What horses taught me about winning at work, from setting boundaries to embracing humility

There’s a new career coach in town. They don’t have a shiny website full of impenetrable jargon (you won’t find the word “curator” here). If you want an in-person coaching session, you won’t find yourself on Zoom or in a smart office; you’ll be in a corral on a ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Your coach will tower above you and will certainly challenge you, pushing you outside your comfort zone, but they’re also partial to a scratch and some fresh hay. Your coach is a horse – and “horse whisperer” Grant Golliher is its translator.

Sounds odd? Not, it seems, to representatives from Microsoft and the Federal Reserve and CEOs from Fortune 500 companies, who have found the lessons they’ve learned from Golliher’s “transformational” horses.

“You can’t hide things from a horse because they have a level of sensitivity to us that we don’t even have for each other,” says Golliher. Pretence is useless. In his equine workshops, he says, “you get to see [people’s] personalities and they get to see themselves.”

To save you the trip to Wyoming, Golliher has distilled his life’s work with troubled horses and his advice on how to apply his philosophy in the workplace and in life generally, into a book. Here’s some equi inspiration that could be handilyne in the workplace.

With horses, people show their true personalities, says Grant Golliher (Photo: Andrew J Bardon)

Ease up on pressure

A key technique Golliher uses when training his horses is applying carefully nuanced pressure. “You don’t put any more than you have to and you’re always watching for the slightest change so that you can reward it,” he says. “When you sense the horse is even thinking about doing the right thing, that’s when you release the pressure.”

If the pressure is too relentless, he explains, “a horse will always go back to its foundations.” This is not so good if those foundations were shaky to begin with.

The same applies to humans, he says. When workplace pressure builds, that’s when we tend to see people for who they really are. Relentless pressure at work, especially by way of micromanagement, without any release or acknowledgment when people get things right, means they will stop taking risks which, within certain parameters, is where growth often happens.

Grant Golliher has learned to look for the warning signs when horses are under too much stress (Photo: Andrew J Bardon)

Watch for warning signs

Golliher has become so attuned to horses – developing a kind of intuition he simply calls “feel” – that he notes that there are usually plenty of indicators that a horse is not happy before it takes action such as bucking. He says he is able to sense it in the twitch of ears, flick of a tail or an equine side-eye.

Many of the problems that arise at work are because poor managers fail to pick up on the signals before it’s too late. Golliher says the most effective leaders he has worked with possessing a hefty dose of emotional intelligence. “They have some of the attributes a good horseman has,” he says. “They have a feel for the sensitivity of some people. They honor the slightest try. It could be just a smile for a good job.”

A sensitivity to the environment and an ability to read the room is key, something Golliher feels is often lacking. The toxic attitude of one person can quickly infect a workplace. A good leader will seek to restore balance before things get beyond repair.

Learn to set boundaries

“Every leader wants loyalty, but that has to be earned from respect,” says Golliher. “With horses, respect always comes before friendship. Without it, they’ll leave you high and dry. It’s what we do with the horses and it’s what they do with each other. Horses feel very insecure when we’re inconsistent with boundaries.” As a trainer, he says, you can’t let the doing wrong thing work in their favour.

A horse needs to respect you in order to form a good relationship, says Grant Golliher (Photo: Chris Douglas)

In the modern workplace, boundaries are blurred, whether it’s by the culture of 24-hour availability or by a manager who wants to be a friend to everyone, making it difficult when tough conversations are needed. “If you compromise your boundaries for the sake of a relationship, you’re going to lose that relationship anyway,” Golliher says.

His own ability to inspire loyalty is demonstrated by the fact that he has helped people who have fallen off society’s radar back into work as ranch hands, much in the same way as he has spent years training and rehabilitating horses who have been maltreated. A balance of kindness, discipline and, of course, boundaries has been at the heart of the success of these relationships.

First (and last) impressions count

Like those in the medical profession, Golliher operates from a first principle of “first, do no harm”. He checks in with his mood and, if it’s not right, he knows then is not the time to work with a young horse in need of a lot of training.

“Out of everything you do with a horse, it’s important to quit on a good note. That first impression is really important too.” Start off on the wrong note and all that comes in between is likely to be harder work, he explains.

More from Work

If he simply drives a horse through a long, hard day, he says, “that’s all he’s going to remember the next time I go into the corral. At work, you’ve got to check in with your own attitude before you expect others to have a good attitude.”

What Golliher has learned from both highly regarded leaders in the corporate world and trainers in the equestrian world, is not so much how much they know or what they teach but how they make you feel. That impression is indelible and is key to good working relationships.

Embrace humility

Golliher cites an old cowboy saying in his book: “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.” When he’s training managers, the corral puts everyone on a level playing field, regardless of the hierarchy of an organisation. Arrogance will achieve nothing with a horse. He has noticed that the leaders he has worked with who have been happy to display their own vulnerability and even incompetence in the pen are those that have a more successful team back at work.

Golliher recounts how Brad Smith, the former chief executive of Intuit, was brought into a situation where he was one of the worst on the team. “For whatever reason, he did not get along with his horse at all. He said that if it were not for the rest of the team covering for him, helping him and a wrangler instructing him, he would have got nothing done.”

Showing vulnerability in the workplace is not a weakness; it’s what makes you human, he says.

Think Like A Horse. Lessons in Life, Leadership, and Empathy from an Unconventional Cowboy’ by Grant Golliher (Yellow Kite, 16.99) is out now

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