The Driven Life: Elton Sawyer on being a team player, managing curveballs and staying level

(Photo: Jerry Markland / Getty Images)

This is the latest in a series of self-improvement/motivational-themed podcasts (also transcribed for those who prefer to read) involving people in the racing world sharing insight into successful habits. Up next: Elton Sawyer, the former driver who is now NASCAR’s vice president of officiating and technical inspection.

Everybody has been in a work environment at some point in their life. This is a very dynamic one here at the racetrack because there’s all sorts of people who are under your purview and they’re trying to run a race and get everybody ready for a race. What are some of the things that you look at from your perspective as far as what’s important to building a team, letting them do their job and making sure it’ll still run efficiently?

As a youngster and a teenager, I played all the ball and stick sports. I played basketball, I played baseball, I played football. And what I gathered very early on was the discipline it takes to be successful no matter what we’re doing. Even at an early age, you’ve got to be at practice on time, you’ve got to be in uniform. We’re a team, we wear the same uniform. It’s about the team, it’s not necessarily about the individual.

What we do on a given weekend at NASCAR is the same thing, whether it’d be the race directors in the tower or our series directors that are running the garage from the day-to-day operations of what goes on there and the communication with their individual teams.

I think the real key is to be able to identify good people, put them in positions, give them the tools to be successful — and support them. Let them go out and do their job. There will be an opportunity…we will have our competition meetings and we will debrief on the things we did well, the things we didn’t do so well, and what are we going to do to get better. That’s our approach every week. There’s going to be items in each one of those buckets.

There’s going to be some things we’ve done well — and we don’t want to sweep them under the rug. I think it’s important that we all recognize and say, “We did a pretty good job here. But here’s some things we didn’t do very well.” We’ve got to identify them, we’ve got to attack them, we’ve got to figure out what we have to do to not let them happen again. And then the next week, there’ll be something else. But it’s kind of a reset after every event.

You mentioned the word “support” and you’re not trying to micromanage the people under you and the people who are tasked with these jobs. In a workplace, that’s one of the most difficult things people have to encounter, both with bosses and employees, because you have to trust the people that you put in the positions to be able to execute. Are there any tips that you’ve found over the course of your career for being able to trust in those people enough to do that? And how do you know when it is time to step in when they’re not doing things the way you would want them to?

I think the key there is experience. When you’re looking to bring someone on and put them on your team or bring them to your team, that interviewing process is really critical so they understand the challenges that are going to be presented to them — no matter what the task is, no matter what the role is. As long as they understand that and they’re coachable…

Some people have more bandwidth than others, and you have to recognize that as a coach, if you will. If I see a guy or we see an individual who is going to be really strong as a race director, then we’ve got to make sure we get him in a role where he can develop and be a good race director. Instead of maybe he’s not going to be very good as a series director or he’s not going to be very good as a track service worker.

It takes time, it’s not a perfect science by any means, but I think identifying if someone has that drive and that heart to want to be good at something, then you can make sure that you can get the tools around them and the support.

The support is key, sort of like training wheels on a bicycle. At some point you have to take the training wheels off, but you also have to understand they’re going to make some mistakes, and you’ve got to be comfortable with them. If you’re in the NFL, it’s no different than our sport: A young quarterback is going to throw interceptions. We have to be good with someone throwing a couple interceptions, but then we can’t go at them and say, “You can’t throw interceptions,” because you’re going to get them to where they’re not comfortable and they’re not going to be able to do their job at a high level.

So I think the number one thing is to be comfortable with them throwing the interceptions from time to time. But if I use a race director as a good example, it’s better to throw the interceptions on say one of our weekly shows or one of our support events. Although it’s not ideal (any time), we don’t want to be throwing interceptions on Sunday. That’s the thing that you, you’ve got to make sure of that you train them. When you put them in the game on Sunday to be calling a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup event, you’ve got to make sure they’re ready to go. They can still throw an interception, but we need to make sure that we’ve prepared them and had them ready to do (their job).

Elton Sawyer, then part of Red Bull Racing, speaks with Brian Vickers during 2008 NASCAR preseason testing. (Getty Images)

One thing that’s always fascinated me from a coaching standpoint where you’re managing people is sometimes there’s going to be conflict. There are so many different personalities and not everybody gets along the same way. How do you handle things when two people that you both value on your team are not seeing eye to eye? How do you know when to step in and how do you manage a disagreement with a co-worker?

You’re kind of the mediator. You’ll get the information from one side, you’ll get the information from the other side. There may be a conflict that you can just handle with them one on one, and I think to me that’s the first step. Then you say, “Look, here’s what we need to do going forward with both of you.” If that conflict continues, then we probably need to have the triangle; we probably need to bring both of them, myself or another management position to sit in on that discussion, and at that point you need to think from a company perspective, here’s what we need from you.

When we walk in the gate on Friday morning or Saturday morning or Sunday morning, we’re all here to do a job and to be part of the team. So I think the number one thing is to try to get it resolved on the first level there, and sometimes that doesn’t work and you have to continue to take the next steps. And then ultimately, you’ll get to a crossroads and say, “Well, I’ve got to make a move here.” You’re got to move them to a different department because they’re a good employee, this is just not quite working where we have them today.

If somebody reading this was having some tension with their co-worker at their job, would you encourage them to talk to a supervisor, or should they handle it with that person themselves? Is there any sort of general rule of how that’s supposed to go?

I think all situations are going to be different. If you as the individual feel comfortable going to your co-worker and saying, “Look, this is not working as well as either one of us would like to see it work,” then see how that step works. Or it may be, “I don’t feel comfortable that’s going to get me anywhere,” so then I would suggest going to your supervisor and getting some advice and then maybe they will turn it around say, “Look, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to try it this way, and then get back with me and see if we’re going in a better spot. If not, then we’re take a little different angle.”

I don’t think that it’s written in stone that you have to do it a certain way, I think every individual’s a little different, every situation is different. The personalities of each is something that you’ve got to take in and put it in the equation of how you feel like you need to handle it.

I really like that, because you’re not ratting someone out necessarily if you go to your boss — you can just approach it like you said and ask for a bit of advice on how to handle the situation.

Oh absolutely. And I think the other part of that is, you hear about the open door policy. I tell our guys and gals all the time: “When my door’s open, and even if it’s not, it’s OK to knock.” There’s nothing I’m doing that’s more important than listening to them if they’ve got a question about something. I put everything down that I’m doing, because if they are not comfortable and they need an answer about something, then the wheels are not turning in the direction we need them to. So I can always pick up what I’m doing at another time, I need to make sure that they understand and they can get them an answer so they can keep doing their job.

There’s a lot of moving parts here, literally, and things are in flux all the time. Little fires might pop up that you need to put out, little crises. How do you stay calm in those moments? Is that just your personality that you’re very even, or is there something you do like take a deep breath?

I think the key there is you take the deep breath, because you try to keep the emotion out of it. Step back (and realize) we’ve got a situation, we have a crisis. Whatever you have, if you keep the emotion out of it, then 99 percent of the time, over time, you’ve had some experience in those situations in the past. And it will give you a first step — here’s what my first step is, here’s the box I need to check on this one to help me make those decisions going forward.

As an example, we deal with weather (during race weekends). We wake up in the morning, and we talk with our partners at the weather company, we’ve got some input there, we’re going to have rain for x amount of time. So then you just start checking the boxes: It’s raining. OK. At some point, it’s going to stop. We’ve got that information that it’s going to rain all day and you may have some periods of time where you can get the track dry. So you start from there making your decisions on, “All right, it’s going to stop raining here shortly.” We’ll start drying the track, we’ll look at how long that’s going to take.

My point is, you to a point where you’re checking boxes on your decision making. Being frustrated or being upset or having the emotion in it, a lot of times will make it very cloudy in the way that you make those decisions. So stand back and just take a deep breath and be able to basically make those decisions with a calmer thought process.

What are some other general tips that you like to see out of your employees or you think that other people could use in order to be a good team player?

The number one thing for me I always use is I reset every day. What happened yesterday is history, it’s in the rearview mirror. Good or bad, I need to get a good night’s rest, I need to be ready to go the next day, look at what the schedule is, whatever event — if it’s a Truck race, if it’s a Cup race, if it’s Xfinity, whatever that may be.

Don’t get too high on the good days, don’t get too low on the bad days, and then be able to reset the next day — and that comes from not just a mental aspect, but physically as well. You’ve got to make sure you’re getting the proper rest and nutrition, because you’re asked to make some really important decisions throughout your day.

It doesn’t matter what role or responsibility you have within your company — you’re there for a reason. You’ll be the guy that’s there at 5:30 in the morning to make sure all the offices have been vacuumed and all the trash cans have been cleaned, but it’s an important task. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be on the agenda to be done.

Another thing for me as a ball and stick guy for years, athletes will get to the major league if they can hit curveballs. They’re not going to get there if all they can hit is a fastball. So I think in life, you’ve got to be able to hit the curveballs. Everybody can hit the fastballs, but you’ve got to be able to stand in there and be ready for the curves — and every day you’re going to get a curve. There’s going to be a curveball from the time you get up in the morning, there’s going to be one or two — there may be five or six — and you’ve got to be ready to adjust and hit the curveball.

And if you know it’s coming and expect it, then you’ll be better prepared.

You’ll be better prepared. Absolutely.

In this picture from 1998, Elton Sawyer and wife Patty Moise are shown in the Busch Series garage. Sawyer drove Fords for owner Bob Sutton while Moise drove for owner Michael Waltrip. (Photo by ISC Images and Archives via Getty Images)