Russell Hobbs has a unique steer on helping business people unlock their potential. His Chesterfield business Develop To Succeed helps clients gallop to greater success by boosting their self-confidence and improving their intuition and communication skills... All by standing them in a field with a herd of horses.
Our equine friends can be powerful learning mentors, says Russell, 50, who has over 30 years of management and leadership experience. “They give immediate, honest feedback which can have a powerful effect on a person.”
Q. I’ve heard of horse-whispering. How does a human-horse conversation work?
A. Horse-whispering is focused on helping the horse. We are focused on the person and how they interact when they are with a horse. Horses act as mirrors and can highlight the personality traits of the person working with them.
Q. How can talking to a horse improve someone’s business communication skills?
A. We often put too much emphasis on talking. Horses really teach us to listen carefully, hence the name of the organisation Learning to Listen. This means watching for the signs. A swish of the tail could be irritation or a stamp of the foot could be frustration. When people learn to watch for the signs and listen to body language with humans, it can change the dynamic and lead to a better relationship. In the business world, a sigh, an uncomfortable shuffle or something more obvious like a roll of the eyes can be spotted and interpreted.
Q.Why not learn the art of communication by talking to your dog – or cat... Or another human? What’s so special about horses?
A. Horses work in the moment, with no agenda or intent. They don’t take into account status or judge someone on their image. They simply react to the real, authentic person with them. Their fight or flight instinct enables them to quickly assess whether someone is safe to be with. Interactions with a horse will highlight your leadership style. If you have clear communication skills, are consistent when carrying out exercises and genuine about building relationships, that will show through when you’re working with a horse.
Q. Are you the horsey type? Do your clients need to be?
A. I never worked with horses previously. I trained to be able to undertake the work and now describe myself as a bridge between the powerful insights horses can bring and the corporate world as I can speak both languages. Clients don’t need to have any experience with horses.
Q. How did you discover that talking to horses could help business people develop their potential?
A. I attended a Learning to Listen session in Wetherby in 2007. Sarah Shearman, the founder, is a horse-owner and had developed the technique over the last decade. She started out rescuing ill-treated horses, then it became about helping children with difficult lives to reconnect through learning from horses. Then she began running courses for business people. It worked for me and I later took some of the teams from the company I worked for. It completely changed how we worked with each other and improved our performance. I set up Develop to Succeed to work with Sarah and her horses 18 months ago.
Q. Are your sessions staged ‘out in the field’?
A. We work outdoors but we also have an indoor facility for when the weather is bad. There are great advantages in being outside, though. The environment really helps change thought patterns, enhancing learning.
Q.When do you start sessions for 2015?
A. The horses are currently on holiday after a busy year of working on programmes with coaches, teams and families of children on the autistic spectrum through the charity Autism Angels. We commence again in February.
Q.What results have you achieved for clients?
A. People come away with a far greater awareness of self and each other. As a result they can be more authentic and perform better.
Q. Where did you first hone your communication skills?
A. I did 10 years in the transport industry in Sheffield. Working in a busy planning office ‘telling’ hardened lorry drivers what to do teaches you a lot quickly about communication skills.
I went on to work on the first ever prisoner escorting contract, transporting prisoners to court, with the nationwide security company Group 4. Some 14 years later I found myself as MD of the multi-million operation GSL responsible for 500,000 prisoners a year, 2,000 staff and travelling a million miles a month. Running a multi-site, multi-stakeholder, people-focused business demands good communication skills.
Q. Did you ever have to deal with any escapes, or violence from prisoners?
A. I had to deal with a number over the years, from prisoners jumping over the dock in the Crown Court to our vehicle being stopped by an armed gang. Thankfully serious incidents were not often though. When things go wrong, it’s important to support those involved and find out from those carrying out the work how improvements can be made.
Q. What happened to your business and what did you learn from it?
A. After 18 years, despite the best performance ever, significant external accreditation and fantastic work by a number of people, the entire business was lost on price to a new bidder. I learned never to give up, we handed over a great service.
Q. You then ran six prison establishments and went on to be executive director of operations at the Yorkshire Ambulance Service. What did those roles teach you about people?
A. I learned a massive amount in both of these roles. The more I worked with teams, seeing people develop and flourish in challenging environments the more I was drawn to fulfilling my passion to empower people and felt my purpose was to do this from the outside rather than the inside.