Another quirky take on my Thailand adventures
12/09/2009 - 03/10/2009 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!
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.
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.
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.
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!