Wyatt Sargent Fern Logo 2.pngJennifer Wyatt Sargent of Wyatt Sargent & Associates Ltd describes how animals have taught her some valuable management skills.

What’s the most important attribute needed to successfully manage people? Listening skills? Tact? Understanding? Good communications?

They are all important, but to my mind, a knowledge of psychology beats them all. My many years of learning came about because I have always had animals… let me tell you about some of the things I have learned – and how.

Take my Siamese cat period, when I had a lovely pair of mother and son seal points. Siamese are very dog-like and usually come when called – except on hot English summer nights when chasing moths is far more fun than coming in to bed. One night, fed up with waiting for the two of them, I started weeding by torchlight, scrabbling in the soil and under plants. Within a couple of minutes a black face appeared on either side of me with two pairs of blue eyes looking even more cross-eyed than usual in the torchlight, and two black paws darting inquisitively into the soil alongside my fingers as they tried to find out what their strange human was up to. It was a ruse that never failed – Siamese cats are notoriously inquisitive!

This is something that can be applied to people – you must engage your employees’ interest and make them curious if you want them to do something they are not particularly keen on.

cute-horse-cat-pals-400x356Horses have been a wonderful source of inspiration. There was my dear old grey schoolmaster, Granite, who taught me so much. He would jump anything in our lessons, but take him in for a jumping competition and he always refused three times at the first jump – instant elimination. Smart boy; he had learned that three refusals meant he was taken home for his dinner.

I was beside myself with frustration, but how to cure him? Then I heard of a new jumping competition to be held once a month on the other side of town. They ran a main ring with conventional jumps and conventional rules, but tucked away in a corner was a small ring of jumps where you paid 50p and you could stay in the ring until you’d finished. So each month we went to the rough-and-ready ring. Granite trotted in, the bell rang, he refused three times at the first jump and turned for the exit. Shock, horror – I put him to the jump again and again until he cleared it. On to the second jump. Three refusals – let’s go home now. Again I kept him at it until he went over. We went through this performance at every jump, but we got round. It took us 25 minutes and I don’t know who was the most exhausted as we hacked home. The next month we did the same thing. Again he refused three times at every jump, but there was an improvement in that he went over most of them on the fourth attempt. It took 6 months, but he did eventually learn that getting it right first time meant lots of praise and treats and about 2 minutes in the ring – a far cry from his first effort.

I am sure you can see the connection between Granite’s problems and issues you come across in the workplace. As a manager you value good performance, but you must provide employees with the right incentive to achieve it and the right sort of reward and recognition for doing so.

Then there was David, a just-broken 4-year-old who was angry and lethal. He dumped me more times than I care to remember, he quite deliberately rode me into walls, he bit and would have kicked me into the next county had he ever connected. I worked desperately to maintain my position as “herd leader” and earned his grudging respect, but nothing else.

One day I turned him out with the only three other horses at the stable he would tolerate. Anti-social as always, he headed away from them then stopped to examine a bright red plastic bucket. He threw it around a few times, then picked it up. It fitted beautifully over his nose with just his eyes showing above the rim. After a couple of minutes he trotted over to one of his companions who was too busy eating grass to look up. David refused to be ignored and prodded the other horse’s neck. The reaction was all he could have wished for. The horse looked up, saw this monster with the bright red face and took off like a bat out of hell. David thought about this for a moment, then headed for the other two horses who were watching by this time. They too kicked up their heels and bucked around the field. Suddenly my aggressive, miserable horse was showing a totally unexpected side to his character – the clown.

After that I tried to find ways to make his lessons and everyday life more fun. He still had to work hard, but he was enjoying it. And when some of the other horse owners told me they knew I was coming at least two minutes before I drove into the yard because David started neighing a welcome, I realised he actually liked me. What a fantastic turnaround.

I think there are a couple of things to take from this. First, there is often a reason for an employee’s surly, grumpy and uncooperative behaviour, and, while time-consuming, it can be worthwhile finding out exactly what’s bugging him or her. Secondly, even though you want a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, that work can, and should, be fun.

One summer the local children played a game that involved chalking instructions on the lanes around the stable. This was no problem for the other horses, but David was convinced the signs were some sort of ancient ritual and if he stepped on them something dreadful would happen. Nothing would change his mind, so we were confined to using the fields around the farm. How to solve this one? One day I clipped a lead rope to his head collar, led him out of his box and started to walk around the yard. Every few steps I stopped and chalked something on the concrete. His reaction was predictable – more of those magic signs, don’t step on them, don’t move. I didn’t hassle him, but stepped onto the marks, stood there, walked on them, walked off. He came a few steps closer and watched carefully while I repeated the exercise then followed me over. We did this all round the yard with every horse there watching with great interest from their boxes. When I saddled David up and rode him out, I felt very confident as we approached our first chalk marks. And yes, we got over them, but not quite with the grace and aplomb I had expected – it was in reverse! We were a funny sight that summer, but as his confidence increased he started to scuttle over them sideways and, eventually forwards.

You know, change is a constant, but it doesn’t stop employees from being suspicious of a new machine or a new process. A good manager will invest the necessary time in explaining, showing and reassuring to help people accept the changes with confidence.

Animals are a wonderful source of information – if you have the time and are prepared to make the effort to learn from them. They will improve your management skills enormously.

Jennifer Wyatt Sargent can be contacted at Wyatt Sargent & Associates Ltd.