Having Grown Up near his grandparents' ranch in Texas, Joe Esparza has spent most of his life around horses. While his career as a corporate trainer at Miller Brewing Co. initially took him away from his equestrian roots, in 2001 he managed to meld his passion for horses with his expertise in training by establishing Leadership Outfitters.
The leadership training company is on a 320-acre ranch in Bozeman, Mont., where Esparza and his wife, Ris, use horses to coach corporate leaders and sales managers. “We focus on building emotional intelligence,” he says, which means teaching sales professionals how to relate, communicate, and build relationships with clients with a focus on changing embedded behaviors. “You can see how they relate to their customers by how they relate to horses.”
Leadership Outfitters uses several coaching exercises, including one that places sales executives in a round pen with a horse, where they must “connect” with the equine. “They have to use their intuition, get the feel of what's happening inside the pen, just like on a sales call when you have to get the feel of the atmosphere in the buyer's office,” he says. Horses, he says, will not interact with people who are stressed out, irritated, or nervous. Unlike people, horses have no predisposed perceptions or judgments, according to Esparza. They react to someone based on the energy the person gives off, providing instant feedback. “It's a beautiful way to get people to feel and use their intuition to move something in a different direction.”
A goal of the four-day program, called “The Power of Choice,” is to help leaders understand how they react under stress and pressure. All too often, in that moment of stress when executives should shift their behavior, they don't, he says. Why? “Because they can't. Logic doesn't help them shift their behavior.” The program helps them to recognize their patterns of behavior and coaches them on how to adapt to situations.
Leadership Outfitters' long list of clients includes Chevron-Texaco, Kraft, and Capital One. In addition to the ranch, Esparza has an agreement with Ted Turner to use his 100,000-acre Flying D Ranch, just 30 minutes away. “It's like being in Yellowstone Park,” he says of the site. Groups stay on-site at the Flying D lodge, surrounded by bison, elk, deer, wolves, bears, and the Rocky Mountains.
He also takes the show on the road to ranches across the country, and has held programs in Arizona, Maryland, and most recently in River Ranch, Fla., at Westgate River Ranch, where he conducted a three-day program for sales executives at Heineken.
“An incredible, incredible experience,” says Julie Carbon, zone director, Heineken USA, Miami, who hired Esparza to run a program for the 26 sales managers she oversees. “I've never received so much positive feedback as I've gotten for this.” People were skeptical at first, she says, but once they got in the pen and saw how the horse reacted immediately to them and how they were able to command the horse based on on-the-spot coaching from Esparza, they were believers.