Like many professionals, I’ve let my career dictate where I live. This has led to some great experiences—such as years living in Europe and South America—and some less great ones, like living by a smelly ethanol plant in the middle of nowhere.
In June 2021, my family and I were living in Phoenix. We had moved there three years earlier when I became the general manager of Opendoor‘s Phoenix market. We were by all accounts happy—living in a historic neighborhood just north of downtown, in a small Spanish Colonial home that we loved, with great neighbors. I was happy with my job, the company, and my team—but COVID-19 made remote work possible for my role. The question changed from, “Where should we live and work?” to “Where should we live?”
In surprisingly short order, my wife and I settled on a rather radical plan. We’d move to Minnesota (my idea), and we’d buy a horse farm (my wife’s idea). I grew up in the heart of an old St. Paul neighborhood, with neighbors close enough you could touch two homes if you walked between them with your arms out. I’d never lived on anything bigger than a quarter acre—now I was buying a farm. Why not? I thought. I like animals.
Not only has the move to the farm been transformative for our family (we have far fewer screen-time debates than we used to), but it has reshaped my leadership as an executive. These are the three lessons from life on the farm that I’ve applied to how I lead—and that I believe are applicable for any leader.
Do your chores first
Every morning the horses’ stalls need to be mucked, the chickens need food, and you have to take in the dog, and put out the cats. It’s not always my favorite thing to do (especially when it’s 20 below in the winter), but it needs doing, and so I do it first. I could probably get by pushing it back to noon, but I would spend my morning chastising myself, and, far worse, something might have gone wrong in the night that I need to address. Once I’ve done those chores first, I know that no matter what happens for the rest of the day, at least I fed the horses.
In the workplace, we all have tasks that can get to be a grind. Sometimes it’s just reading all your Slack messages. Sometimes it’s a one-on-one meeting with a colleague who you love but who you think doesn’t need your attention right then. Skip those, and you’ve created a problem for yourself that you’ll have to deal with later. Far worse, you may be creating a problem with the colleague where a little attention would have nipped that in the bud. I have lost some incredible teammates over the years because I assumed they were doing fine, and I didn’t take the time to check in. A simple “Are you doing okay” might have saved some great ones.
Walk the fence line
The first thing we did after moving to the farm was install fencing around the entire property and section off parts of it to control grazing. This was an enormous amount of work, but when it was done, the horses stayed where they were supposed to, and nothing got in or out. Right?
Wrong. The posts rotted out at the base, some of the splices didn’t hold, and the fence started to droop. The warning tape we put up to give the horses a visual clue blew away in a rainstorm. All this shouldn’t have been a big deal, until it was. In our case, the horse got a child’s sled caught on its hoof and bolted right through a weak spot in the fence where the splices had failed, the post had rotted, and the warning tape was gone. We didn’t know there was an issue until a breathless neighbor came running to our door shouting, “Lollypop is running down the highway!”
Which is a long way of saying that even things you thought you had fixed, problems you thought you’d overcome, still need to be checked on regularly. “Completed” projects have a tendency to be skimmed over during weekly meetings once the issue that drove them there has been momentarily resolved. At Opendoor, some weekly metrics rotate to suit the issue of the day. But every month, you need to check them all. This was a muscle developed the hard way, by taking an eye off seemingly solved problems only to have them creep in again. Lesson learned: Walk the fence line, check the systems.
Expect the unexpected—and then some
Here is a list of things that have gone awry at the farm in the past year. I’ll break them into three categories:
- Things you’d expect: Discovered a faulty breaker on our tractor; had to replace the air-conditioning on our 2002 truck; hit our barn door with the tractor and had to repair it.
- Things you might not expect, but make sense: Fence posts (see above), cinder blocks (cracked from heat shock when making maple syrup), the actual air in the house (discovered radon, a type of radioactive gas).
- Impossible things: We bought two mares when we got the farm. So you can only imagine our surprise 10 months later when we had a baby horse.
I won’t bore you with the theories on the foal. But I will say that it’s been a lot of work to have a new life on the farm. It’s not what we were expecting—but here we are.
In a world where anything can happen, the likelihood of a specific low-probability event happening is low (for example, it’s unlikely that a particular tree gets hit by lightning today), but the likelihood that any low-probability event happens is very high (e.g., a tree will get struck by lightning). Each event is one in a million. And there are millions and millions of opportunities.
Business is a lot like that in some ways: Could you predict that COVID-19 would come and lock down the world? Probably not. But you should expect that something unpredictable will happen. Scenario planning and gaming out not only your Plan B, but also your Plans X,Y, and Z is crucial to preparing a team for when those “can’t happen” things actually do.
It’s our job as leaders to build strong organizations and maintain alignment and morale when the shocks come. Is there flexibility and optionality in your supply chain? Do you have enough cash to hunker down for six months, or for a year, when things get tough? How about the reverse: What if your primary competitor folded, and demand dramatically increased?
And most importantly, how do you talk to your team when the bad shocks happen? Sometimes, faith in leadership can be shaken when things take a turn for the worse. It’s your job as leaders to show the preparation that you have done: not for this event, but for an event. And then to refocus the team on how they can lean in to support one another and the next chapter. Some days, you wake up and there is another horse in the barn—you could spend months trying to figure out why, or you can grab a pitch fork and get to work.
Rob Reiling is head of city operations at digital real estate platform Opendoor.