Dr. Elizabeth Oyekan, Former Vice President of Operations & Quality at Kaiser Permanente Colorado, has viewed Dr. June Gunter as a mentor for the better part of a decade. In 2007, June helped Elizabeth lead a turn-around of a medical center in the Los Angeles area. In 2014, when Elizabeth assumed her Vice President role, she turned to June and TeachingHorse to overcome what she calls a “tremendous challenge.”
The genesis of what later turned out to be an executive team development process with TeachingHorse was a lunch between the two women. During their conversation, Elizabeth recalls how June helped her reframe her thinking about how to best address the “hurt and dissatisfaction” present in her new work environment. In essence, Elizabeth was reminded that she needed to focus on developing herself to be the leader the team needed, not try to change the team to fit her style. Elizabeth did make great strides in her own personal journey, and it was also decided that her entire team would benefit from a shared development process with TeachingHorse.
The prospect of team building via the unique and experiential TeachingHorse process was initially greeted with a mixed response. Elizabeth remembers one team member in particular—whom she describes as “systematic and logical”—becoming “the talk of the whole team” because of her initial interaction with a horse. The team member, dubious about the whole experience, found a horse leaning its head upon her shoulder. She was overcome with emotion because “she felt the love of the horse,” according to Elizabeth. The moment was transformative because she could now see the power of creating connections with people entrusting you to lead them. Once the connection was created with the horse, the horse followed her with ease; without that connection, there was no movement. The lack of connection was getting in the way of this team member’s work. And now she pays much closer attention to the relationships with the people she leads.
There were other team members (struggling to adapt to altered company roles) who learned concrete ideas at TeachingHorse that they could take back to the office. One person was attempting to instruct a horse to move, but was doing so in a confusing tone that was both serious and playful. Needless to say, her attempts were futile, until a facilitator helped her see that she was sending mixed messages. We often try to soften serious messages with playful cheerleading. Horses experience mixed signals like these as a lack of clarity on the part of the leader. So do people. This team member had to choose to lead with clarity and decisiveness. When she was able to embody that clarity, the horse responded in kind.
Elizabeth remembers another person, upon reflecting about how horses share accountability for guidance and protection of the herd, saying: “You never leave your leader out to dry. When things get tough, you come together.”
After they all returned to the office, a shared model of leadership was present. Elizabeth says that in the past, she would have arrived at work “with a fully baked cake, then ask them to take a piece.” But in the new normal, “the team wanted to own the cake—the egg, flour, butter…” The consequences were profound and positive: less burnout, more growth and engagement. Her direct reports were invited to do things they never did before, and were eager for the opportunities. In the end, Elizabeth asserts, “We made better cake.”
Elizabeth has participated in all sorts of corporate training and retreats in her 24 years at Kaiser Permanente. Yet she singled out TeachingHorse, stating that “any high-level team” can benefit from TeachingHorse because “they are one of the few programs that are focused on preparing leaders to address complex challenges.”