They started trading ideas in Charlotte in 2014 just after Rivera had flipped the Carolina Panthers into a winner and was named NFL coach of the year. He got a call from Johnson’s longtime crew chief Chad Knaus inviting him to kick around some management ideas. It struck both of them that comparing Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team, who had just won one of a record-tying NASCAR Cup Series seven titles, to a surging NFL team might be a useful exercise. As Joe Gibbs has proved, a stock car operation and a football squad have a few things in common. “We’re all talking the same things through,” Johnson says.
Chiefly, they’re both made up of a lot of moving parts that have to fit. “And they all got to be orchestrated and working together,” Rivera says.
Rivera, 58, spent an afternoon observing how Johnson and Knaus went about their business, and one thing he noticed was a consistent ethic in everything they did, even seemingly meaningless details, from the spotless floors of the shop to how everyone kept their shirts tucked in. Rivera was so intrigued he even taped and transcribed a four-hour conversation, asking questions such as, how do you coordinate so many disparate elements and people, from the tower to the pit, all working on a complex high-performance machine, into a smooth flow?
Rivera then pored through his notes and transcripts, looking for the things that might be transferrable to the NFL.
Rivera was mainly interested in how they built what he calls “sustainable culture.” It’s the one thing he identifies as absolutely necessary for turning around an NFL team.
“The culture has to be so strong that it doesn’t matter who the person is,” Rivera says. “The culture is so strong that the players are absorbed into it and become part of it and do it willingly, and if someone is not willing, then the guys around them are so strong that they will pull them into the culture. You’re able to assimilate guys into what we’re doing.”
The interest was mutual. The NASCAR guys were fascinated by Rivera’s ability to command large groups and project his authority, especially under the stress of competition. Johnson paid his own visit to the Panthers during the 2014 season and was taken by Rivera’s “energy, his interaction, what he exudes,” the driver says. “He is so unique in that space. Something draws me to him, and I almost want to do the things he says, let him coach me.”
The relationship grew and the exchanges continued, and in 2019 the Hendrick team invited Rivera to give a motivational speech to the organization as it entered its playoff season. One thing Rivera said that day was particularly relevant for Johnson, who at age 44 is winding toward retirement after this season and who may have run in his final Daytona 500 on Monday. The right mind-set has become a difficult trick: How do you race to win yet try to savor the last go-round? “It’s going to take an effort to enjoy it because I’m wired for performance,” Johnson says.
Rivera’s Zen-like advice to Hendrick: “You have to be where your feet are.”
It was a lesson Rivera learned at the Super Bowl after the 2015 season, when he had to try to maintain his team’s focus in the glare of the event and was pulled in multiple directions.
“When your feet are in a meeting, be at the meeting,” Rivera says. “When your feet are at home, be with the family. If your feet are in the car, be in the car.”
Rivera and Johnson’s instincts to cull professional advice from their seemingly unrelated fields is, whether they know it or not, a proven tactic for managerial success. According to researchers writing for the Harvard Business Review in a piece titled, “Sometimes the Best Ideas Come From Outside Your Industry,” studies show that people who “pool insights from analogous areas” in working on problems probably will get “significantly greater novelty in the proposed solutions.” They find fresh language.
Some professional examples include: A company developed a breakthrough in preventing post-surgical infections by consulting with a theatrical makeup specialist, who knew how to protect facial skin from heavy makeup. A company installing escalators in shopping malls borrowed from the mining industry. And rollerbladers had interesting ideas about protective equipment for roofers and carpenters. “Look for creative people who aren’t constrained by the assumed limitations and mental schemas of your own professional world,” the authors recommend.
For whatever reasons, Johnson and Rivera didn’t need Harvard Business School educations to tell them that. Johnson learned it as a young athlete in California who balanced competitive high school swimming with racing, urged on by his father, a heavy-machine operator who could fix anything. Swimming taught him visualization and a deeply embedded understanding of pace and distance.
“I’ve used that a lot in my car,” he says.
As a mature driver at his peak, he returned to that cross-referencing when he took up marathoning and triathlons and discovered that they enhanced his perceptions in the car. Though he was strapped into a seat, his body was still working, and better conditioning helped his brain process the incoming information.
“When I worked harder and felt better, my mind was sharper and my senses sharper,” he says. “It all fed off each other. The more in shape I am out of the car, the better my senses are in the car. It’s a neat physical presence and feeling.”
For Rivera, son of an Army engineer who served for 32 years and who regularly had to adjust to a variety of moves and shifting circumstances, borrowing from others was also an early instinct. As a football player it was hard to miss the deep structural resemblance between a team and a military unit, a connection he still uses. He is reading “We Shall Not Fail: The Inspiring Leadership of Winston Churchill,” by Churchill’s granddaughter Celia Sandys. He characterizes himself as an enthusiastic “Churchillian” whose shelves contain a six-volume edition of the former British prime minister’s works. The Redskins, he says, are liable to get tired of hearing him quote Churchill.
What each has discovered in his own way is that intellectual flexibility is every bit as important as specialization. It not only helps them to find solutions to problems; perhaps even more importantly, the commonality they discover is affirming. It reassures them that their basic principles are right and cut across all fields.
“It may look different at the end of the day,” Johnson says of what he has learned from Rivera, “but the more you put in, the more you get. That’s the lesson. You get what you put in.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.