90daysIt should have been easy. The idea was simple enough, get Gabe used to stuff happening around him.

I have learned how complicated simple can be. Now well past ninety days, we continue one step at a time working through the Tarp Challenge. Gabe remains hesitant about the blue tarp, but what has changed it is that it is no longer about getting him used to the tarp. It is now about how I offer the information and allow him the opportunity to interpret my intention. To a horse everything means something and nothing, means nothing. We are getting closer to nothing.

Horsemanship is a journey and each day with Gabe, each session with people I learn more about how I present myself.  Through recent programs leadership presence has been the focus of conversation. We begin each session asking what would each individual like to get out of their day, defining a goal for themselves. We hear a lot about what they would like to see in their staff, changes in how their communication is received or thoughts that relate to getting others to perform their best, for some it is a challenge to get them to see the role they play in that outcome.

It takes seconds for a horse to figure out a person’s “I statement”. However, having the human articulate it plainly and clearly is another story. When they find it, it is gold for us in the arena.

To be honest it really doesn’t matter whom I pair with who or what activities we have planned for a sessions. The horses simply do what they do and the people will say the the most amazing things. I so love to hear it when someone simply states what they need to do differently as a result of the interactions with the horse. What was challenging for them to articulate in the classroom rolls off their tongue in the arena.

I am so proud of my horses. They do not just tolerate another human on the end of the lead line, but they share with them something that becomes so profound. I know that person is leaving with a whole new perspective on what leadership presence means to them.

Just as it is no longer about getting Gabe used to the commotion going on around him, but rather about how  “I can support and help Gabe understand that he can trust me through whatever may be happening around us.”  I still want Gabe to accept a blue tarp, but it is what I am willing to do in order for him to get there that makes the difference.

What’s in it for me? Immense satisfaction on what I can accomplish if I set my heart and mind to something.


The 30 Day Tarp Challenge

TarpChallenge300x225A current trend in hot yoga studios is the 30 day challenge. No I have not committed to a yoga challenge, but I did create one of my own. The Thirty Day Tarp Challenge.

Not having experienced anything quite like Gabriel presented, I missed what my horse had been trying to tell me. Stumped as to what to do next, I sought the expertise of others.

The problem becomes who is the right expert? There are a LOT of experts out there with differing opinions on each. The guy I selected has decades of experience starting thousands of colts and having studied with many of the same horsemen I admire. I thought I had found the perfect solution. I also assumed he would be a good teacher.

He got the job done!  I saw a big change in Gabe and our first ride was amazing. In typical cowboy fashion, he is a man of few words so my instruction was “Ride him”. On the surface all appeared well, I believed it would progress from here on in.

While those first rides truly did feel great, once home there was always a slight feeling of what if. In the hands of a very experienced horseman, Gabe had become compliant, but if I was at all tentative he would shut down. The subtle progressed and in a few short rides we were back to where we’d been at before I’d asked for help. There I was on the ground looking at Gabe’s belly, again!

Gabriel had mastered the art of compliance. Had he stayed with the horseman he may well have progressed along the continuum from compliance to engagement, but with me back at the helm progress stalled. Gabe had learned to tolerate things at least until the point where he could no longer. So the moment I created any feeling of doubt, well that was all he needed.

The experience has had me thinking a lot about how we engage consultants to fix problems in the workplace. In our efforts to find a quick solution, get back to doing business and the ever important quest for increased revenue, we hire others to fix a problem. While I know I needed help, what  was more important was what I needed to do once the “new program” was implemented.

That is where mentors and coaches are invaluable. Someone to bounce an idea off of when you are not sure what to do next. I too have found the support I needed and the tarp challenge is one of the tactics to help me through the process of change. I now know the right questions to ask and more importantly how to recognize the precise moment when Gabe shifts from compliance to understanding. The moment of engagement.

We are still at the point that had initially stumped me.  I just better recognize that the process of engagement is not an end result but a continuum. To quote a good friend and horseman Paul Mitchell “30, 60 or 90 days may be great terms in the money market, it means little to a horse.” 

I now know it will simply take as long as it takes, the number of days may simply be a measure. As we near sixty Gabriel is engaging with whatever I ask of him but we are not there yet. Some days it feels like we take a few steps back, but the more I listen to what he is telling me and continue to ask the right questions, we are making great progress. Hard to believe that a tarp would make a horse lighter to ride but that simple challenge is removing the question of doubt in my ability to lead.

The challenge is of course more for me than it is for him. It is about me making the commitment to work through a problem without looking for the quick fix. The benefits have been many our relationship is improving, I better understand where his edges are and how to help him through the hesitation and like the fitness challenge thirty days of yoga may offer, my arms are also a whole lot stronger!

“If you talk to any good horse trainer about how they got to where they are, they’ll admit they’ve made some mistakes along the way. And if they’re worth their salt, they’ll probably tell you that the lessons they learned making those mistakes were invaluable.” Clinton Anderson

There is no shame in getting bucked off

BuckedOffA very unsettled horse was leaping toward me and the chances of one or all four feet hitting me was very high. So yes I moved my feet!

In a horse’s world, who moves who’s feet is a clear case of leader. So while Gabe was trying to unload the saddle, or what he perceived as a threat, moving my feet was NOT what I was supposed to do. Getting the horse to move his feet forward is the goal, to achieve that you need to move yours. This simple, but not necessarily easy tactic, will help him find the comfort and leadership he needs.

At that particular moment, it was hard to determine if being on foot was actually a good thing. Not a bronc rider by skill I have been seeking out help from a few experts to get me work through the glitches so Gabe joined me in Montana to ride with Buck Brannaman. If you have read previous articles or seen the movie BUCK then his philosophy will sound familiar “Horsemanship isn’t about working on the horse, it’s about working on you.” A thought that influences my horsemanship and leadership in The Natural Leader programs.

A recent session once again highlighted the similarities between how horses and people can respond in a stressful situation.

She had executed not one but three downward dog stretches, two with a human on her back. While I noticed Sydney’s outward signs of stress I hadn’t taken into account it began when one woman took her lead. Sydney is a big horse and clearly demonstrates confidence in the herd, though like all horses is very sensitive to people’s stress. I should know by now that when Sydney starts these behaviours no matter how comfortable someone says they are, Syd knows better.

Through the first few strides of the team activity Sydney reached out three times to express her concern. On her third polite attempt contribute to the collective experience I suggested we synch the energy of the group with a deep breath, knowing full well that Sydney’s next attempt to communicate with this woman would not be lips only.

What happened next I expect reflects a typical response to a stressful situation. Rather than a deep yoga like breath I was on the receiving end of a verbal attack, apparently I was the source of all the stress. As if I had been bucked off, I stepped back.

While the participants bite was with words I was not about to let Sydney follow through on her promise. I had to shake off the momentary state of shock and step forward and shut the activity down to debrief what was going on.

When we say a horse is our mirror, through the activity Sydney had been reflecting the stress of the entire group, she was clearly demonstrating her vulnerability and that it was more than she could handle. I wish I could say the debrief was excellent, I have since thought of all the things I should have or could have said.

As Patrick Lencioni outlines in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team identifying vulnerability is the heart of creating trust. The work with horses often brings forward the emotions that expose vulnerability, people may miss or misinterpret it, the horses read it loud and clear. The most challenging part of team work is facilitating what shows up and engaging the team in a dialogue that can continue beyond the activities in the arena.

There is no shame in getting bucked off or failing to show up if we learn from what happened. As a leader I should have stepped in sooner to support Sydney. In my role as a facilitator I should have been able to use the situation to get the group talking about stress in the workplace. I recognize I was unprepared for what happened and I didn’t have the skill or experience to handle what showed up. I do now!

I want to be a better horseman, leader and human being. As long as I consider myself to be a work in progress that vulnerability allows room for improvement. The more I remember to step forward in a stressful situation the easier it will be to be confident and assertive even as I am learning. I may not always do exactly the right thing but at least I will be doing something.

A Different Perspective

thepointwhereFrom our place the view of the mountains is spectacular, some days it feels like you could touch them.

We live on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, the point where the foothills turns into the flat lands. With it’s ready made windbreak of poplars, spruce and caragana hedge an old farmstead became our home. I often say there is nothing to block the view–a statement that translates to nothing to stop the wind. The wind can be relentless.

In the still of a spring evening bird song and frogs are the main chorus but as you move toward the herd the steady slap of the tail and stomp of feet means mosquitoes have arrived. After 11 years I realize there is a darn good side to that ever present wind. Between hill and sky, there can be a LOT of water. So when the wind blows it provides that point in the day you can focus and the horse can relax, the wind offers relief.

The Natural Leader programs are designed to provide a different perspective on leading self or others. I have to admit sometimes the questions that come forward catch me off guard, one did just that in a recent session. The individual was wondering what to do when all else appeared to be stacked against them. The first question that came to mind to begin the dialogue was “Is there another way you could look at the problem?

We often have participants who are looking for a fix, that one idea that will transform their leadership journey. The horses provide that different perspective on how they show up as individuals and the expectations they place on self. If the horses had taught me nothing else, the one learning horses are brilliant at sharing. You can only control and change how you respond and react to see a different outcome.

The same question came to mind as I headed down the road, glad for the reprieve from mosquitos the wind offered. When I could see the benefit the wind offered rather than loath it, I loved it. “It was the question that was needing to be asked but was waiting to be said.”

Not sure why it’s taken me so long to find the upside of the wind. I guess needing to see something from a different perspective is something you never run out of.
In full disclosure, that is not a picture from where I sit, but a view not too far to the west of us.

“A dog looks up to a man, a cat looks down on a man, but a horse looks a man in the eye and sees him as an equal.” Anonymous

Getting to Disaster Faster


How many young girls dream of owning a horse? It is that odd place between pink and nice and reaching the dream of who you can be.

Nice quickly becomes a measurable word with horses. A friend described her experience teaching riding and the challenge of connecting words to action. When encouraged to speed ponies up to a trot, instead of pumping legs, elbows would flap wildly. The more the girls were told to kick with their heels the more determined elbow movement would become.

Flapping elbows do little to move a pony forward, so the girls were given something a little more tangible, something they could see so “Ride with your thumbs up” became the mantra. Focusing on their thumbs stopped the elbows from moving but as six year olds tend to do, one solution created another problem. The riders would focus on their thumbs to the exclusion of all else. The image she paints is one of bumper cars bouncing precariously of each other towards a cliff rather than haute ecole.

As an ex-project manager I can espouse the benefits and failings of a plan. Yes, it can align us to a common goal, but when the plan is executed to the exclusion of all else, it’s sort of like watching your thumbs as you update your plan to disaster. You can be the maverick who champions the plan, gets things moving or one who lives by the plan, force fitting relationships into the cells on the spreadsheet, both can leave a trail of debris in your wake.

Somewhere in between is where the leadership role of the PM lies. While either might lead to the successful completion of a project it does little for the concept of the team. It took many years for me to truly understood the difference between managing a project and leading one. I can say with confidence the relationships and people I lead fared far better than those I managed.

Looking at our own behaviours helps us understand how we might be connecting thoughts to actions. Is what we believe we are doing and saying, what others are actually seeing and feeling? Until I became aware of my own actions on others I expect you could say my successful programs left a trail of debris. Yes we hit scope, schedule and budget brilliantly, I was resolute in that goal I saw only what was in front of me. It was a horse that taught me that was only part of the picture.

Relationship, communication and commitment were concepts I knew, I just had to learn what they looked like. Understanding self is often the first leadership concepts taught, without that understanding others is near impossible. Horsemanship taught me about about me and become the foundation of my leadership awareness – from there I was able to learn, understand and encourage others through the programs I lead.

Over the years I’ve had the great opportunity to view many teams execute The Natural Leader programs. What is truly remarkable is how when in a participant tries to manage a horse everything becomes more challenging but if and when they are able to let go of the concept of control they experience the magic of dancing with the horse. People become aware of the behaviours that make a difference giving them something they can focus on that will lead to a successful outcome.

“Collection is nothing else than the attitude which allows a horse the maximum mobility.” Jean-Claude Racinet

Is it a question of trust?

web_featureMarch13News feeds have been all a buzz about Melisa Mayer’s recent decision to eliminate remote work at Yahoo. As I write, one online poll suggests people are evenly split as to whether they agree with Mayer or not. The comments are full of strongly differing opinions, so one could say the decision is an emotional issue!

Some sources state her decision was based on a tendency to use statistics, that she had been monitoring remote workers VPN access. Other sources say it’s simply an effort to strengthen the brand and reposition Yahoo for the mobile generation.

Having worked at one of those upstart internet companies I have a sense of the work. People all over the globe could be part of a team. VPN access could only be a small part of the real issue as much work is done on a local machine, uploading data/code to the main server as needed.

This news is hot on the heels of an amazing discussion I had over lunch at a friends last week. The topic “when women have worked so hard to get into a position of power Why then are they not even more supportive of other women?”

The discussion flowed from one example of a senior manager who was ready to get rid of a woman on her team. When questioned as to what were her reasons, it was revealed the subject was indeed one of the best performers, provided superior work, never missed a deadline and excelled at every way. My friend somewhat taken aback over how venomous the statements came out, through a few more questions revealed the anger stemmed from the freedom that the contract employee was able to enjoy. The contractor came in for meetings but mostly worked from home. While I may have forgotten the exact questions, the response sticks in my mind “I paid my dues, she should pay hers!”

So my question to Mayer would be “Is it really about getting the work done, or is it a Matter of Trust?”

I understand the Yahoo decision isn’t a gender issue though I can’t say I see Mayer’s perspective. Today’s Business Insider says it’s about culture so perhaps a change in work habits is required. A culture is defined by its leader, the foundation of leadership is trust. I may not know what it is to run a company like Yahoo but I am familiar with what it takes to trust others. For them to do their best, I have to trust myself first.

I’ve started enough colts now to see the connection between how I react to what is offered. Each colt may test me in a different way but it always comes down to how I respond. I admit sometimes it gets a little scary and yes my emotions can get the better of me, but if I don’t trust myself first, there is no way the colt will trust me. You can’t fake trust, or at least I have to admit to the fact that the colt will see it, if that shows up then I certainly have to be prepared for the worst.

I can only hope that Mayer is able to rebuild trust enough to change the culture she suggests is the problem with Yahoo.

So yes, it now is a matter of trust.

“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing that makes you good.” Malcolm Gladwell