JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. - Executives can read about the principles of good leadership and team building. They can attend conferences or hire coaches. But spending an hour watching a horse whisperer bond with and gain the cooperation of a wild, 1,000-pound horse can bring home important leadership lessons in an immediate, profound way.
Horses are acutely sensitive to human energy and body language, making them the perfect partner in real-time exercises involving trust and cooperation.
"It's an amazing, amazing experience," said Cece Morken, an executive vice president and general manager of strategic partnerships at Intuit.
Morken is one of hundreds of executives every year who have attended leadership demonstrations and training sessions by horse whisperer Grant Golliher and his wife, Jane, who run the Diamond Cross Ranch near Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
The couple has worked with leadership groups from up to 200 organizations, including well-known public companies such as Google, Disney and Toyota, as well as private businesses, start ups, industry associations and government agencies.
Their ranch has been in Jane Golliher's family since the 1940s. But the idea for the leadership demonstrations and trainings wasn't born until two decades ago, after the couple received a flurry of positive responses from a private event that they held for 300 people from Microsoft.
Companies today bring executives to the ranch to learn how Grant Golliher builds a relationship with a skittish, untrained horse through a methodical display of respect, patience and non-violent boundary-setting. The philosophy that informs his actions relies heavily on emotional intelligence to communicate and inspire, and that can apply when leading employees too.
Michael Beckerman, CEO of commercial real estate research company CREtech, watched Golliher work with a Mustang that had been living in the wild just two weeks earlier.
In first approaching the horse, as seen in a video Beckerman took, Golliher stressed to executives in the audience that horses need freedom. "And out of freedom then they are willing to yield. Otherwise, you just have a slave that does it because they have to. But there's no loyalty."
In the course of the hour-long demonstration, Beckerman recounted, Golliher knelt down with his back to the horse, stroked the horse's neck, got the horse to run around the round pen and then to stay on one side of a rope that Golliher had laid down.
"There was real fear, real danger and real potential for consequences," Beckerman said. "Grant showed the power of love and kindness, of trust and establishing boundaries. The experience reinforced my beliefs about the downside of anger, confrontation and aggression."
Lessons from a horse whisperer
Some companies opt for more than just a demonstration. They'll bring executives to the ranch for a two-day program in which the executives get to work with the horses themselves, both in a group and through individual activities. For instance, they will try to lead a horse in a round pen, saddle a horse and ride one in supervised exercises. They may also, in teams, practice herding cattle on horseback.
The goal is to experience Golliher's principles in action. Those principles stress consistency, firm boundaries and appreciation -- all intended to build the horse's trust and confidence in the human as leader. Golliher distills his principles into easily remembered catchphrases, such as:
Make the the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult, but let the horse choose: When Golliher wants a horse to do something, if the horse makes the wrong choice, he'll do something that the horse doesn't like (e.g., waving a flag on a stick or asking the audience to make a lot of noise).
Honor the slightest try and the smallest change: When the horse makes the right choice -- or just starts to move in the direction of the right choice -- Golliher offers effusive praise by gently saying "good job."
"Horses feel that. They're so sensitive to tone of voice. They learn the response to be drawn to," he said.
Work as fast as you can but as slow as necessary: When executives try to lead a horse with a rope to walk alongside them, Golliher encourages them to "lead with feel" -- that is, don't just start walking away until the horse feels the tug at the end of the rope. You need to tune in to where the horse is before the horse will agree to move.
"You're leading him, not dragging him," he said.
And, like humans, horses don't respond well to impatient, nervous or angry energy from a boss.
"We try to teach people not to move too quickly. It will scare the horse away. Sometimes slower is faster," Golliher said.
Albi Pagenstern, BMW North America's West Coast dealer development manager, saw that very clearly. He and other executives at a demonstration were invited one by one to let the horse approach them and then to slowly and gently make contact with the horse through the round pen fence. One executive made some sudden movements and the horse was gone, Pagenstern recounted.
"The experience showed you've got to be really patient. You can't force things -- you've got to accept your counterparty for who they are and convey to them you're not a threat," he said.
Living the lessons back at work
Brad Smith, the former CEO of Intuit and now its executive chairman, has worked with Golliher several times.
"There is nothing more powerful than watching Grant 'hook on' to a horse and become a team versus seeking to 'break its spirit.' This visualization remains with you as a daily reminder in the workplace. My office now displays his teachings on my office wall," Smith said.
Morken noted that the Intuit executives who worked with Golliher have incorporated his teachings into their annual goals. A big one for several of them has been honoring the slightest try. In the past, she said, "we were more about celebrating the outcome rather than the try."
Jim Conroy, CEO of Boot Barn, who first visited Diamond Cross Ranch on vacation and is now thinking of doing a corporate retreat there, said Golliher's lessons reinforced what he tries to practice at his own company. One is the importance of treating employees who make mistakes respectfully and calmly, while at the same time letting them know they got out of bounds.
"If a CEO yells, people freeze. Give them a safe space to think clearly," Conroy said. 'If you pounce on their back they'll never take a risk again and you'll be micromanaging them forever."
Cindy Parker, managing director of IT at LaSalle Investment Management, also saw some parallels between working with horses and managing employees. "Everyone's so different. You have to learn how to work with them and appreciate them and pat them on the back when they do things right."
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