Feb. 23, 2001
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You can learn a lot from a cowboy
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Debi Wood
Louis Wood works with Star at his ranch near Waynesboro, where U.Va.'s "Horse Sense" workshops are held.

You can learn a lot from a cowboy

By Anne Bromley

"We will depend upon one another. From the beginning, I try to be clear what I want from him. I also try to identify what he needs from me. When I work with him, I don't want to break his spirit. I want to build something he can sustain for life."

These are the kinds of things Louis Wood tells U.Va. participants in a management workshop he co-teaches with John Lord, director of Organizational Development and Training. Wood is not your typical instructor, however -- he is a cowboy. He's not talking about people, he's talking about horses.

As Lord describes the idea behind this innovative workshop, he says, "Whether they're called Śhorse whisperers,' 'gentlers' or 'communicators,' modern-day horse handlers share common principles and utilize similar methods in dealing with horses that truly effective managers and supervisors use with people."

Problems with his own horse led Lord to seek out a trainer several years ago. He noticed that the way trainers worked with horses paralleled some of the management and leadership techniques he'd been teaching for 20 years, but there was something different.

Lord first offered the 11Ž2-day program with Wood, who owns a ranch near Waynesboro, almost two years ago as a kind of experiment to see if his intuition hit the mark with others. The workshop has steadily become more popular, and has already been held about 10 times. Four sessions will be offered this spring, and the April dates are already filling up.

Horse Sense for Managers and Supervisors
Sessions April 11 and 12; April 25 and 26; May 31 and June 1; June 18 and 19
Fee $125 (includes all materials, as well as lunches and refreshments)
Register e-mail odt-training @virginia.edu or call 924-7140

The workshop is targeted to managers and others who have a supervisory role, and is specifically geared toward leadership development. A similar one has been offered for all employees, focusing on interpersonal skills, and will be scheduled again in the near future. It's also possible to request a one-day staff retreat, customized to a department's needs.

"I'm always looking for better methods," Lord said. Watching Wood with a horse, "I saw things more clearly, or deeply," he said.

"You can see these [basic leadership principles] in a more tangible way without the baggage we attach to people," Lord explained.

When Lord talked to Wood about creating the workshop, he told him, "I don't want you to do anything different from what you usually do." What he tells the workshop participants is that they're essentially eavesdropping on a day in Wood's life. "Louis is the heart and soul of this. I just get the participants ready," Lord said. After spending a morning and afternoon at the ranch observing and paying attention to what goes on between Wood and one of the horses, the attendees go back to a classroom. Here's the question that provides a springboard for discussion: "Is there something about the way this cowboy starts this horse that can provide us insight into the effectiveness of our relationships with others, especially those whom we supervise?"

"Each person can take away something a little different, so everyone gets the benefit of hearing others in the group say what was meaningful," Lord said. "These are not new things in leadership. They're the same basic principles, but we'll give the horse freedom and the benefit of the doubt in a different way than we do people."

Tammy Miller, who supervises parking booth attendants and support staff at Parking & Transportation, found that although people noticed different things in her workshop group, their responses all came down to the same idea: building confidence and trust. That takes patience and clear communication. The way the horse responded to Wood's techniques made her think about how she might be perceived by others -- not just by what she said, but how she said it, and what kind of body language she used. Wood demonstrated how "for every action, there is a reaction" in terms of a relationship, Miller said. If your employee doesn't understand you or what you want him or her to do, that can lead to doubt and make it difficult for him or her to trust you, she said.

Miller, who owns horses herself, got the added benefit of learning how to work with her horses better, and actually took one to Wood later. "I didn't realize the way I was patting him, he was interpreting as I didn't like him."

For Lynn Woodson, coordinator of communications for Health System Development, watching Wood transform a "problem" horse into a cooperative helper was astonishing.

"For his part, Cody [the horse] didn't seem much inspired to change his ways. While Louis talked to us, Cody restlessly pawed the ground and snorted loudly from the back of the pen," Woodson said. "I'm thinking, you wouldn't catch me dead in a pen with that horse, and I would really hate to see this nice, soft-spoken cowboy trampled to death in front of all these clueless office types."

In a matter of hours, Wood was able to ride "this reformed outlaw of a horse around the pen. Cody looked calm, natural. All of us cowpokes had our mouths hanging open," she said.

When Wood told the workshop participants, "I trust this horse with my life," they were convinced. "All of us knew intuitively that this is the highest achievement any manager can hope for. Here was an image that could carry us through long days of paperwork and years of performance plans," Woodson said.

Ralph Allen, a chemistry professor and the director of Environmental Health and Safety, had a particular issue in mind when he attended the workshop. He and his staff were faced with persuading faculty and graduate students -- not under their supervision -- to comply with federal regulations, or else the University could get slapped with heavy fines. The staff was also dealing with federal regulators checking to see that hazardous wastes were disposed of properly.

Allen, who says he knew nothing about horses, saw a comparison in Wood working with a horse. "How do you get this big animal -- who really could do whatever it wanted -- to do what you want?" He thought the workshop was so beneficial, he arranged for his staff of 32 people to have a special retreat, and that was received enthusiastically. For some, it reaffirmed what they'd been doing; others saw that they could work differently.

They saw that it is worth taking the time to make sure the researchers and employees working with hazardous materials understand what the procedures are and why they need to be followed. That way, they follow the rules because they know it's the right thing to do, not just because it's required, Allen said. The regulators were convinced that U.Va. was taking care of the problem.

Underlying Wood's methods is establishing trust and respect -- understanding what it is that another needs from you and letting the other know what you need. If you're riding a horse, you don't want the horse to go galloping off or to throw you. You want that 1,000-pound creature to "exercise good judgment and make good decisions" while you're on its back, Lord said. It's the same with people.


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