Managing Lance Armstrong: An Exclusive Interview With His Team's Director

Last Updated Feb 16, 2011 1:25 PM EST

Most businesses have at least one superstar on staff. A superstar is a great asset, but maintaining team balance and morale can be incredibly difficult when one employee stands out.

I asked Johan Bruyneel, the team director behind Lance Armstrong's seven Tour de France victories, head of a management and sports marketing firm, author of We Might as Well Win, and accomplished corporate speaker how to build a team around a recognized alpha dog. (In case you're not familiar, a pro cycling team director is part CEO, part coach, part strategist and tactician, and part director of development. A great team director wears every hat -- just like the average business owner.)

Update: Lance announced his retirement from cycling today, ending an incredible career and partnership with Johan.

BNET: Superstars often need a different management approach. How can a business owner manage "more important" and "less important" members of their teams?
Bruyneel: When you're talking about money and fame, it's easy to want to rank people based on importance, but that's not my management style. (If I managed that way I probably wouldn't have lasted much longer than my first year directing in 1999.) Luckily, I have surrounded myself with talented, hard-working people, most of whom are never recognized by the media or fans. We have created an environment that gives ownership to each individual person based on his specific skill set. I oversee a total of seventy people around the world, so micromanaging is impossible. I give them my trust and allow them to shine.

When we won our first Tour de France a mechanic, Julien de Vries, actually slept with Lance's bike in his room because he didn't want anything to happen to it. How's that for pride and dedication? I do my best to make each member of my team feel good about themselves and the job they do. When we win a race I don't only congratulate the riders, I go to each staff member and say thanks for their contribution. A simple gesture like that goes a long way. People like being a part of team success. When you feel good about your job you come to work happy and motivated.

BNET: How do you balance a natural desire to create a "loaded" team with the fact there may not be enough opportunities for everyone to shine?


Bruyneel: A few years ago I think six out of our nine riders had finished in the top ten of the Tour de France at some point in their career. Arguably any of those riders could have gone to another team and would have been the team leader and raced to win the Tour, but they chose to stay and buy into our team goal. They found an intrinsic value beyond being the leader at the Tour de France.

I personally speak to every rider and staff member we hire about individual and team goals. I'm not just looking for the best rider. I'm looking for the best rider who fits into the team, who is ambitious and motivated but also understands the job we will ask of him. If I feel a rider doesn't fit within our team goals, I don't extend an offer.

BNET: Some employees don't get promoted. Some don't get great assignments. Every year some of your riders don't get to ride in the Tour. How do you maintain morale and team cohesion?
Bruyneel: Everyone wants to be on the Tour de France squad -- it's a dream for any cyclist to be on the start line and ride on the Champs Elysees into Paris. At the beginning of the year I meet with all riders individually and discuss whether the Tour is even a possibility for them. Then throughout the year, we evaluate their performances and provide feedback.

When decision time comes, I personally call everyone who is a candidate for the Tour de France. It's great to be the bearer of good news, but it's more important to call the riders who don't make it. A lot of them take it very hard and I approach the conversation with honesty and compassion. There's no point in lying, and I always try to turn the negative into a positive. That rider may not make the Tour team, but they may have a leadership role in another race or the last Grand Tour of the season, the Vuelta a Espana. We also set new goals for the remainder of the season. For most riders the Tour was the main goal, so we take a step back and focus elsewhere.

That was particularly true a few years ago with Chris Horner. He was left off our Tour squad due to political reasons with the title sponsors from Kazakhstan. I was honest with Chris about why he wasn't chosen. I understand why he wasn't happy, but sometimes the decision is not as simple or clear-cut as it should be. Give Chris credit for keeping his motivation high.

BNET: When Lance was team leader, how did you choose new riders to fill out the rest of the team?
Bruyneel: Often it came down to how a rider's personality would fit within the team. We needed strong riders but most importantly those riders needed to fit within our system. For the Tour de France, you live with the same people for the entire month -- sleeping, eating, on the bus, racing. You need to get along and work well together. I've seen some other teams that are very strong on paper but didn't have a good team atmosphere or environment. In terms of physical or on-the-bike capabilities, we always look for riders that complement each other and bring different skill sets. Lance was the best rider in the world, but we never wanted to clone him. Instead we wanted to find riders who could support him. I think it's important in any profession for each person to bring a different skill set and complement other team members.

BNET: What was one of the toughest challenges, in terms of team dynamics, you have overcome?
Bruyneel: In 2009 Lance and Alberto Contador, both past Tour de France champions, set the Tour de France as their main goal. Each was not only physically strong on the bike but also had the mentality and heart of a champion. So it was normal there would be extra tension we didn't have in years past with one clear Tour de France leader. Both wanted to win and believed they would win.

My main concern was not letting the desire of two champions affect the rest of the team and create divisions or sub-teams. That was hard. I was very clear in team meetings that we would support the rider who gave our team the best chance to win. While one rider may stand on the podium, cycling is a team sport and you can't win without a strong team.

As it turned out Alberto was a little better than Lance that year. Lance was a great teammate and even took third place overall. Having two riders from the same team on the final Tour podium is an incredible feat. (We actually had more Tour de France-related achievements that year than any other year.) What could have been a very bad situation turned out to be very good one. It wasn't easy but is something I'm very proud of!

BNET: How can a business owner decide when a superstar's positives are outweighed by the team issues he or she creates?
Bruyneel: Simple: when that team member no longer fits well in the environment or meets the team goals. We've had some very strong riders who decided to go to other teams so they could be leaders. I think that's normal. They had personal goals that at the time didn't fit within our team structure and overall goals. Regardless of the business, make decisions based on what's best for that business or team rather than for its individuals.

Learn more about Johan at JohanBruyneel.com, or follow him on Twitter at @johanbruyneel.

Photo of Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel by Flickr user Paul Coster, CC 2.0. Thumbnail of Lance Armstrong by Flickr user PoweriPics, CC 2.0
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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.

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