During the State of Emergency brought on by COVID-19, most equestrian facilities were immediately closed. Only essential workers for the facility – stable hands, vets coming for emergency visits, etc. – were allowed access. I found myself in the surreal situation of being a horse owner restricted from seeing my own horse and dependent on others for her well-being, while also helping as a stable hand at another facility. I quickly realized I was part of a community that was experiencing an extreme and unprecedented event with no protocol or playbook to follow. I cared for each of the horses at our facility as my own – hoping that someone else was doing the same for mine. I felt an extreme sense of responsibility to our clients, the horse owners, and I refused to let them down. It was a virtual sense of teamwork. I worked as hard as I could and trusted that someone else was doing that too. We were fortunate – the horses under our care did well, as did mine.
This virtual sense of teamwork will have to continue as businesses and teams work to rebuild. We will need to show up every day, albeit remotely for many, and be ever mindful of how we communicate to make sure we establish and maintain a virtual team that is bound by trust. As we replace face-to-face and real interactions with phone, video and email communications we will lose the impact of body language to perhaps soften or emphasize a statement or comment. We risk losing the comfort of a daily office routine that typically starts in the kitchen with morning coffees and those lunch hours that give us time to catch up on each other’s lives. We will have to introduce new communication habits and working styles, thinking creatively to ensure we are effectively communicating as individuals and as teams. We will have to openly trust our colleagues are doing the same.
For some of us, COVID-19 kicked us when we were already down. For others, it may have started as a precious time to rediscover family and enjoy time together and then evolved into a frustrating pursuit of alleviating children’s boredom and fighting the losing battle of making sure schoolwork was done. For others, it was, and continues to be, a time of extreme isolation. Whatever your experience is and continues to be, we can all agree we have been changed. As our clients and colleagues work to discover their new normal amidst this personal change, we will require extreme empathy skillfully balanced with determination to understand and fulfill their business needs.
We will need to get the job done, but how we do that will be more challenging than it ever has been. There isn’t a playbook that can guide us on this path. Follow your heart and your instincts to recognize when someone is having a challenge that they may not know how to solve. Reach out and help them – even if it is only to talk it through. Gently but determinedly remind them that no matter how difficult it is, no task or project is impossible in this new world.
The barn taught me the importance of a system. There are a series of chores that must be done on a daily basis – these don’t change, and horses are creatures of habit, so it is important that some are done a certain way, at a certain time and in an expected sequence. But the barn is also a place of frequent unexpected events – horses do have minds of their own that sometimes don’t align with our daily chore list. It could be a sick or injured horse requiring a vet visit or a frozen water tap that requires hot water to thaw — these can introduce the unexpected into a predictable daily system.
In a business context, we typically call these series of tasks a “process”. Unfortunately, I have observed that this term has developed a negative connotation to some. To them it implies rigidity and a thoughtless completion of irrelevant stuff, done with an absence of heart that negatively impacts the client experience. I am passionately opposed to this negative view. I prefer the word “system” which implies a series of best practices that are applied to get something valuable done. This system is fluid and provides forward momentum; it respects the consistent inputs and outputs that others are dependent on, allows for the unexpected and can be fast-tracked when given good news like a client sale. The system will accommodate these new events with ease. We must quickly adapt our processes and evolve them into systems. Remove the unnecessary steps that don’t make sense in this new world, train our team and then hit the ground running with enthusiasm and passion for our work that strengthens and refines the system as we go.
A barn is one of my favourite places to think. Hopefully we have all found a place or space where we can think more clearly – perhaps it is somewhere you can hear the birds sing, a tree creak or listen to some tunes that remind you of happier days. How many times before all of this did you find yourself running from meeting to meeting, working through your inbox and calling it a productive day? How many times did we short-change ourselves on “think-time” yet still told ourselves we had completed our best work? In my case this was too many. The barn and the outdoors have shown me that think-time is just as important as an up-to-date inbox. Don’t get me wrong, we can’t ignore our emails or other business communications. Some time management courses suggest setting aside certain times of the day when we will read and respond to emails. This works for some – it never has for me. You will find what works best for you – just don’t forget think-time.
Take time to understand the communications you are receiving and understand the impact on others of the communications you are giving them; make connections between random thoughts that you may not have had time previously to think through, and that might be more powerful if linked together; make decisions by thinking through different dimensions of the topic; focus and allow your mind to be in-the-moment with that topic so that the output is truly your best work.
Gathering road apples (aka horse dung) is hard work. My muscles ache at the end of the day and old injuries randomly show up at the most inconvenient time. I need the physicality of these chores at this time in my life, so I push through it. I push against the obstacles and I challenge myself to keep up and get it done. My reward is a completed task list and evident results – every shift. It is as simple as that. Not often in my business experience have I been able to consistently check off every item on my daily To Do list – there always seems to be more added or each completed step opening the door to more follow-on tasks and complications. It is difficult at times to see the immediate results of collective efforts.
The days ahead will require a lot of hard work. Some of it won’t be pretty – kind of like shovelling dung at times. We will need to think differently – the processes we had in place pre-COVID-19 won’t apply now. Build a system. Be empathetic to the struggles those around you have faced and continue to face. Practice balancing empathy and determination. Running on auto-pilot and clearing your inbox every day won’t work. Give yourself time to think and think differently about this new world. Push through the tough stuff. Challenge yourself to keep up and get it done.
Our clients are depending on us.