Leadership from the pasture to the office

How many times have you hired a new employee, showed them their desk, the bathroom, the lunchroom, where to find the coffee and supplies, and then left them on their own to figure things out? Or assigned someone to a task or project they’ve never done before or introduced a new work process they’ve never seen and just walked away thinking, “They can read the procedure” or “They’re good at other things, this project will be a piece of cake for them”., or worse yet, not think anything of it and just walk away?

Effective leaders provide guides for their employees to bump up against. I’ve known this lesson for most of my life, but I manage to forget it from time to time when dealing with people who are new to a job or a task. I recently re-learned the lesson when working with my horse, Jazz.

When I gave Jazz (my female horse; mare to horse people) a new job and left her to her own devices, she was full of anxiety and fear. She didn’t know what to do, how to do it, and was worried about everything around her. As I saw it, her job was simple – walk calmly and quietly around the pasture fence without speeding up or throwing me off. Simple enough, right? Wrong.

Jazz was riddled with fear. “What predators are lurking in the woods?” “Oh my, there’s a noise that I haven’t heard before!” “Is that a cat or a deer watching me? Whatever it is, I don’t like it!” These are the thoughts I imagine ran through her head as she walked the pasture, moving her head from side to side, worrying about every little thing around her, getting more nervous with each step. Jazz did not know her job or how to do it, which turned her into a 900-pound bundle of nervous energy. She spooked at the slightest noise or movement. Even the slightest touch of my leg on her sent her into a frenzy. Being a fight-or-flight animal, she did what came naturally. She fled at a full-out gallop across the pasture with me holding on! What went wrong?

As her leader, I was not doing my job. I needed to give her some guidelines, or guides to bump up against, until she learned her job and gain confidence in her job. She needed to know her only job was to focus straight ahead and walk calmly forward along the fence line. And I needed to gently guide her with the reins, telling her when she was doing a great job and when she needed to focus forward.

When she learned her job and became more confident and comfortable, I reinforced the lesson by giving her more rein and a bit more freedom to move around. I praised her too. When she got off track, I tightened up the reins and provided the guides again. As she became more and more comfortable, she accepted additional responsibilities and challenges with ease.

Think about this story:  How might this lesson with a horse provide some guidance and direction for leading your people?

When you give an employee a new project, job or responsibility, don’t leave them to flounder on their own. Provide strong leadership; give them guides to bump up against while they are learning. Give them support and encouragement along the way, praise them when they make progress. When they feel more comfortable and performance improves, you can loosen the guides and allow them to explore ways to develop better and more efficient means of completing their responsibilities.

A strong leader knows when to teach, guide, praise and get out of the way! Provide enough of each when and where needed. Then get out of their way. Watch them soar to new heights, finding new ways of doing things while potentially saving the company money, increasing productivity and morale!

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