Barrel racing is a sport where an otherwise sane person decides to saddle up a 1200-pound leather-wrapped bag of muscle and bone and charge full speed down an arena. Near the other end of the arena are three 55-gallon drums – barrels – set in a pattern that creates a large triangle. The goal of the barrel racer is to ride a cloverleaf pattern around the barrels, weaving in and out, then charge full tilt back to the starting point. Your score is based on the time to run the pattern. You lose points if you touch a barrel or knock one over. You lose many, many points if you fall off your horse.
At the age of 60, and being of sound mind most of the time, I decided to take up barrel racing.
To even think about winning that event takes time, practice, and more practice. There were many struggles. My biggest struggle was that I had a hard time keeping my balance in the saddle – which, as it happens, is pretty important. I rode six horses, worked with five trainers, used four saddles, and over three years, went through two riding stables, and probably a partridge in a pear tree….
In early 2019 I met Kelly, a 26-year-old trainer. She’d been around horses since she was eight years old. A couple of years ago Kelly had been kicked by a rearing stallion. This broke eleven bones in her face and caused her to lose her sense of smell. But she never lost her love for life or horses or helping people.
What Made Kelly a Good Coach
Kelly always saw the good in my efforts. In any lesson, she would tell me, “I love that you did this! Was it perfect? No. But I’ll take it over the alternative!” Or, “This is what it means to the horse when you do this… which is why I want you to be very careful and do that...” Always with the praise and always with the “here’s why or here’s how you might improve.” She never asked me to be excellent on the first run, walk, or trot. What she was looking for was the small wins and the bringing together of all of the components.
Then, just when I thought I had it all together, she would add another layer.
What kept me working with Kelly was something that happened during my very first lesson with her. Kelly noticed my struggles with balance and the saddle slipping sideways, leaving me at the risk of looking like Dudley Do-Right, hanging upside down and having a unique view of the world through the front legs of a galloping horse.
No matter what other trainers had tried, like tightening the cinch, changing saddles, adjusting pads, and so on, the saddle slipped. The saddle horn would also hit me in the stomach. Not fun. Painful, even.
Kelly had me ride around the arena a couple of times at different speeds – walk, trot, and gallop. She then stopped me and had me stand straight up in the stirrups. “Looking good,” she said. “Now, sit straight down where you are. Good. Notice that you are not touching the front or back of the saddle? Keep that position while you ride. Use your ab muscles – develop your core.”
That one simple tweak from her fixed many, many issues. In fact, several times Kelly has stopped me saying, “You know that cinch had an inch of space between it and the horse's belly? That’s a testament to your ability to maintain your balance! It doesn’t need to be tight. You can rely on yourself.”
The Takeaway: Small Steps to Improvement Over Instant Perfection
As a leader, manager, or supervisor, you are also a coach and a mentor. Kelly’s title is ‘trainer’, but she became my coach and mentor. A coach shows or tells people what they want them to do. A mentor asks questions until the student comes to their own realization about what is right. Coaches and mentors carefully observe people so that they can see what is working, what isn’t, and why.
And then they work with their people to improve them.
The best supervisor and managers are coaches and mentors. They look for the one thing that can improve an employee’s performance. They dig deep to see what the core problem is and then work on that with the employee.
Whether it’s pipefitting, lifting heavy loads, loading pigs into a pipeline, moving heavy iron on a drilling rig, lighting a torch, cutting wood, communicating with others, discussing plans, whatever your people are doing, there is always one thing that can help them improve.
Once they have practiced and learned that ‘one thing’, there will be another ‘one thing’. And another.
Getting the best out of people isn’t a goal – it’s a result. It’s the result of working together, observing, asking, listening, coaching, and mentoring.
The best managers carefully and consistently observe their people to find one thing they can work on together to improve employee performance right now.
If you have a manager or employee struggling, then look for the one thing that is the root of their problems and work on that. You might be surprised at how other issues fall away and how rapidly they improve.