That is one of the strangest questions that I have ever been asked. It was quite a while ago and during an interview process.
The person asking me the question had known me for a long time. We had worked together on many projects, and we had a good relationship. This question came out of left field. What was he after? A racehorse versus a carousel horse? I was totally lost.
Let me give you a little background. He was not my direct boss, but I supported both him and his direct reports. I had significant experience and credibility within the company. My reviews were almost always strong. Accountability, responsiveness, willingness to accept challenges, customer focus, and problem-solving were consistent. He knew me better than anyone else in the company.
The role I was seeking would be managing a very seasoned team of sales professionals. I had managed our inside sales team and stepped in to manage a field team for six months during a corporate transition. I felt well qualified to take on the new role. I was well known by the team and hiring manager. Everyone knew my background, strengths, commitment to the company, and sales success.
He asked me to think about the question overnight, and we would discuss it in the morning.
That evening I asked my family, my friends, even some of his direct reports to help me understand what he was asking. I also tried to understand why. Lacking an answer, I began an internet quest. I looked at articles on racehorses as leaders. I read the history of carousel horses and trick interview questions. After a very long night, I thought I finally understood the question and why he asked it. The sales manager needed to be able to always focus on the finish line. He or she needed to develop that passion in others. They needed to be driven by success and able to help their reps develop that same mental focus. They need to have related experience and know-how to walk the walk and talk the talk every day. Winning is an obsession.
The carousel horse needed to be willing to stay the ride and accept the next curves ahead. They can handle the ups and downs. They provide encouragement and motivation to others. They can become an integral part of success, yet are rarely recognized as a racehorse.
As those realities began to sink in, I asked very hard questions of myself. What was I after? Would I be successful? Would I be happy? Did I have the right mindset and skills?
Early the next day, I wanted to share my newfound insight with the hiring manager as soon as possible. I burst into his office and said, “I am the carousel horse! I am steady, reliable, and consistent, and those are the leadership skills I bring to teams. They are the racehorses, and I need to be there to support them, empathize if they do not win, and encourage them to enter the next race. Racehorse sales leaders and the carousel horses working together provides the best solution.” The hiring manager smiled, and we had a great conversation about that statement.
I did not get that job. I learned a lot about myself, my strengths and weaknesses, and how important it is to have a mix of horses in your stable (at work, with friends, and even within your family). By the way, you also need stable hands, but that is for another day.
The hiring manager knew that my comfort and strengths were to support and help others ride the ups and downs. Be there to offer encouragement to reach for the gold ring time and time again. It took his question to help me see that the job was not for me.
As you look at your own work environment, can you identify the racehorses and the carousel horses? Think about how different it would be if we only had teams made up of people of one group. Each is important. As you aspire to new roles, it is critical to understand the requirements that your own strengths must match. Look at the new role’s daily tasks and compare that to what you enjoy, where your experience has prepared you to excel, and then determine if it is a good fit. If you can develop a mental picture of success, then go for it. For fun, picture a race where the race is being run by a carousel horse bringing up the rear.
When we know ourselves, recognize our strengths, skills, and motivations, we are well on the path to succeed in whatever roles we want to take on. What success looks like to me may be different than what you would see for either you or me. I will likely never be a racehorse this late in my career, but I am a darn good carousel horse. Which are you? Which do you want to be?