Nicole Bucala is a cybersecurity executive who drives corporate growth through partnerships.
A few years ago, I was handed a team to manage with a variety of skills and attitudes toward work. I found I had a tremendous amount to learn in order to effectively manage the differences. Management classes were helpful, but astonishingly, my quickest learnings came from working with horses. I should preface this all to share that, for those unfamiliar with the modern equestrian sport, its aim is to revere the horse for the critical role it played in human progress: carrying man into battle and across the American West. These horses are pampered such that they are often treated more luxuriously than the average human!
That same year, my sport horse mare, Keeper, went belly-up in her training. Suddenly recalcitrant and anxious, she hated to be ridden and would let the rider know it. One day as we were galloping across a field, she decided she didn’t want me on her back anymore. She violently threw me and I nearly snapped my wrist off as I landed. She proceeded to try to exact similar damage on the head trainer. I was told my horse was too dangerous to ride.
We soon discovered she was sick with a nervous system parasite. She then punctured her hock and spent a week in the hospital — this was when I learned my horse’s health insurance was better than my own. The veterinarians weren’t sure she was going to return to work. Over the next year, we patiently nursed Keeper back to health. Due to her bad experiences while sick, she held a grudge against me and against work. It was over a year before we worked together smoothly again.
What horses and people have in common is a mutual love for challenging work. Both the rider and manager have the job of developing the horse and employee, respectively, into the very best versions of themselves. Yet, to work with a horse, one must develop high EQ: horses display a full range of emotions but communicate non-verbally. The experiences with Keeper thereby helped me draw several parallels for people management.
Trust makes or breaks all working relationships. Horses are godly creatures. They will perform complicated moves to confuse an enemy in battle, leap seven-foot fences for the amusement of mankind, and dance to music on command. Yet at any time, they could decide, “Nope. I don’t like how you asked me to do that, so I’m dumping you on the ground.” A horse who trusts his rider will always listen. But, just like a manager of people, the rider must prove trustworthiness with positive and consistent communication. Depending on each horse’s unique life experiences, that trust may or may not come quickly.
When working with someone who is well-trained, your job is to point them in the right direction — and then get out of their way. A smart horse knows its job. For example, a show jumper, which must clear several high fences as fast as possible, knows how to balance itself on takeoff, pick up its legs in the air and swap its leads in the corners. The best riders set the horse up for success and make the work look effortless. If a well-trained horse makes a mistake, it’s usually because the rider inappropriately interfered and unbalanced or confused the horse. The same goes for competent employees: They just need to be pointed toward the vision and supported when needed. That’s why micromanagers have a bad reputation: Their interference throws an employee off-track, leading to mixed results.
As a leader, avoid repeated negative behavior. With horses, single instances of negative feedback are okay to drive home a point, but repetitive harsh feedback can dull the horse to its senses, or make it fear work and hate you. Poor feedback is worse than no feedback at all as it can take the horse backward in its training and even result in unfair labels, such as “dangerous.” Horses need to be given the confidence to succeed. People are no different.
Working with others is all about communicating, as they need to hear it. There are universal foundational aids for specific disciplines, but each horse has its own nuanced communication patterns that the emotionally intelligent rider learns to read. The best equestrians adapt their style and can ride whatever is handed to them. I have observed some managers create friction by expecting their team members to conform to a single, preferred communication style. Everyone is different. If you want to leverage an employee’s strengths, flex your style to each individual.
If you want talent to last, don’t overwork it. This may seem obvious, but, if you want a horse to love its job, you must let it enjoy the work. If you challenge the horse and it rises to the occasion, call it a day after it completes the challenge correctly once or twice. Horses who enjoy their job may want to do more, but it’s important not to tire them. Exhausting a talented horse or burning out an employee will just lead them to despise their job and ultimately your leadership for taking advantage of their willingness.
Tone may be more powerful than content. Keeper responds to her name and verbal gait commands “walk, trot, canter” when said with consistent intonation. However, said in a different tone, these same words don’t yield the same result. People are not too different. The tone and rhythm of your delivery have a great influence on whether the receiver responds the way you want them to, sometimes more so than the content of what you actually say.
If you want to bring out the best in someone, you must enjoy the training process. What enabled me to succeed with Keeper was that my expectations were measured: I reminded myself that all horses have ups and downs, but Keeper possessed great athletic potential. Similarly, an employee with the right intentions always aims to please. At some point, they’ll do something that disappoints you. Set reasonable expectations and stay focused on the long-term.
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Nicole Bucala is a cybersecurity executive who drives corporate growth through partnerships. Read Nicole Bucala’s full executive profile here.