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Reprinted with permission from the magazine of National Association of Female Executives (NAFE), Executive Female, May/June 1997

The Expert Manager
A Reluctant Leader Learns To Take The Reins

By Patti Watts

For years I'd assiduously avoided management training programs of the experiential kind. You know the ones: Find your way out of a forest, climb ropes or shoot rapids and learn the secrets of leadership. They always seemed a bit gimmicky to me. Yet such programs had become so popular, and as the editor of Executive Female's management column, I was obliged to check them out. When a brochure for the RIDERS. (Risk-Taking Initiatives to Develop Executive Resources and Skills) program landed on my desk, it seemed just the right intro to this genre of management training. It offered a women-only version of the program (as a graduate of a women's college, I'm all for gender segregation in certain learning situations), and the experiential method of choice was horseback riding. I'd grown up with horses and loved them. But in my 12 years as a New York City transplant, the closest I'd been to a horse in a while was trailing behind a mounted policeman down Fifth Avenue during a rainstorm just to breathe in the sweet smell of damp horse and reset my inner rhythm to a soothing clip-clop.

I arrived at Sylvan Dale Ranch a day early. It's in Loveland, Colorado, nestled between the Big Thompson River and the Continental Divide. This was my first trip out West, and the day was sunny and warm, so I dumped my bags in the bunkhouse and set out to get to know the lay of the land. As I walked amidst cottonwoods along a streambed, a host of childhood fantasies were reawakened: horse wrangling, fighting bears—scenes from My Friend Flicka that my older sister and I had reenacted a thousand times. Suddenly I was ten years old again.

quote wagon wheel

I moseyed back to the bunkhouse in a time warp but was whooshed back to the present by Mary Ellen Harrington, a fellow workshop attendee who'd just flown in from California. We marveled at the beauty of the place and, as it was dinnertime, accompanied each other to the ranch's cookout. I sized her up over a burger. She was the business manager at a security agency—a particularly macho environment, she said. I could easily imagine her in control of a situation; she had a commanding presence and a decisive way of speaking. I wondered what she needed from a leadership workshop.

As for me, I had a dual mission here: I was taking a firsthand look at the workshop because it sounded ideal for NAFE members. Also I considered myself the worst possible candidate for leadership training—I was a dyed-in-the-wool follower. Leaders always were out front, making quick decisions, taking the heat and, as I saw it, telling people what to do. I shrank from that kind of thing. Leaders looked at the big picture; I liked perfecting the details. Or as a recent Harvard Business Review article put it, leaders have to "get on the balcony." The authors of the piece, Ronald Heifetz and Donald Laurie, explain: "Business leaders have to be able to view patterns as if they were on a balcony. It does them no good to be swept up in the field of action." But that's just what I liked—being in the thick of things; doing, not directing. If I led at all, it was by example.

Getting Acquainted
The next day over breakfast, I met Jeri Mersky, the creator of the RIDERS Program, and co-leader Becky Proehl. They both seemed laid-back in a contemplative way that put me at ease. Meanwhile, as the eight remaining attendees began rolling in, I started to feel a little intimidated. They seemed like high flyers, people in charge: Beverly Altschuler, associate general counsel at Adobe Systems: Shanna Handelsman, corporate master scheduler at Adaptec; Susan Hanson, director of business development for Novell; Rebekah Olson, a project manager also with Novell; Lisa Palermo, a statistician with the University of California at San Francisco; Linda Ford, an independent consultant for emerging companies who would serve as a co-facilitator. How well could these women ride, I wondered. Could I still ride? Will I be expected to lead them? How?

The workshop began that afternoon and we went around the room introducing ourselves. The ten of us ranged from twentysomething to fortysomething, and riding experience ran the gamut: Some had been on a horse two times at most, others went riding every day.
Jeri and Becky set the tone with some opening remarks about leadership: They said that to build our capacity to lead, we had to be learners. They also pointed out that leadership is about relationships, and learning more about how we relate to others means getting feedback—that was to be a big part of what we'd be doing over the next three days.
The first session—self-knowledge—was groundwork-laying time. We answered questions in our journals, such as what makes you a good leader (I wrote "being good at what I do and helping others feel comfortable") and what elements of your personality make learning to be a leader difficult ("being timid and too concerned with outperforming others"). We filled in personal learning contracts identifying specifically how we wanted to grow as leaders during the workshop and shared out contracts with the group. Goal number one for me was to learn how to stop shrinking from leadership. Lisa's goal was to learn to trust others to do what she can do better and faster by herself. Rebekah's goal was to find a positive with every nonsuccess, not so different from Shanna's goal, which was to accept nonsuccesses as opportunities. Bev wanted to stop second-guessing herself when in a leadership role—to have more confidence in her personal style, which includes humor and spontaneity. Mary Ellen's goal was to learn to take care of herself—to give herself as much as she gives others. Susan wanted to learn how to feel more comfortable in the moment. After we had all shared out goals, we were then charged with helping each other fulfill them.

Rider Meets Horse
Our first encounter with our horses was in the corral. They were already saddled and waiting, and after one of the ranch hands made a few preliminary remarks about safety, we mounted up. It felt glorious to be on a horse again and most of my apprehension about not remembering what to do simply evaporated. Jeri and Becky assigned us tasks, such as tossing a stirrup onto a traffic cone, which was a good way to test out how well we managed our horses. That part felt easy—my horse, Bucky's Rose, was calm but ready for action. She was tolerant of my blunders to a point but made it clear she wasn't about to read my mind, nor did she tolerate tyranny. Besides the immediate feedback we got from our horses, we all pitched in, shouting encouragement and advice to each other.

Time to Lead
My first stab at leadership felt like one big disaster. I had to be drafted into the role—everyone else had already volunteered. I was to lead the group in a treasure hunt out on the range. (This was a new activity at the ranch and no one quite knew what to expect.) We were given a list of clues based on natural landmarks—things like "At the base of the tallest cliff face is a watery burial ground..." These would lead to treasures—plastic figures, actually that were worth points. The object was to get as many points as possible within the time limit. One additional requirement that, looking back, we all agreed didn't make much sense: We couldn't split up. Reading through the clues, I felt hopeful because from my first walk, I recognized the location of one of the items—an obscure spot on a trail no one else had followed. Surely knowing the answer would make all the difference.

We headed to the range en masse.
Troubles began with the first clue. The group disagreed over just how far we had to go and opinions split into two camps. Reaching a consensus on horseback was difficult, and time was ticking by. I had to cast the deciding vote. I trusted my instincts, and while I was glad that they turned out to be right, somehow that didn't make leadership feel any more comfortable. And come to think of it, being right doesn't have much to do with building relationships.

We found the next piece of treasure without much trouble. Now for the third clue—the one I'd felt sure of in the beginning. To get to it, we'd have to cross a stream and follow a narrow trail dotted with overhanging branches—it seemed a rough intro for the two inexperienced riders. I must be wrong, I thought. Two riders had another idea about the third clue, so I deferred to them, and we headed in the opposite direction. That trip didn't pan out, and Becky, Jeri and Linda suggested I trust my hunch. A steep hill led to where I thought the third object was. We had very little time left, and since it didn't seem safe for all of us to go, I suggested that the more experienced riders embark on a reconnaissance mission. Everyone seemed agreeable. Meanwhile, the rest of us would look for the fourth clue.

The reconnaissance group was barely out of sight when the rest of us found the fourth object. Now all we had to do was wait. We chatted and took photos. It began to rain. Still no sign of the others. By now 20 minutes had passed, and we were starting to worry. We began calling to the others. No answer. What if something had happened down the hill behind the trees? We kept waiting.

Finally the group emerged through the trees, triumphantly holding up the last treasure. Those of us who had stayed behind were wet, cold and hungry. I felt bedraggled and incompetent. What amazed me as we discussed the experience over a warming lunch was how much the experience aped real life back at the office. Shanna said it reminded her of situations where you don't meet your ship date because engineering has designed a feature that's too complicated. That means you have to regroup, change the rules and come with a new strategy.

Becky pointed out that when some of us were waiting while others were searching for the treasure, it was a lot like employees at headquarters waiting to find out results from people in the field. It became clear that one thing I'd left out was a communication link—a way for the reconnaissance group to report back about what was going on.
Another issue that came up: expertise. One of the group members who stayed behind with the "headquarters" group complained that she felt left with the "baby" group. I felt a bit wounded by her comment, She had little experience riding and I had only been thinking of her safety. Jeri pointed out that choosing people based on their strengths is often a tough task for leaders. It's hard to know who can grow into a task they may not quite be ready for and who will be overcome by it.

The exercise had driven home for me that knowing the right answers was one of the least important leadership assets. Letting others worry about the answers while the leader worries about making roles clear, and putting people in situations where they can flourish, is a better way to go.

Horse Sense

In terms of my number one goal, I'm not sure that I learned how to stop shrinking from leadership, but I now know better why I've tended to avoid it. Over the course of the workshop, I learned that the more I put myself out there, the easier it feels to take the lead. Hearing encouraging shouts of "Go for it, Patti!" from fellow riders was a great help and something I still conjure up back at work. I hadn't realized how important my own comfort factor is when taking the lead and that goes along with staying open to feedback. It's a lot like being on a horse. Since I felt competent in my riding skills, I could be a good leader to Bucky's Rose. For her part, the minute I gave her conflicting signals, she would shut down or go her own way. It was her way of telling me I had to take stock of what I really wanted and communicate it clearly. I was reminded again of Heifetz and Laurie's article. "A leader has to have the emotional capacity to tolerate uncertainty, frustration and pain. She has to be able to raise tough questions without getting too anxious herself. Employees as well as colleagues and customers will carefully observe verbal and nonverbal cues to a leader's ability to hold steady." Horses can be included here too. Bucky's Rose taught me about giving clear cues (and that I could), and the women at the RIDERS program helped me see that taking a shot at being a leader is the best way to become one.

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