Corporations are rife with treacherous shoals and eddies that can shipwreck even the most experienced sailor faster than you can say "great idea, boss." The business of conducting business has a language and a set of customs and behavior patterns that could keep legions of anthropologists occupied—and confused—for decades. People say things they think they mean, but they don't really mean what they say. Others say what they think, and what they think is really mean.
Bigwigs huff and puff about "getting the job done right," when they really mean get it done cheaply, or get it done using some standards nobody has ever heard of before, or something else altogether.
Customer service managers insist that the customer is always right, even as they hide from actual customers behind phalanxes of service reps who believe they are supposed to prevent customers from getting past them. It's no wonder that employees get confused, confounded, and downright hostile with each other and with customers.
When business is humming like a well-tuned engine, and profits rise like gasoline prices, then communication and operational problems between departments and among employees are easy to ignore. Inevitably, though, things fall apart. And that's when corporate managers scramble to find some magic that will reinvent and reinvigorate the team. The trick is finding solutions that will last, and creating change that will improve the business. It's not magic. Some people think that it's basic horse sense.
Meet Flirt and Snowy, two gurus who wear blankets instead of three-piece suits. They work at Nobodaddy Farm near Hershey, and they are putting unusual faces on the art of building cohesive teams.
"Team building is circular, because it often comes back to you and how you relate to others," Beth McCann says, reflecting on the inspiring personal journey she made from horse farm owner to entrepreneur in the arena of corporate consulting. She is a slender, soft-spoken woman who has learned from experience that optimism is a better weapon than vengeance when life delivers its most brutal lessons.
In September, 1994 an arsonist torched Nobodaddy Farm, and caused major damage to the indoor arena. Then, in November of 1995, the unthinkable and unfathomable happened. The arsonist struck again, killing 15 horses and destroying the indoor and several stalls. In someone else's biography, this might have been the end of the story. But McCann wasn't ready to give up.
Consumed with finding a way to understand what had happened, McCann sought both comfort and direction in the animals she had loved and respected all her life.
"After the second fire," she says, "I looked at everything we were doing on the farm, and refocused on what I love most—sharing horses." True, she wondered what she might have done differently, what she could have changed, how she could have altered history. But it's not her nature to look backward.
She had started her farm with a name and a mission that were inextricably bound together. "The goal from the beginning was to create a farm for anyone who wanted to be around horses. I always felt strongly about the life lessons around horses. They help you to become the best person you can become." The word "Nobodaddy" fascinated her. It's an archaic word she found in an old poem. It means everything and nothing. Everybody and nobody. It seemed to fulfill McCann's objective of finding a word that would embrace everyone who wanted to be around horses, whether as observers or pleasure riders or competitive riders.
McCann thought about the things people had told her about their experiences with horses—how being around horses made them feel so good, and she realized that horses have the capacity to help people in thousands of ways. She began recreational and therapeutic riding, and found networks of professionals—people like Buck Branaman, who conducts horsemanship clinics—who offered profound insights about the relationships between and among people and horses. She also discovered the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) in Utah, an organization that facilitates the use of equines in psychotherapy.
"I learned something from Buck Branaman about helping people and helping horses," she says. "A lot of times the way someone is with horses is about the way they are with themselves and their lives." It was an insight both haunting and motivating, and ultimately led her to another crossroad. "I wanted to add a team-building component to the farm," she says.
Floyd Warner, President of Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, is a friend of McCann's. She had helped him with a problem horse. McCann says that Warner is an obsessive network-builder, always trying to bring people together to help each other out, or to make organizations stronger. He had recently hired Melissa McNair, a corporate coach, to help his organization's team work together more effectively, and he thought McNair and McCann had a lot in common. It was the beginning of an incredible friendship and a promising business partnership.
Team-building is a huge industry. A brief search on Google for corporate team-building programs yields more than a hundred million results. There are team-building programs that feature cooking (not books, hopefully), dancing, philanthropy, sailing—even space travel. The team-building industry is not just an American invention, either. Apparently, the dysfunctional corporate family is a global phenomenon.
McCann, whose daughter, Kacey was reserve champion in the ASPCA Maclay finals last year, and McNair are competing in a crowded field. But they have more than one secret weapon in their arsenal of ideas, besides Flirt and Snowy. They know that horses have the power to disarm even the most hardened cynic, and they know that change can happen when people least expect it. "I came into coaching in the late 80s when it was just being birthed. What drew me to coaching was to help people become self-leading," McNair says. She sees a powerful connection between ideas and action. "What gets into the mind eventually gets into the body."
McNair is an astute observer of the unspoken communication among people. And she recognizes how easily people can misunderstand one another, and how frequently employees suffer from major gaps in information. "People were thrown into organizations, but had no idea what the playing field looked like. What is a penalty? What's out of bounds? They didn't know."
So how does the team of McCann, McNair, Flirt and Snowy help people work better together? McCann says that they develop tasks for the corporate teams to accomplish, and the tasks involve the ponies. Some people are intimidated by working around large animals, so McCann invites Flirt into the lounge area to mingle with the corporate groups.
One task demonstrates how easily misunderstandings creep into the chain of command. It's a variation on the kids' game of telephone. Either McCann or McNair will describe to one person how to put a saddle on a pony. That person instructs the next person, and the next person instructs someone else. The last person in the line has to put the saddle on the pony. The results often reveal fundamental weaknesses in the ways teams work together. McNair says that the first attempt to saddle the pony invariably fails, and the team regroups to figure out what happened. The usual frictions rise to the surface almost immediately—finger-pointing, interpersonal disputes, etc. That's when she steps in to help people focus on what's really going on.
"Sometimes what we have to do in a team is figure out who is the best person for a task," she says. And often the best person is not the first person the team might select.
Another exercise involves grooming the pony. McCann recalls one team that had someone who actually had some familiarity with horses. While the rest of the group began brushing the pony and scrubbing as if it were an SUV in a carwash, the person who knew a little about horses grabbed one of the pony's feet to clean out the hoof. It didn't go well. The annoyed pony stomped its foot down. McNair says it was an opportunity to remind people of one of the tenets of good teamwork. "How many people move to action before they build a relationship?" Besides startling the pony, the person made an assumption that was incorrect. She thought a horse was a horse was a horse. You have to think about your colleagues, McNair says, and understand "who is it that you're working with, and what do you know about them? We try to help people build the relationships, determine what's possible, and agree on a plan."
While McNair and McCann were confident that their program would succeed at helping corporate teams work better together, they're constantly amazed at how well it works. "There is something that happens to people who come here that gives them feedback that stays with them and changes them," McNair says. "It's because the horses are partners in the learning experience," McCann says.
The horses. Both women agree that workshop participants may arrive with certain assumptions about horses, but they leave those assumptions behind. "When we say the horses are in the field, they really are in a field," McNair says. "They take note of us. They have energy." They're not just big wallpaper waiting for us to interact with them. They're sentient beings.
"They take note of us." It's a powerful reminder that what we do in life is important, because we're all connected in ways we may not ever realize. McCann's story of courage and resilience is also a story about horses, for they lived through the fires, too. Did the horses sustain her through the devastating days after the fires? Or did her resolve sustain the horses and bring all of them to this plateau where possibilities have emerged from the tragedy they endured together? McCann and McNair may lead workshops on team building, but they're also demonstrating the value of compassion and hope and faith in the goodness of others.
Take note of them.