing likelihood of crashing as competitors behind get closer — only surfaces after the first few races of a season. Why? Because in the first few races, explains Bothner, “everything is so chaotic and fluid that it’s not clear who’s crowding you. It’s not until [a few races later] that you pay attention.”

Here is where stock-car racers and career-climbing executives differ: Executives can and should pay attention to the competition — at any stage of the career. The day you notice the competition, it’s probably too late for aggressive band-aid measures. “If you haven’t been [managing your career development], your fate is probably sealed — even without your knowing it,” says Wilson, the recruiter.

Too Furious, Too Fast

Indeed, career coaches agree that knee-jerk reactions are almost always bad news for a career. “If I react rather than respond, I may be my biggest enemy,” says Susan Wilson of Executive Strategies Inc. “For executives, it’s not good to act under instinct” or knee-jerk reactions, says career consultant Larry Stybel of Stybel Peabody Associates.

Granted, planning ahead to avoid career emergencies is “easy to say but hard to do,” says Stybel. So if you must apply some damage control, take a reasoned approach. Wilson of Executive Strategies recommends asking for feedback, analyzing your value in the organization, and focusing on you — not the competition. “Sometimes perceived competitors are just noise,” she notes.

“A lot of this has to do with respect,” says Stybel. “CFOs derail when they feel they’re being disrespected by others,” particularly by competitors. He recommends taking note of how you react when you feel “disrespected.” He also points out that, like racecar drivers, CFOs have teams working with them, such as lawyers, accountants, executive coaches, and even executive peers at networking groups. It’s best to consult professional supporters before acting aggressively.

As for drafting: in his paper on draft lines, RAND’s Ronfeldt describes an effect that could best serve as a cautionary tale. In a draft line, drivers gain strategic advantage when one driver tucks his car close behind another, reducing aerodynamic drag. In this way two competing drivers cooperate in order to overtake a third driver, ahead of both of them.

In the world of career advancement, an executive can move up the ladder by allying with a higher-ranked executive who’s going places. Think of Gap Inc. CFO Barry Pollitt, who was hired by former Disney colleague CEO Paul Pressler shortly after he joined the apparel retailer. The key to success in these relationships is judgment. Before joining the line, consider the prospects of your partner and look out for signs of potential pitfalls.

“It can speed up your career if you can line up with someone,” says Ronfeldt. “But it can be a bad prospect if you betray them.” Or they betray you, or you otherwise fall into the wrong crowd. Think former Enron executive David Kopper, who apparently agreed to roll over on former boss Andrew Fastow in exchange for a softer sentence.

The bottom line illustrated by both research papers is prudence. Career management is about constant planning, making informed choices, and anticipating difficulties. “You have to have a game plan for reacting to things you couldn’t plan on,” says Stybel.

Or as Richard “The King” Petty, once put it, “Daddy told me the most important thing was to look far ahead, so you could see the trouble at the earliest opportunity.”

In case you didn’t know, “Daddy” is Lee Petty, one of the first stars of Nascar and progenitor of the only four-generation family in sports. Richard, who retired in 1992, is the all-time Nascar leader in races won (200) and wins in a single season (27 in 1967). He was also the first racer to win $1 million.

Father knows best indeed.

And finally: Conversation Piece

We’ve all known people with unfortunate names. A former colleague went to elementary school with a girl whose first name was Dorkis. I had a class in college with a girl named Aryan White. And a Canadian football team is run by a Crook. That’s Jeffrey Crook, CFO and secretary/treasurer of the Calgary Stampeders. We couldn’t resist calling him at his California office to give him a hard time about his name. And we’re sure we’re the first to do so.

CFO: So you’re a Crook and a CFO, and you’re running a business in Canada. Interesting.
Crook: [laughs] Yes, that’s correct. I’m actually CFO of Orange County Container, a manufacturer of corrugated containers. We have operations in Mexico and Canada. Our owner has always been interested in football…when the Calgary opportunity came along it was perfect.

CFO: You know, they’ve really toughened up the fraud laws up there. Have you seen Owning Mahowny? [In the movie, based on a true story, a Toronto banker bilks his employer out of $10 million to cover gambling debts.]
Crook: No, I haven’t heard of the movie. But I’m not 100 percent with the details [of fraud law] in Canada. We have a VP of finance for the team up there. I’m primarily in charge of oversight and acquisitions.

CFO: Are you extra-conscientious about ethics because of your name?
Crook: Hopefully I’m that way anyway. I’m good at what I do and I have confidence in that. But with everything going on out there, boy, if I ever got caught up in [business scandals], it would be huge!

CFO: Yeah — imagine the headlines. Have you ever thought about changing your name?
Crook: No. It’s kind of an unusual name to have, and I’ve had it for 40 years. It’s a conversation issue, and it has historical significance in the Midwest. [Crook was born in Iowa.] General Crook was an Indian who served in the Civil War. I think he’s my great-great uncle.

CFO: So your name is a conversation piece.
Crook: Oh, yeah. One of my first jobs was in public accounting, and at entry level, you basically go in [to the bank] and count cash in the vault. One time a teller said, “Jeez, this is the first time I’ve let a crook in the vault.” I’ve gotten a lot of grief because of my name, especially in my profession.

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