A Travellerspoint blog

Getting the best out of people - some tips from an elephant

Another quirky take on my Thailand adventures

sunny 26 °C

Ever tried getting a seven ton elephant to do as you say? Sometimes managing people can seem like an enormous challenge, but if you follow a few basic principles you’ll be well on your way towards maximising your business’ potential.

While working at an elephant sanctuary in Ayutthaya, Thailand, for several weeks in October, I realised that not only was I enjoying a unique encounter with nature but also that the elephant I was looking after was giving me a back-to-basics lesson in people management.

There are some elements of running a business which seem obvious, such as having a sound business plan, securing appropriate funding and getting the word out to as many prospective customers as possible. One valuable tool that is sometimes underestimated and can make the difference between a company which is ticking along and one everyone wants to do business with is people management. After all, a company’s people are the ones who make the day-to-day business happen and, as I found out at the elephant sanctuary, the more you put in, the more you get out!

Developing relationships
After arriving at the elephant sanctuary and meeting the people who run the programme, I went off to meet my elephant. I was asked some questions, such as whether I like the water, what I was hoping to get out of the programme and how adventurous I was feeling. Loving the water and feeling fairly excitable and adventurous, I was matched up with Nampueng, a 22-year-old ‘young girl’. The theory behind the selection is that, by considering individual personalities, the perfect ‘team’ can be created, maximising on enjoyment, harmony and team output. The more I got to know Nampueng and vice versa, the better our teamwork became and the more we both got out of the experience.

Managing individuals
Each elephant has a ‘mahout’ – an elephant trainer or keeper – and individual personalities are considered when finding the perfect mahout for the elephant. As I gradually got to know Nampueng, I realised she was a competitive and high spirited individual, so I let her barge to the front of the group when we went out for walks. Other elephants weren’t so confident and needed a fair bit of reassurance, especially when some children decided to let off some firecrackers nearby! It just shows how it pays to think about different personalities when trying to get the best out of your staff.
Riding an elephant

Riding an elephant

Clear expectations and objectives
On arrival at the sanctuary, I was taught some basic elephant instructions, which meant that I could ask Nampueng to stop, go, come, sit, kneel, and turn left and right. Nampueng and her mahout, Tia, seemed to have a mutual understanding of what was expected of her and what would happen if she misbehaved – she was tapped on the head with a stick. I’m not advocating business owners should hit their employees when they don’t perform, but there is a lot to be said for being absolutely clear from the outset as to what you expect from your employees, which can save a lot of time, money and frustration in the long run.

Training and personal development
Humans (and elephants!) by nature love to learn and be stimulated. Although everyone learns differently and at different levels, by setting time aside for staff development not only will your business benefit but your employees will also enjoy work more and, in turn, will work harder for you. The elephants at the sanctuary are developed in different ways depending on their likes and abilities. Some love to paint and spend hours learning how to draw images of elephants and trees while others are trained to simulate battles and have appeared in shows and films. Others still prefer to stay out of the limelight and concentrate on improving their logging skills.
An elephant and mahoot at work

An elephant and mahoot at work

Rewarding achievements
Nampueng was given small treats when she did a good job. If she safely delivered me back to the village, I patted her trunk and praised her. If she was especially well-behaved, I gave her some pineapples. If you bear in mind that employees will appreciate a small thank you from time to time, this will often work in your favour. The elephants at the sanctuary were asked to go beyond the call of duty when the Tsunami hit southern Thailand in 2004 and they did so happily because they were well-treated by their owners. They were used to move debris and their keepers were surprised to discover that they had a sixth sense for knowing where injured people were hidden under the rubble.

I never expected to learn so much from an elephant!

Posted by JaneB 06:01 Archived in Thailand Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

Running a successful business - lessons from an elephant

A quirky take on my holiday in Thailand

sunny 26 °C

Elephants are renowned for having thick skins and you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is the only thing they have to teach us about running a successful business ...

When I decided to combine my holiday this year with volunteering at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, I never imagined the plight of Thailand's elephants would teach me so much about running a successful business.

Asia's elephants are disappearing at an alarming rate as their natural stomping ground is eaten and bulldozed away. Working with the people at the Elephant Kraal in Ayutthaya, Thailand, it became all too obvious to me that they had found a solution to the future of Asia's elephants – and it was based on sound business principles.

The Elephant Kraal was created not only to provide a home and sanctuary for more than 90 elephants but also to create a sustainable life for these animals, which each eat up to 200kg of food per day!
The volunteer gang

The volunteer gang

Pi Om, the man who runs the Kraal, has turned his elephants into a product and, in doing so, has created a future for them in Thailand. The organisation is non-profit-making, but it needs to bring in enough money to fund its activities. The average elephant costs around £100,000 and the Kraal buys and rehabilitates unwanted, retired or maltreated elephants.

Here are just a few of the things I learned from the elephant sanctuary about running a successful business:

Creativity and vision is crucial

The creativity and vision needed to run the Kraal is the key to its success. As far as I'm aware, it's the first sanctuary/business of its kind and was therefore a big leap into the unknown for its founder. One of the incredibly creative ways it raises funds to feed the boarders is by training them to paint and selling the resulting masterpieces. Others initiatives include training the elephants to put on shows and renting them out for royal events. The latest idea, which is yet to be launched, is a James Bond-style boat which will take tourists up the river, morph into a bus, then take a tour of life at the Kraal.

Know your product or service

Creativity and vision alone aren't enough to fill the stomachs of 90 hungry elephants! These qualities are backed up by an in-depth knowledge of the ‘product' they're selling. Around 150 people live in the elephant village, dedicating their lives to caring for the gentle giants. They know the elephants inside out, and are fully aware of the capabilities and limits of each animal.

Get your message out there

The Kraal relies on word of mouth for reaching out to its prospective customers; however, this doesn't mean the people who run the organisation just sit around waiting for people to show up. Ewa is the Kraal's Communications Director, and she encourages visitors and volunteers to spread the word about the sanctuary. She also works closely with the local and national press, and sometimes even attracts the attention of the worlds' media. Asking customers to write testimonials for promotional activity is a great – and free! – way to promote any business.

Focus on your customers

Understanding the type of person who wants to visit and volunteer at the Kraal helps to focus Ewa's marketing activities. She knows her audience is wide and asks each visitor how they heard about the sanctuary, as well as what they'd like to get out of the experience. It's a quick and easy way to build up a picture of the average customer and is, in effect, a free way of conducting market or customer satisfaction research.

Manage your people

Each elephant has its own 'mahout' – an elephant trainer or keeper who develops an often life-long relationship with his elephant. Each mahout 'manages' his elephant and takes full responsibility when it steps out of line. Toi is the Kraal's elephant 'captain' and teaches the young mahouts the necessary skills to be good at their jobs. It shows how management skills and people development are key to running any successful company, whether your business is widgets or elephants!

Jane and Nampueng's baby

Jane and Nampueng's baby

Comply with the law

Health and safety is a major concern when bringing together creatures than can weigh up to 7 tons with the general public. I was briefed on safety on my arrival at the Kraal, one aspect of which was to avoid pushing the baby elephants on the head. They see this as a fun game and will push back, with potentially crushing results! It's not always obvious which legal requirements a business must adhere to; however, the most successful business owners are the ones who keep on top of their legal obligations.

Posted by JaneB 05:54 Archived in Thailand Tagged animal Comments (0)

Holidaying with an elephant

Quirky adventures in Thailand

sunny 26 °C

“You mean you spent your holiday looking after an elephant?” my friends ask incredulously before bombarding me with dozens of questions.

Yes, it’s true; I spent my holiday this year with my very own elephant! It all came about when I decided I needed to get away and try something new. They always tell you a change is as good as a rest and I was hoping that was correct, because after working extra hard for the past 12 months since the start of the ‘credit crunch’ I felt I deserved some quality relaxation.
Tia, Nampueng, Me, Vic and Sharon

Tia, Nampueng, Me, Vic and Sharon

I convinced two of my girlfriends to come along and they had since become just as excited as I had about our ventures into the unknown. Arriving at the Royal Elephant Kraal in Ayutthaya, Thailand, we weren’t too sure what to expect but were looking forward to getting stuck in. I never expected that I would get out of it what I did. By the end of the trip, I’d made a true friend and fallen in love with an ‘ele’.

We were shown to our accommodation, which consisted of some comfortable air-conditioned bungalows, each with its own bathroom. Following a briefing on the safety aspects of sharing a village with 90 elephants, some of which consisted of cheeky, mischievous babies roaming free, we went off to meet our elephants. There were 10 of us on the programme, a mixed bunch from all over the world; two Ozzie grandparents, a lone Israeli traveller, a 30-something British girl with her Mum, a young couple from Australia and us three girls.

Suddenly, there I was, standing in the middle of a dusty yard, meeting Nampeung (pronounced Nampoon), my elephant! She looked enormous as she graciously knelt down so that I could grab her great flapping ear and clamber onto her back. Perched behind me was a smiling Tia, her ‘mahout’ or trainer/keeper. With a short grunt of instruction from Tia, we were off plodding along behind a line of big-bottomed elephants. I felt very far from the ground but at the same time very safe. Elephants are unbelievably gentle considering their size. They have been known to lift injured dogs with their trunks and move them out of the way and their slow marching feels rhythmic and reassuring. I looked around to see everyone had the same goofy grins on their faces. Next, we were taught a few elephant commands; cries of ‘hua!’ (go) and ‘how!’ (stop) rang out across the field in-between streams of Thai banter as the mahouts called out to each other.


Most of the elephants on the volunteer program are retired ‘old girls’ who have worked hard in the fields of Thailand and are now enjoying a bit of TLC at the Kraal. Nampueng, however, is a 22-year-old mother of two who works at the Kraal, as a kind of tractor, lifting and carrying straw and pineapple leaves. She is a beautiful and spirited individual who shares a quiet mutual respect for her mahout, Tia. Her competitive streak meant that on every walk we bulldozed to the front and made sure we were first into the river so that she could drink all she wanted and we could wash the straw from her head and back.

‘Work’ at the Kraal consisted of mucking out and fetching the elephants in from their night spots (7.30am – 9.00am), a walk and swim in the river (11am to 12pm), scrubbing two lucky elephants from top to bottom at the elephant wash (2pm-3pm) followed by another walk and dip in the river (4pm – 5pm). The Kraal’s owner has a visionary aim of creating a sustainable life for Thailand’s elephants and the money you pay to take part goes straight to the foundation, which raises funds to feed, house and train the eles. Thai people have a great respect for elephants and the locals believe good luck will be bestowed upon them if they treat the elephants well. Our days were often interrupted by deliveries of truckloads of banana, pineapple and corn on the cob donations, which were shared amongst the hungry animals.
Me and a load of swimming elephants

Me and a load of swimming elephants

Being part of such a devoted team and feeling like you’re lucky to be a small part of it, made leaving the Kraal very hard. I felt I’d got to know Nampueng and Tia and even though he and the other mahouts only spoke about 20 words of English between them and I knew about two words of Thai, we’d become great friends. I handed him a little elephant key ring I’d bought as a souvenir and Nampueng lifted her trunk and dribbled on my t-shirt in a kind of elephant farewell. I’ll never forget the place and I have some incredible memories to keep me going until next time.

As I learnt from my time looking after an elephant, a change really is as good as a rest!

Tia, Me, Pu

Tia, Me, Pu

Posted by JaneB 04:21 Archived in Thailand Tagged animal Comments (0)

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