Jonathan Vaughters ASO UCI teams license warSummer is a nice time to get out and ride a bike and a nice time to sit back and watch the Tour de France.

It’s also the time of year I get all kinds of questions. How do cycling teams actually work? What does managing a cycling team entail?

My job, as CEO of a professional cycling team, is a true unicorn occupation and a mystery to most. Do I yell at the riders to go faster? Coach them? Do I ride with them? My extended family wants to know; the guy at the dog park wants to know. What, exactly, do you do?

The answer is more boring than you’d like to imagine. Running a cycling team is running a business, like any other. We seek to obtain or increase revenue, we produce a product, we market that product, and we try to keep our expenses down.

We are a global, $20 million annual operation with more than 100 people of 17 nationalities working for us — doctors, mechanics, physical therapists, bus drivers. My job is to strategically guide the organization, drawing on the expertise of all our gurus. We have a CFO who always says no, creative folks who always blow the budget, and vertical experts known as coaches who are responsible for making the bike riders ride fast.

Of course there are differences that set professional sports apart from most businesses. The intensity is heightened, and there is no treading water. There is only very public success and very public failure.

The people involved in pro sports, my employees, are hypercompetitive and have zero interest in “life balance.” That makes human resources a whole new kind of job.

But beyond all the MBA babble, the most important skill in running a cycling team is managing people, as with every other business — managing people in a highly competitive, unstable, cutthroat, and visible environment. In a way it’s also a pressure-cooker test for what types of management will work in other lines of business.

So what can other businesses learn from the management of athletes and professional sports teams? Quite a few things, but if I were to boil it down to the one skill I see most corporate management needing to grasp a bit better, it’s this:

Learn to make collective and individual ambitions the same thing.

And do so at all costs.

Collective ambition

Every company has a collective ambition, whether to make better movies or to sell more cars. The owners or shareholders have an objective they are trying to achieve. The collective work of individual employees is the key component to executing on the company’s ambition.

Yet like any human being, these employees have their own individual ambitions, dreams, and objectives that may not always be productive for the company’s ambition. This is the biggest management hurdle any company faces, no matter what phase it is in.

In professional sports, as a manager, if you cannot make individual and team ambitions come together as one, you will not succeed. And in cycling, we take it one step further in complexity.

In our sport, an individual, who is also a member of a team, wins the race. This is unlike most team-based professional sports, in which the team wins as a whole. But without the other team members backing the individual and sacrificing their own ambitions, the individual can never win. So every great cyclist needs a great team to win, and every great team needs a great individual cyclist to win.

The sociological component is immensely complex.

As management, you must convince all the other members of the team at the Tour — nine riders on each team — that sacrificing their energy and their personal ambitions of doing well in the race is worth the possibility of seeing their teammate win.

For competitive people, this can be a bitter pill to swallow. But this complex piece of management is the lifeblood of every professional cycling team. You must make the collective and individual ambition the same thing.

How do we do that? And how can you get that done in business?

Here are a few tips:

No. 1: Divide the booty.

No. 1: Divide the booty.

In pro cycling, prize money is traditionally distributed equally among team members. If your guy wins the race, you get as much of the prize as he does. Exceptionally, winners of the Tour de France have forgone their personal share of the prize money and let the eight remaining team members split the prizes.

In 1990, Tour winner Greg LeMond had a brand-new Patek Philippe and a wad of cash set out on each teammate’s hotel-room bed at the completion of the race. A bit too much gratitude?

Consider a crucial day when LeMond got a flat tire. One of his teammates, who was leading the race, turned around on the course to make sure his leader made it back to the front.

Patek well earned.

 

No. 2: Always say thank you.

No. 2: Always say thank you.

Any rider I manage knows I will lodge my foot in his derrière if the first thing he says in any postrace interview with the media is anything but “I’d like to thank my teammates.”

This is pretty simple in business. If you’re the boss and the company makes a large stride, you need to be the last person taking credit. Heap praise on the people who really made it happen and who may not get to see the limelight.

In cycling, the guy who drives the truck with all the mechanical tools is part of winning the Tour de France. Without that guy, you wouldn’t have won. Don’t forget it.

No. 3: Return the favor.

No. 3: Return the favor.
If a cyclist or any other employee I manage does an exceptional job of being selfless or helping someone else win, I make sure that everyone knows I want that guy treated like a king.

Give back to the givers. Whether that means having the whole team help him try to win another race or paying him more than his fair market value might dictate, I get that done.

Because it sends a message to everyone else in the organization: You help us; we help you.

This is very simple to apply in business management. As opposed to trying to beat people further down the corporate ladder from you so they don’t threaten your job, instead every time they produce big for the company, bring that to the attention of the compensation committee or board of directors. They helped you succeed. Now help them succeed.

This sounds simple, but when you actually think about it, how many corporate structures truly function this way?

No. 4: Hire the right people.

No. 4: Hire the right people.

This sounds overly simple, too, but it’s the crux of teamwork. This doesn’t mean hire folks who aren’t competitive so they happily work together as a team while taking three lunch breaks a day. No, that will give you mediocrity.

Hire extremely competitive people and set the bar so high that they realize there is no way they will reach that objective individually. Their competitive instinct will force them to work together, as all will fail if the effort is disjointed and selfish. But remember: Hire competitive, not insecure. The former will be forced into teamwork to win; the latter will still revert to needing to be the star of a sinking ship.

My job as a manager and CEO of a company that oversees young, ambitious people and athletes is to make sure all the above happen at each and every race we compete in.

Does it get tangled sometimes? Yes. But that doesn’t change my job. Management is about getting the best out of every person and getting every person to want the best for the team. That never comes easily for a manager, but the first step is acknowledging the task of getting various ambitions to become one.

It isn’t “being the boss,” hogging the limelight, or preening to be seen as invaluable by shareholders. It’s getting individual and collective ambitions within your company to align. If you can do that, you’ll succeed as a manager, and so will your company.

As for us, we start the Tour on July 1. Did I succeed as a manager going into the biggest race of the year? We’ll see.

American Jonathan Vaughters is a former professional cyclist and the manager of the US-based Cannondale-Drapac Pro Cycling Team, which competes in the Tour de France.