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.

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.

A Culture of Safety

SafetyCulture“most of us are taught to think of experience as coming from the outside in, psychology and neuroscience shows fairly dramatically that experience mainly comes from the inside out. We each created our own experience and therefore, people involved in the same event can have very different observations, thoughts, feelings and wants about that event.”1 Gervase Bushe

Over the past year I’ve had the good opportunity to work with a number of teams from the oil and gas industry. All the organizations they work for state they operate in a culture of safety, but watching people in action gives you a better sense of compliance versus a safety mindset. Safety isn’t about what not to do, but rather about how to do something safely.

Working from the “inside out”2 is a concept that shows up very clearly when working with a horse. “Never walk behind a horse.” advice almost everyone seems to be able to provide, but a perspective that relates more to how we walk behind a horse than whether we should. Evolution has provided horses with panoramic vision so their range of sight is almost 360 degrees, they absolutely can see you. Acutely aware a horse reads their measure of safety not only from the physical surroundings but through the actions of others, so how we walk behind them does make a difference.

While it isn’t always easy to tell where a horse is looking, their eyes are on the side of their head, a good indicator of where their focus of attention is are their ears. A horse’s body language will indicate their level of concern, in effect they let us know exactly what they are thinking.

In comparison our physiology restricts our peripheral vision limiting what we see to that which is in front of us and we also often falsely believe that we are good at keeping our thoughts to ourselves. A truth that clearly defines itself when we consciously prepare for the “what if’s” about working around a horse, the more likely we unknowingly wear what we are thinking. Horses have taught me a lot about safety.

While Bushe is exploring experience through the lens of the organization his findings of workplace experience is no different that what horsemanship suggests, our thoughts influence our actions. How we respond to what is presented, or how we interpret our safety, the impact is the same, others see what we miss and actions can easily be misinterpreted.

Just as Bushe suggests the more conscious we are of our own personal safety, the more likely our thoughts translate into unintended actions, perhaps we get hesitant, move slower or have a rigidness to our posture. While we may be thinking “I’m just being careful.” our body language changes the experience for someone else.

My awareness in working with horses has developed over time with a lens of safety built into everything I do. Many actions I am no longer conscious of, it has simply become how I do things. My experience has helped me develop a level of comfort working in an environment that others would perceive as risky.

Telling someone what not to do without information about why is no different then telling someone to not be afraid around the horse. A useless piece of advice without the why. Information helps us develop the awareness we need to be safe through our actions. The more open the dialogue is around safety versus a checklist of what not to do the more likely people gain comfort and competence to create the culture of safety.

1 – Bushe, Gervase -
2 – Leading from the Inside Out – was the name The Natural Leader launched under, so a thought I have carried with me


Circles in the Snow

Winter is a fabulous time to ride. No bugs!
However, without the luxury of an indoor arena, winter riding is not for the faint of heart. From the brown Michelan Man resemblance I take on to warming the bit before offering it to the horse, heading out requires preparation. It is an endeavour for the committed.

The colder weather also means, the section of cultivated land across the road becomes my outdoor riding arena. There is little to stop the view, stubble rows and piles of chaf become landmarks to weave through and go around the beauty is I can ride without the extreme hazard of snow covered holes.

Despite the number of times we may have crossed the road – there is always opportunity for something interesting to happen. On this particular day the land and sky were a seamless light blue grey. It gives you a feeling of floating as if in some middle world, at least it felt that way until a large truck broke the horizon 3 or 4 kilometers away.

The minute change in scenery interrupted the flow and Sydney became fixated on the distant object inching its way through the grey. The seemingly insignificant altered our ride from a pleasant amble to one where I had to quickly establish a common focus. What I could assume was simply explaining it was only a truck wouldn’t be enough for her. I had to be able to communicate in a way that had meaning to her, otherwise there was little between us and home to slow the energy of my fondly named, TankGirl. I needed to get her focused, engaged, relaxed and thinking!

You might remember me suggesting that horses are not good with change. The instinctual response to change is perceived threat. Sydney’s ONLY thought at that point was get back to the safety of the herd. I had to establish a comfort zone for her where I was her support in our herd of two. Circles are a good way to get your horse focused and relaxed while keeping their feet moving and mind engaged. So circles in the snow it became.

Winter snow offers a brilliant tool for measuring progress. Our fist attempts were anything but circular, as we both started to focus on what the outcome could be the track in the snow began to round and narrow. The truck continued to inch it’s way along the five kilometers of the horizon but I now had Sydney’s attention focused on the task at hand. As I gave her something to do it, a purpose, that in turn offered relief from the pending “threat” the change on the horizon presented. It helped us both regain confidence.

While the actual change minuscule, the perceived change and emotional impact was huge.

As everything about horsemanship and leadership is connected, the experience had me thinking about the chaos that change can inflict on the workplace. Like a horse we are naturally wired to react and resist change. The truck on the horizon demonstrated how easily a very minor change without the right communication can get blown out of proportion triggering the fright and flight mode in an organization.

No matter how many times I’ve encountered a tense moment on horseback I have to consciously remind myself that I have the experience, I have the skill and I have the knowledge to handle the situation. Each time the connection is easier, but like leadership the challenge with horsemanship is we can absolutely know what we need to do, but we must remember to carry it in how we respond. It is our actions that influence the change we would like to see.

It is that conscious awareness that will determine the outcome. I have to admit it is easier said than done, but with practice it starts to flow faster and most importantly when I encounter a change I really don’t know how to manage. I am more than willing to engage the experience of others. It just makes sense.

In The Moment

“A horse lives in the present.”

We get caught up in the past and can easily be swayed by what the future holds. A horse is only concerned with what is happening in the moment. As a leadership learning partner, they provide the opportunity for us to see the importance of being present with those we are with.

I spent fifteen years of my career as a project manager. I traveled a lot, worked with a variety of different clients and had to coordinate many different types of people and services. I admit I was guilty of believing I was a great multi-tasker. I thought I was brilliant at handling many things at once, what I now know is our brain is actually only capable of handling one thing at a time. Something David Eagleman explains in his book “Incognito – The Secret Lives of the Brain”. Fortunately the number of things our brains can process is huge allowing us to handle multiple activities concurrently, but we can only focus on one thing at a time.

A horse helps us see how important that is, a learning I have now received many times over. Rhys simply happens to be the best horse at noticing when my attention has drifted for that split second. A skill he demonstrated at a recent program, when a participant shared her learning in a debrief.

“Rhys gets easily bothered if you micro-manage him.” she shared, “when I assume I am in control, he takes over. If I default to managing him by holding the lead shorter, he gets pushy. When I am consistent in defining my boundaries and he is clear on what he can do, he settles down and is really easy to work with.”

Highly sensitive Rhys has become a brilliant teacher in The Natural Leader programs quickly assessing the leadership style of those with him. He can become over reactive with the command control individual, a bully with the pushover and an absolute lap dog with those who recognize he can be a brilliant performer with the right support.

To a horse “Everything means something” Rhys simply demands that you focus on what is happening in the moment and that you adjust to fit the situation. He is very aware of input even when you may not be. Rhys makes it perfectly clear that you should only focus on one thing at a time and helps you recognize what effective communication looks like.

Rhys is just one of the learning partners I have the pleasure of being with everyday. Each horse offers something new even if it is just that reminder to be present. That is what voice mail is for.

A Measure of Control

A horse has an acute awareness of self and presence of others, their survival has depended on it. While horses have come to accept us, domestication hasn’t changed that instinct.

A recent program demonstrated how the slightest change in the environment can alter a horse’s view of safety. The day was gorgeous so we had the arena doors wide open all was fine until a small herd of deer crossed the yard, the horses went from sleepy to alert and ready to run in a heartbeat. We closed the doors.

The arena provides a measure of control over those unexpected changes which can be as small as a fly or big as a train. We prefer the focus remains on the interaction between horse and human.

While there are some things we can control learning how to adapt to what shows up is ongoing within The Natural Leader programs. A statement that refers as much to me as it does for those we host. Events of the day don’t always unfold as anticipated as if to test me to see if I practice what I preach.

Though some things fall out of my control, a constant is how well the horse will attend to the individual they work with. For many simply being with a horse is so far outside of their comfort zone a lot of the responsibility lies with the horse. As the human gains comfort it is the horse who has to wait patiently through the human’s idea of who has control.

The language many people default to through their interactions with the horse is indeed curious. As the participant gains comfort and confidence they often suggest “things got better once they got control of the horse”. Control may come in the form of a tight grip on the lead, pulling the horse around or simply trying to hold them back as they walk. A comment which of course begs the question of “Who is leading who?”. The non-verbal communication much more obvious than the words illustrates the root of where miscommunication in the workplace lies. What we say versus what people see.

Control is something we like to have in our lives, the very state that change upsets. Rather than embracing the opportunity of change we often resort to habits to slow down the pace of change or perhaps simply restrict our awareness of it. As we develop this envelope of denial, the horse or team, may be complying but they rarely let go their own need to deal with change.I often suggest after such comments that they might view “the lead rope as simply the illusion of control”. From my own experience if the horse wants to leave it is unlikely you can prevent it and at best you might end up with a rope burn.

Leadership requires that we recognise the language that fits a situation so that we choose words carefully. There are a number of ways we get participants to experience how letting go of the illusion of control can lead to a better outcome with the horse. For some it is truly a difficult task as they have to trust in both self and the horse. A tall task when you have 500kg trotting beside you.

What is so uplifting about the work with horses is when the language does change. When an individual begins recognise the authority of leadership isn’t about control but about gaining the awareness of self and others so you are working effortlessly together. Yes you might be out of breath but as the smiles, lightness and acceptance shows through the effort the words shift from control to collaboration and the recognition that change is something you adapt to through trust.


My AndrePreneur Moment

She was certain she had the spelling right! At seventeen, it was Marie’s first job and she wanted to impress her boss with the care she put into the notes she was transcribing. It was possible Andre Preneur simply had an unlisted number.

Leave an impression she did, her boss roared with laughter. Andre was not the focus of discussion but rather the qualities of an entrepreneur had been.

Marie Delorme shared the story of Andre Preneur at her Famous 5 Foundation presentation over two years ago. Marie did not pursue a career as a legal secretary but has built two businesses under The ImagiNATION Group and this summer proudly accepted a PhD. Marie’s list of accomplishments is long, her presence in the community profound and influence on many young entrepreneurs great.

There was much about her presentation that caught my attention. While our connections fit around her many commitments and busy travel schedule, the idea of AndrePreneur lives on, after all I have become one.

One of 81 individuals representing companies from all over Alberta I had the honour of being nominated for the 2012 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards (EOY). It was a humbling experience to be amoung such talent.

The wonderful evening event, a certificate and the encouragement to apply again next year are but a start, the recognition goes beyond the nomination. It confirmed what The Natural Leader offers does make a difference.

What became clear through the process is the definition of an Entrepreneur for the Ernst & Young program is based on shareholder return and projected corporate growth. The motivation for what I am doing is intentional but combines my talent and knowledge towards creating a viable living where passion before profit prevails. The Natural Leader best fits within the growing numbers of Lifestyle Entrepreneurs.

There was much to model my business after when The Natural Leader began, though little that related directly to what I do. So I created what wasn’t there. The influence we have continues to make inroads as the number of programs delivered grows annually and the distribution of the workbooks I have created is global.

My definition of entrepreneurship may not fit with the EOY program it marries brilliantly with one conceived 37 years ago by an Harvard Business School profession Howard Stevenson. Referenced in January 2012 by Eric Schurenberg of “Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.”. The nomination may have produced a piece of paper but the idea has fueled my desire.

The success of The Natural Leader has been dependent on many. I have managed to partner with some incredibly talented people who share my vision, the passion and the opportunity the work provides. For those who continue to read these, sometimes not so monthly, newsletters Thank You. Thank you for continuing to believe what I am doing can make a difference and for allowing me to share my AndrePreneur moment. It is one of the few resources that I can offer freely.

The Best Definition of Entrepreneurship, Eric Schurenberg

In the Midst of Chaos

crossingtheroad300x225For the past couple of weeks I have been moving the herd onto a neighbours pasture. Leaving horses out to eat 24/7 when the grass is in peak never works out well, so we head over late morning back each evening. The routine is slowly beginning to develop a measure of rhythm.

The grass may be plentiful but the project manager in me appears when time is the scarce resource. Minimizing the number of trips by leading more than one horse seemed to be a sensible way to handle the process. Why take two horses when you can lead three or more?

Separating the herd always causes far more angst than you would think necessary. Without the non-verbal communication that holds them together the whinnying begins, actually, it’s more a deafening scream! To be clear we’re not talking about a long trip down the road, but simply one from our yard across the road onto the neighbours field. The drama doesn’t end when you get a batch of horses into the field but continues until each animal has arrived. The newly separated race around worried for their yet to arrive herd mates, causing even more frenzy among those left behind.

Needless to say the first few trips were more like a gong show than any sort of coordinated effort. It was if each individual had their own agenda: one excited about the adventure was charging ahead, switching sides and spinning around generating excitement and confusion; another seemingly suspect of the pending change would become an anchor a “ya but” for each step of the way and then there was the horse more concerned about how everyone else might impact them still not sure they wanted to be on the trip at all. I was trying to be the leader in the midst of chaos and had to develop a new strategy to stay alive. I needed the herd to respect me.

Horses like routine and any change will cause undue stress. I have often mentioned that when it comes to something new a horse always reverts to the most basic of values, their life. So change triggers the “Will I live or die?” reaction. The initial plan was to move half the herd over, one I soon altered as visions of animals desperate to connect and fences mixing in a bad way came to mind. Moving sixteen horses and one donkey meant more trips in the short term but the field would be grazed down faster ending the whole project sooner.

Control is a measured word with horses. It is impossible to control one upset horse let alone four but you can influence one horse at a time. In the end I don’t believe I saved any time moving more than one horse but once again I learned a lot. What became crystal clear was the bigger the team the more important the individual became. The negative influence each horse can wield when their concerns are not recognised is huge! What in turn impacted everyone was when my level of frustration got the better of me.

I found myself recalling a mantra I had used as a project manager “Slow down to go faster.”, for whenever my energy came up so too did that of the horses around me. With each trip I have improved how I set myself up to execute my responsibilities, in turn I am better able support each horse and adapt to what shows up. Each trip has a better start and as we repeat the routine the horses expectations are now clearer and the walk over is less chaotic. The ever so important action of getting through the gate can now be completed with some semblance of order, each horse waiting their turn to be freed.

I have let go of the expectation this should be easy or faster but recognised that it will take the time it takes. I see each effort as the opportunity to both learn and teach, most importantly that my team can look to me for comfort in the midst of change. It certainly wasn’t simple and it hasn’t been easy but I am pleased with how the team now might look as we cross the road together.

Remember to Breathe

I have mentioned this years eBook – “Breathe” in a couple of past newsletters. This month completing it became my focus. “Breathe” is the third compilation of images, essays and quotes from the past years newsletters. Past years eBooks are also available from our website in The Collection.

It was a struggle to get this years eBook together. Excuses were easy to find. I couldn’t find the words to introduce the work, there should be more images, I have no new sketches. Then the unthinkable happened, my nephew took his own life. Colin was 25.