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Nascar CEO and chairman Brian France joins fellow NASCAR executives in the first public sharing of the organization's change-management story.

NASCAR executives talk change management and the risky decisions that have paid off in big ways

In the fast lane

NASCAR executives talk change management and the risky decisions that have paid off in big ways

By Daniel P. Smith

9/13/2013 - Just hours before he stepped onto the Northwestern University campus on Sept. 13, NASCAR CEO and chairman Brian France made what he knew would be a controversial decision when he added an unprecedented 13th driver to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s 12-driver playoff series.

But leadership isn’t about popularity, it’s about doing the right thing, France told a near-capacity crowd at the Jacobs Center. And that philosophy has served France well throughout his 10 years at the helm of NASCAR.

In NASCAR’s first public sharing of its change-management story, France joined fellow NASCAR executives, CMO Steve Phelps and Vice President of Strategic Development Eric Nyquist, in detailing the league’s decision to invest in a no-holds-barred assessment of its operations and the transformative steps it’s taken to earn 21st century rewards.

A hard look
While NASCAR had enjoyed explosive growth since its 1947 founding, France understood the future wasn’t guaranteed, especially amid a shifting fan base, evolving media landscape and flagging economy.

In 2009, France ordered a deep, unrestrained assessment of the NASCAR enterprise, investigating everything from the live event experience and communications to driver star power.

“Every part of our business where we thought we weren’t relevant or weren’t going in the right direction, we took a hard look,” he said.

The results weren’t pretty.

While pockets of excellence existed throughout NASCAR, the evaluation revealed more weaknesses than strengths and a third-party openly questioned if France, NASCAR’s third-generation leader, was the right man for the job.

Today’s NASCAR
According to France, he and the NASCAR leadership team responded by setting a path to modernize the sport. They made changes to critical parts of the business — annual planning, communications, brand marketing and sales functions — and penned an in-depth “industry action plan” featuring sustainability and diversity initiatives and a hefty investment in digital and social media.

Four years later, France has NASCAR positioned among the world’s most visible sports and entertainment properties. Nearly one in four Fortune 500 companies market their products and service through NASCAR, while races are broadcast in more than 150 countries and 20 languages.

Kellogg student Evan Fleming ’14 found it remarkable that NASCAR leaders would challenge themselves to think differently even amid successful results.

“They recognized they had to evolve and embraced the changing landscape around them to find solutions,” Fleming said.

Jeff Waterhouse ’14 agreed.

“The fact that they were constantly self-evaluating how they could be on the leading edge and that they took ownership of change is a real lesson,” he said.