Management Lessons From Cowboys

Roland Millington
AdCo Advertising Agency, Inc.

It’s kind of interesting to write an article for a magazine you know is read by a lot of people in suits, sport coats, and slacks. As I write this, I’m wearing denim, cowboy boots, and sitting less than three feet from a picture of my horse. Perhaps not what you’d expect from an author in this magazine, but it does help illustrate my point.

In business, having like minds with you is key—except when it’s not. Sometimes you have to go off the beaten path to find the good idea—the new way of doing things that shakes up business enough to rattle the profit margin back to life.

Now, would you take advice from a cowboy on how to run your business? If someone like Tom Dorrance came up to you and told you something about running your business, you’d likely not think very much about it, as he didn’t look like a successful businessman. But you’d be missing some great things.

• “Prior and proper preparation prevents p-poor performance.” (Tom Dorrance) Simply put, think about what you do long and hard. Get all of your pieces in place; otherwise, you’re apt to take a huge fall. Look at things from all angles, and make sure it’s square before you start tacking things onto it. One error in planning sets up lots of them in production.

• “Green on green makes black and blue.” (Craig Cameron) A green horse and a green rider equal a bad mix. Neither knows what to do in a moderately tough spot, much less in a real sticky situation. When you saddle a green employee, make sure it’s with a proven, trustworthy, and experienced trainer. They’ll know all the ins and outs of what to do and what not to do in your business, and the green employee will become seasoned much faster.

• “You better slicker-break a bronco.” (Tom Dorrance) For those of you who don’t ride, a slicker is a coat, usually made of vinyl or oil-tanned leather, and makes a terrible racket when you wave it about. If you do this on a horse that’s never experienced this, you’ll have a long walk back to camp because you’ll likely startle the unsuspecting horse. The same thing goes with your employees. If you don’t train them properly in every aspect of their job, you’ll set them up to have a fit. They won’t know what’s going on, what you expect, and will panic. Most times, the panic happens when you can least afford it to.

• “If you take the time it takes, it takes less time.” (Pat Parelli) How much time should be spent on training? As much as it takes—and then a couple minutes more. A well-trained employee takes 10 minutes to do something after an hour’s training. A poorly trained employee takes a half-hour to do the same task and has to repeat it several times to get it right. If you do the math, you’ll see which side is a solid investment.

• “Anything forced or misunderstood can never be beautiful.” (Xenophon) Okay, so Xenophon isn’t a cowboy, but he makes a good point. Communication in business is just as critical as it is in horsemanship. Employees sometimes need to know “why” simply because they’re curious. Not telling them why and ordering it done anyway most times will do nothing more than breed resentment. On the other hand, telling them why and explaining things to them educates them and fosters a sense of loyalty.

• “When hell freezes over, I am going to start riding on ice.” (Craig Cameron) Never, ever, ever give up. When you get a tough bronc, you screw your hat down tight and keep turning him outside. The same goes for anything in business. Just because you have a rough patch ahead of you doesn’t mean things are impossible. It means things are difficult. And the difference between difficult and impossible is just you.

• “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” (Ray Hunt) Do it once, and you’ll have an accomplishment; do it right once, and you’ll have a blueprint for success. Which would you prefer to have in your business? The obvious choice is the vehicle and the map. And if you chose just the vehicle, well, it was nice knowing you.

• “Always say sometimes, and never say never.” (Roland Millington) While I don’t really recall who originally said this, I’ll take credit for passing it on to you. Absolutes have no place in business. They’re short sighted and lead you to many false conclusions. Before you know it, you’ve been kicked by a mule. But if you leave the door open for new light to be shed on an issue, you’re going to discover you have a clearer and more successful grasp on anything that comes your way. And you’ll be much better for it. IBI

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