While researching his new book, The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle discovered something I never would have imagined: Smart leaders use corny catchphrases.

As Dan writes:

"Catchphrases have a bad reputation.... (Think about how you reacted the last time someone suggested you 'work smarter, not harder.')

"But here's the funny thing : When you visit highly successful cultures, you'll notice they use a lot of catchphrases. I mean, they use tons of them. You can't walk around for thirty seconds without hearing or seeing a corny-sounding catchphrase."

Of course he's right. As Daniel says, successful groups use catchphrases as cognitive scripts to define specific challenges they face. That transforms what might seem to be a catchphrases into a navigational aid.

So when I heard that Chip Ganassi Racing's XFINITY team slogan is "Win or Learn," I shouldn't have been surprised.

In 2015, CGR merged with HScott Motorsports to field a startup XFINITY Series team with modest success. (Although Kyle Larson did win the season finale at Homestead.) 

In 2016, running totally under the CGR banner, the team expanded to two full-time cars, added a number of key personnel, won three races, and saw Brennan Poole qualify for the first XFINITY Series playoffs. 

And in 2017 Brennan Poole nearly qualified for the championship race at Homestead as CGR teams won five races (including one with Alex Bowman, who fills Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s seat next year.)

To find out how CGR built a winning team so quickly, I talked with Mike Shiplett, the team's longest-tenured crew chief, team manager Nick Harvey, and driver Brennan Poole.

As you might expect, even though equipment is the product on the track, success still comes down to people.

While you didn't start from scratch... in some ways, you did.

Mike: We pretty much inherited all the equipment from Turner Motorsports. We had to be in the wind tunnel on January 4th, so we unloaded it all on December 14th and basically only took Christmas day off. We put a car together, went to the wind tunnel to see what we had... and then kept building off of that until we built the first in-house Ganassi chassis near the end of the 2015 season.

We were told, 'This is what you have to work with, and when you exceed the expectations of these race cars... we'll work on something else.' Which was fair enough.

Since results were hard to come by at first, I assume the primary focus was on development?

Mike: When you win, you learn something. When you don't win, you probably learn even more.  But as long as you learn something you can apply, every race can in some ways be a success.

While we can't always win, we can always learn.

It's a process. We want to win every race, even though that's not realistic. That's why we have company goals and team goals, and we're relentless about measuring ourselves against those goals and especially seeing if we made mistakes we could have avoided or controlled. There are lots of ups and downs in racing, and our goal is to do everything possible to make sure we're not responsible for the downs. 

"Responsible" probably refers more to people than to equipment.

Nick: Racing is a people business. Everyone has sheet metal and parts at their disposal. How you use it makes the difference. Putting the right group of people together is the real key.

Certainly it helps you attract good people when they know there's room for them to grow within the organization, not just inside your teams but in the Cup organization as well.

Nick: Attracting the right people is easier when they know they have room to grow. One of the things we're proud of is how we've been able to evolve the group. We have experienced people that form the mainstay of the XFINITY team. Some of them feed into the Cup program, which lets us bring in new talent... we do that each year. Through that process we've attracted -- and kept -- some great people.

It also helps that we share every piece of information we have. That process really makes a difference. 

What do you look for in the people you hire?
Nick: I always say I'll take 75 percent in terms of ability if we can get 100 percent in terms of attitude. We want people that fit within the group, that are honest, that are confident but don't have big egos... and as Mike says, who all want to pull in the same direction.

As humans we all have opinions. That's great, but that can also be a problem when you need to move as quickly as we do. Sometimes you may not agree, but you need to be willing to put your head down and get things done.

It all comes down to a willingness to be a team player and do whatever is necessary. We have a limited amount of time between races, so we need people that are willing to put in extra effort and who aren't satisfied until we've put the best cars on the track that we can.

In terms of a career path, it also has to help that the organization is big enough that there are a variety of opportunities.

Nick: Our people know there are multiple paths. There are plenty of places you can go within the company. If you want to get to the "big leagues," there's a path for you to do that. If you work on the road and want to move to a shop position where there's less travel, we have avenues for that. 

Offering a path for people to build the kind of career they want makes a huge difference.

Early on that might not have been clear to everyone, though, both inside the team and outside.

Brennan: The first year everything came together really late. I remember walking through the shop in the middle of January, a few weeks away from Daytona, and the hauler wasn't even wrapped and guys were still trying to put pit boxes together. 

And while that first year was tough -- we certainly didn't have the best cars -- we had some really great runs, and those little successes were a big part of motivating everyone to build faster race cars and contend for wins. 

And now this year, the last couple of months I feel like our team is one of the best teams at the track. And the cool part is that we get to go out there and do what we love.

I'm really proud of everyone, and all the hard work that's gone into building these teams. We talk about cars a lot, for obvious reasons, but this really is a people sport.

Published on: Nov 17, 2017