The connection between leadership skills and horsepower may not be immediately obvious. But strike up a conversation with Heike Felbecker-Janho and Martina Zambelli, managers at the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Human Resources and Personality Development and you’ll soon see how horses can test a manager’s leadership skills. “Unlike employees, horses respond to the manager's personality, not to their titles or positions,” Felbecker-Janho explains. “Leading horses can be trusted, they’re reliable, gain respect, make clear decisions, know what they want, and are unfeigned. By handling horses, managers can learn these qualities for their own leadership tasks within the company.”
The experts at the Steinbeis Consulting Center in Korntal-Münchingen, Germany, have been offering consultation and development courses for companies, teams, managers, project managers, junior managers, and individuals since 2007. One of their specialties: activities involving horses – their “horsepower seminars” (Seminare mit PS). They are surprisingly effective and provide lasting results.
The management team at a medium- sized IT company signed up for a seminar and confirmed just how effective the approach is. When they went on the course, the eight managers in the group were mostly new to management, worked internationally and each was responsible for their own multicultural team. Their bosses had clear goals for the seminar: build on management skills, individually and as a group, focusing on questions such as “What’s the best way to lead my team?” and “What’s the best way to lead the department together?” An additional objective was for the group to “merge” as a team. The Steinbeis experts suggested a tailor- made approach, based on their competences and years of experience with development processes for employees, teams and organizations. The result: a two-day “horse activity” seminar, supervised closely throughout.
The contrast with “regular” management training was apparent from the very beginning: bursting with anticipation, the participants met on hay bales in a field on a sunny morning. The aim of the first day was to explore leadership individually. As the horses were introduced to the humans (and vice versa), the coaches gathered first impressions of the participants. These impressions were then used to fine-tune exercises and levels of difficulty (for example: which horses should work with whom). At first, some participants felt insecure or afraid of handling the unfamiliar, large animals. The Steinbeis consultants were there to lend support: there is a close link between leadership and trust.
After this introductory phase, it was time to start taking leadership. Team leader Jan started with a horse named Lucky. After a few meters, instead of following the leader, Lucky began munching the lush grass at the edge of the riding area. Christel Buwitt, the “horse whisperer” among the instructors, called out: “Jan, you’re the boss. What do you do next?” Jan tugged at the reins and pulled Lucky away from the grass. “Not too hard, not too abruptly – and look, he understands you. Can you feel it?” Christel asked. “Now keep the contact going, he’ll follow you.” Jan beamed. When they reviewed the video, he could identify the exact moment he “lost” Lucky. But could Jan transfer this to his job? How could he make sure he keeps "contact" with his team? Together with the Steinbeis coaches, Jan explored these questions further. Later, he discovered that another horse, Paschou, had to be walked differently. Increasingly, the participants gained in confidence during exercises and dared to follow their intuition. And it was a steep learning curve.
The first day in the field drew to a close with a buffet, a campfire and guitar music. The following morning started with a review of the previous day’s events. Some participants had already started mulling over their impressions and experiences and had written them down. Steinbeis staff logged their insights to ensure they could be translated into everyday business.
The topic on the second day was leadership as a group. At first, they were unable to solve the first group task with the horses as they were not yet accustomed to working in this way. Everyone tried solving their own part of the task as quickly as possible. Some stopped thinking about interactions within and between the groups. But many of the insights gained in the first exercise were applied to the following ones. Gradually, the participants learned to coordinate better, make plans as a group and keep an eye on the bigger picture. The instructors provided plenty of feedback, to each individual and to the group. And conflicts were solved. Everyone was happy – if not relieved – when the team successfully completed the difficult final task on the first attempt. Participants realized how important it is to “pull together” as a team for the department to succeed.
Six weeks after the seminar, the follow-up coaching process began and Steinbeis’s Martina Zambelli visited the client for two days. This follow-up is crucial for clients and instructors, as some aspects of the seminar only start to take effect several weeks later. This gives rise to new questions. Each participant was given individual coaching to discuss where they stand, lessons learned, which lessons they had implemented so far, any unanswered questions, and possible next steps. Additional group discussions, often including the department head and the managing director, led to further goal-oriented changes. The participants and senior managers were extremely satisfied with both the seminar and the coaching results.