A Lesson In Teamwork From The Tour de France

Sep 17, 2020
Chris McClain, President
4
 min read

Most mornings in July (and this year in September), I wake very early and flip on the Tour de France. I always enjoy hearing the voice of Phil Liggett, the knowledgeable and upbeat announcer who has been calling the race for decades. The Tour de France is made up of 21 day-long stages, with each stage covering 130-plus miles and several thousand feet of elevation. This is one of the toughest competitions in sports. For a race spanning between 2100 and 2300 miles in total, the Yellow Jersey (best overall time) is often won by just seconds. Cyclists receive other awards too:

• Green Jersey: Top sprinter

•White Jersey: Best young rider

• Polka Dot Jersey: King of the mountains

• Team classification: Best overall team

I’m fascinated by the endurance and athleticism required for the race as well as the deep thinking required to build the team, develop a strategy, and execute flawlessly. Back in 2011, I had the opportunity to have dinner with Jonathan Vaughters, the sports director of the Garmin Team. We met in Paris just two days before the first stage of the Tour. It was a memorable dinner; Jonathan explained his strategy as my wife and 16-year-old daughter listened with rapt attention. He had spent the whole year planning and assembling his team and was now preparing to execute.

I often compare creating a “built-to-last” company to Jonathan’s efforts to win the Tour de France. Our company, Ridgeline (headquartered on the shores of Lake Tahoe surrounded by the towering peaks of the Sierra Nevada) is striving to be the premier cloud platform for investment managers. We’re taking our first customer live this year — the first of many stages.

Like cycling, the Ridgeline leadership team realized early on that success would be won or lost on the strength of our team. Dave Duffield, our founder and CEO, knows a thing or two about team building and has brought his experience to bear at Ridgeline.

Company building and the Tour De France are team sports. In cycling, the team is made up of the captain, sprinters, climbers, and domestiques — the work horses at the front of the pace line who sacrifice personal glory for the team. They push the pace as well as retrieve feed bags and water bottles to nourish the team. The cyclists are the obvious players, but behind-the-scenes actors are also critical to a successful race: the sports director, mechanics, nutritionists, massage therapists, doctors, and more. The only way to win is for each member to execute flawlessly.

• Sprinters must be prepared to last through the entire race so that they are able to arrive with the front pack for a potential stage win.

• The sport director must coach the team on when to attack, pull back, and replenish.

• Domestiques must continue to lead from the front and protect their teammates who are jersey contenders.

• The mechanics must keep the bikes in great working order and be on the spot when one breaks down.

• The chef must ensure the riders get enough calories without causing stomach issues.

The point here is that a portfolio of skills matters for any team. At Ridgeline, the following players are essential to completing our stage — successfully implementing our product with our first customer:

• A management team that leads from the front by living our core values, setting ambitious goals, and inspiring the company to achieve them. In some ways, this is the role of the “domestique,” who protects and supports the broader team.

• Product managers and domain experts who build the platform and features required to replace 30+ year old legacy systems.

• Architects and developers who build an events-driven, API-first enterprise platform using cloud-native AWS tools.

• Talent and people teams who find and recruit A players.

• Business development professionals who build relationships with the right early customers to ensure we meet their needs.

• A Professional services team on the hook to deliver successful outcomes for our clients.

The final way in which our first-customer-live race resembles the Tour is that….well, they’re both hard. We’ve been planning, building, and strategizing for more than two years. But no amount of preparation negates the fact that race day is about pushing everyone to achieve success beyond their expectations. This is why finding the right team is so important; grit, resilience, and belief in the broader mission are essential to push through the tough climbs. And there will be many.

The 2011 Garmin team won the first stage — a team-based time trial — and then held the Yellow Jersey for a week. At the end of the tour, they had won the “team classification” too. Jonathan’s quote after the race perfectly sums up how we think about our first team trial: “The team, the spirit of the team, the spirit of sacrifice is what we are about. To have this as our first win is perfect. It’s what our team stands for.”

At Ridgeline, getting our first customer live by the end of the year is just the beginning of our Tour. When we cross the first of many finish lines, we expect to be wearing the Yellow Jersey alongside our first customer. Each of our 170+ employees is mobilized around this objective. I can’t wait to celebrate our accomplishment from the podium, but for now, I’m heads down with the team, enjoying the journey to the top of the mountain.

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