Nine Executive Lessons Learned in an Unusual Way
The drill was always the same. When you returned to school each Fall you had the same challenge: answer the traditional “what I did on my summer vacation” in front-of-class presentation. Fast-forward a few decades. Now you can title the challenge, answer the “what I did on my Professional Development Day-Off” question.
To some, the idea of this day out of the office was a good thing. Imagine, a day off-site, in jeans and boots. A day where cell phones and Droids are banned and no one even misses their once attached apparatus. A day where a port-a-potty rules the day and no one complains.
Yet a day so challenging some executives figuratively stomped their feet in imaginary tantrums. Look in the mirror and see your reflection. Look in a horse’s eyes, and see your reflection from a four-legged mirror. A mirror whose survival for centuries has depended on an innate ability to identify leadership. A mirror whose image you can change in minutes.
With no riding involved, a horse can help you identify your communication and leadership skills. It’s really pretty simple: if you can lead a horse without a halter or lead, you can lead a team or a company. If a horse won’t follow you, neither will a prospect, client, team or board member.
Lessons executives learned in one off-site day with three horses to teach them and two professionals to observe.
Lesson #1: You have to know where you are going if you want anyone to follow
In the first morning exercise, Nick could not get Boss to move, not one inch. He stood in the middle of the pasture, mentally begging this thousand pound horse to flinch. You can pull, cajole, or bribe. A horse will not follow a tentative leader. If you want a horse to follow, you have to know where you are going. Here’s a news flash: people need to know where you are going, too.
Lesson #2: Keep the horse, and your audience, engaged
A horse may follow you, and then stop. That’s because you did not keep him engaged. Jim learned that he had to keep his eye on his forward goal; at the same time he had to keep connected with the horse. Here’s a news flash: a human audience will also disengage if you don’t stay connected.
Lesson #3: Mixed messages are confusing
Tony waved his arms to get the horse to move forward. At the same time, he said, WHOA, whoa. Here’s a news flash: when you give mixed signals you impede your own progress. How many times have you wondered why you did not get your desired response?
Lesson #4: Sometimes, you have to get “muddy” to have success
Like Kim, put yourself in a round paddock with a loose horse, and mud in the middle. The horse represents your immediate report. The only way to get the horse “on the rail” was for Kim to walk through the mud. The horse needs to feel and see your presence. Some things you cannot legislate from above. Here’s a news flash: at times you have to engage in hand to hand communication, you have to come down from the 10,000 or 30,000 perch.
Lesson #5: “Pray it moves” is not a winning strategy
Jeff was stymied in the “billiards” exercise. In this challenge you have to get the loose horse into a “pocket” you have created. You identify which horse, like identifying which ball. Then you proceed to work the horse into the designated pocket. At one point Jeff said, let’s just pray it (the horse) moves. Here’s a news flash: praying outside of church is just not a strategy.
Lesson #6: Don’t give up leadership willingly
At one point the participants formed one team. Each person could speak only when they rotated out of the line as the temporary leader. Each then had thirty seconds to speak, to lead, to problem solve. Some shrunk from the limelight and added no value in their time as leader. Here’s a news flash: leaders don’t disappear in the spotlight.
Lesson #7: You don’t have to be the leader to be inclusive
The obstacle course was a long and tedious exercise. We would still be in that pasture if not for Jeff S. First the team set up an obstacle course using an array of supplies. Then they had to get one horse through the course without halter or lead. Here’s a news flash: all participants can encourage engagement. The leader is not the only one responsible for team success.
Lesson #8: There is a difference between bribery and reward
Tracy went back to the barn for carrots. Bribery comes at the beginning to entice. Reward comes at the end. Here’s a news flash: When you start with bribery it becomes difficult to end bribery.
Lesson #9: Push through your own barriers
Everyone had barriers. They were just different barriers. The challenge to each was to push through their own. Here’s a news flash: we all have barriers. Use whatever resources you need to use, to get over yours.
What did you do on your professional day-off? You got in a pasture with 3,000 pounds of horse, played billiards with a horse as the ball, got a horse to go through an obstacle course un-led, spent one-on-one time with a horse in a paddock with the horse a metaphor for a professional challenge. And you learned about yourself, and how to lead people, a company, and a profession.