What did I learn about running an A/E/P firm from a 62-year old former British equestrian Olympian? Quite a lot, as it turns out.
I recently had the opportunity to ride in a two-day clinic with Lucinda Green, a British equestrian and journalist who competes in eventing. She is most well-known for winning the Badminton Horse Trials a record six times, on six different horses, and she also took home team silver at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Just like in business, in horseback riding you are never done learning. I try to keep myself educated through reading, watching others ride, and occasional visits to my coach. When I heard that Lucinda Green, the star of one of my favorite computer games from my youth, an Olympian, and one of the best jumping instructors in the world, was coming to a friend’s farm in Starkville, Mississippi, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ride with her.
Lucinda Green did not disappoint. Like any good coach she was tough and clear about areas that needed improvement, but also encouraging of each rider’s individual strengths. Her unique and clearly defined philosophies about riding left me with a lot to think about in my riding, and had some clear parallels to running a successful business.
In cross country, one phase of the sport of eventing has a rider galloping at speed over 20 or so solid obstacles. Penalties are incurred for stops or fly-bys, for circling, and for going over an optimum time.
Your A/E firm is like your horse – it weighs a lot more than you do, it has a mind of its own, and it’s responsible for carrying you through a variety of situations. You can hold the reins and try to dictate every single step, but sooner or later your horse will falter or you will encounter some unexpected terrain. No matter how tightly you hold or how strong your arms are, you will never be able to control every movement of your horse. In fact, the act of trying will only set you up for disaster. The last thing you want is a power struggle with a 1,000-pound animal on your way into a solid four-foot fence. Do you want a power struggle with your firm in the face of disaster? Absolutely not. Every person in your firm has an important job to do, but they also have free will. You can harness this free will by empowering your people to use their own creativity and energy, or you can try to micromanage every aspect of every person’s job.
As a rider you have to use your eyes, legs, and hands to get your horse pointed in the right direction, then the rest is up to them. As a firm leader, you have to get your firm headed in the right direction, but you certainly can’t work on every part of every project and sell more work, answer the phones, and do all the accounting.
As a rider, your eyes are for intention. You always have to focus on where you are going next or your horse won’t know where to go and the rest of your body can’t do its job properly. As a firm leader, you have to have a clear and established vision. Your number one job is not to put your stamp on every project, but rather set the trajectory for where you are going next.
Your legs are the gas pedal for the horse. A rider’s legs move a horse forward, but they also help with steering. As a firm leader it’s your job to create energy in your firm that will move it forward. A positive culture, enthusiasm, creativity, all these things will create new opportunities for your firm and be extremely valuable to surviving hardships.
A rider’s hands are for steering and putting the brakes on when necessary. Lucinda stressed that it’s OK to slow your horse down when faced with a complex or narrow obstacle that demands a lot of accuracy, but you can never stop the forward motion of your horse’s legs. As a firm leader you can never let your firm come to a standstill. It always has to grow and move in a focused direction.
Some other lessons I learned from Lucinda Green:
- Prepare for the worst. Many A/E/P firm leaders think playing it safe means moving very slowly, taking a long time to make decisions, and never pursuing growth. In situations such as a bad project, a rough economy, or policy changes – all of which are inevitable, by the way, no matter how safe you play it – you need to giddy up and get the heck out of there, not lollygag.
- Take small risks every day. Lucinda stressed how important it is to create tiny challenges for your horse to overcome, building on each achievement. Firm leaders need to take risks to grow.
- Embrace the ugliness. Your horse has to learn from its own mistakes sometimes. You can point your horse at the fence and encourage it to go over, but where it puts its feet has to be its own choice. If you give your horse enough opportunities to position itself, it will learn and start jumping better and more accurately. As a firm leader, you have to let people make some choices for themselves and learn from the results. They will get quicker, smarter, and better able to do their jobs as a result.
Christina Zweig is Zweig Group’s director of research and marketing. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.