Human Racehorses

I was at a professional event last month where I swear I heard one of the panelists describe herself as an executive in human racehorses.

It was some quirk of regional accent, I’m sure, but how perfect is that perceived malaprop?  One of the hallmarks of the evolution from “personnel” back in the day to “human resources” (and then, for others, on to “human capital” or just “people”) was a movement away from placating and monitoring and toward increased productivity and professional development.  Along the way, things definitely got strident and sweaty.

I can’t resist.  Here are some tips I found online for how to train racehorses.

  • “Train them for races by daily jogging.  Increase the speed and distance as the horse becomes conditioned and starts to improve its fitness level” . . . keep moving the cheese.
  • “The horse must be able to meet or exceed the minimum speed prescribed by the track the owner wishes it to compete at” . . . because racehorses have “owners.”
  • “Have the horse practice running the track with other horses to increase speed through the internal competitive nature to be first” . . . pitting them against everyone else as a measure of success.

Communications that support those types of HR values will fall into patterns of top-down, comply-or-else, propagandistic cheering and saluting.  These are delivered with strong assumptions that employees have all the time and interest in the world to be fascinated by professional development and performance management and team dynamics and recruiting and onboarding and benefits management and cross-functional teaming.

But, really?  Have you taken a tour lately through the brain of today’s worker?  It’s a landscape of various elevations of anxiety.  Most people are uncertain their jobs are going to exist in a three-to-five year window of time, and they are unengaged because they cannot imagine how anything they could do on the job could increase their chance of remaining employed.  Turns out they’re not really behaving like racehorses.

There’s a New Employment Deal out there.  It’s more crowd-sourced than hierarchical, it’s got more realism and less loyalty, and it’s smart about what workers today really want and need.  Frankly, it’s fairer and much more adult (less equine).  Communicating in that new-deal environment is different in important ways: notably in content, style and channel.

Do your employees believe you’re part of the New Employment Deal?  Do you know how to communicate differently in the new business landscape?

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic /


Coaching the frat boy

At one point, I had the chance to work with a senior executive who was a rising leader, affable, smart and organizationally savvy.  He also fit a profile that I will for shorthand label Frat Boy: outgoing almost to excess, happy to be outrageous, no enemy of beer and wine at company events, and largely unapologetic of any offense given.

Ed. note: The label is admittedly stereotypical and does not apply to all fraternity members. Some of my best friends were fraternity members who were mature.  But we all know who I’m talking about.

He was a natural leader in the sense that people liked to follow himeven follow him around, if only to see what would happen next.  As his communication advisor, I quickly learned that he provided any number of . . . challenges.  And as he became more involved in areas like talent management and workforce diversity, his limitations became alarmingly real.

In one promotee reception, he acknowledged each individual with a reference to their home countriessome of which he had visitedand a joke about their backgrounds, to reassure everyone that he understood their cultural traits.  Everyone forced a smile, but no one was laughing.  Another time, he started a media interview by praising the appearance of the female reporter and comparing her attractiveness to, let’s just say, a comedienne not famed for her “attractiveness.”  My team and I guessed that things like this used to be funny back in the old Rathskeller.  Now how to get him moved forward a few decades?

This is a situation drawn in broad strokes, but ever since I encountered it, I’ve been involved in smaller-scale versions of it again and again.  It’s what happens when old insensitivities meet new contexts.  It’s tempting to say this is chiefly an issue with white males, though my experience is that all kinds of people have sizeable blind spots that need to be filled in.

What do you do?  You find the right way to reflect back to leaders the effect of their words and actions so that they can freely choose how they’d prefer to present themselves going forward.  It takes trust and confidence on the part of both coach and client.

Happily, Frat Boy also had a strong, personal commitment to self-improvement.  Over time, he figured out how to self-regulate and get a feeling for his audience but not lose some of his natural roguishness.  It proved to be an extremely winning combination for him personally and professionally.

Executive presentation is a pillar of strong organizational communicationwhom do you know who could use some help?

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