When you sign up for a stint at master headhunter Peter Leffkowitz's Tall Pony Ranch, you'll chop wood, muck out stalls, and learn about corralling the hottest talent in the market. Any similarities between human-resource management and a cattle drive are purely intentional.
When participants show up for their first day at Leffkowitz's 75-acre ranch in Parkville, Missouri, just north of Kansas City, they deposit their watches in a cereal bowl in the kitchen and don't get them back until they leave. There are just a few phones on the ranch — one is nailed to a tree by the pond, and it doesn't work. Says Leffkowitz: "That phone is my way of saying, 'We can get our work done, and the world won't pass us by.' "
And, he might add, you should be prepared to get your hands dirty. At Tall Pony, coffee breaks are work breaks. Between training sessions, participants chop wood, stack hay, and feed the horses. Says an admiring neighbor: "Peter is the only person I know who can get people to pay him to clean his barn."
Leffkowitz is a good salesman, but he isn't scamming. In the 1980s, he was a record-setting headhunter for Kansas City-based Professional Career Development Inc., one of the Midwest's largest contingency search firms. Since then, he has worked with 535 companies, helping them to compete in a talent-tight market. Now he has taken his private obsessions — cowboying and raising champion Missouri mules — and made them public. With his horse-powered equipment, herding dogs, and hand-built cabins, he has turned his ranch into a critical part of his internationally recognized curriculum for sales and hiring managers.
At Tall Pony, senior-level executives get to see whether their team members can adapt to new tasks — like being asked to round up a few stray dogies. And they get a reality check on what happens when they don't pull their weight. "If somebody slacks off and doesn't cut enough firewood," says Leffkowitz, "everyone will get real cold in about 15 minutes." Though his methods may be novel, his message is anything but: Hiring is not just HR's problem. If you're a project leader, you too must compete in the war for talent. After all, your project is only as good as the people on your team.
"This isn't Outward Bound,'' says the Hoss Cartwright-sized Leffkowitz, 45, a native of New York and founder of the Parkville-based Morgan Consulting Group Inc. "But this is a place where you'll drop the corporate facade and start to learn."
Not all of Leffkowitz's program offerings, which typically cost a corporation anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000, mix ranch chores with breakout sessions. During a recent two-day seminar, 100 rookie recruiters spent their first day at the nearby Kansas City Marriott hotel, toiling in classes on "inner-viewing," candidate-sourcing, and time management. A visit to the Tall Pony Ranch for a sunset hayride later that afternoon was merely a taste o' country. But increasingly, Leffkowitz is offering rigorous, multiday sessions on his ranch, part of his method for "stripping down" work teams and rebuilding them into more-productive outfits.
He has an unorthodox array of resources at his disposal, and no fear of using them. On one memorable occasion, he couldn't get through to a macho, overly gung ho sales manager. So one black night, Leffkowitz saddled the ornery guy atop a mule and sent him down the steepest, most gnarly trail on the property. "Boy, was he pissed at me," says Leffkowitz. "But he sure found out how his team would feel if he mounted them on a program that they weren't prepared to ride."
Alas, usually the learning takes place without any punishing midnight trail rides. But within the spartan surroundings, the practice-makes-perfect drills that Leffkowitz is known for — role-playing, live cold-calling, and repeated performances in simulated sales and hiring environments — take on another level of intensity. "I'm a better teacher out here," says Leffkowitz as he takes in the surrounding hills, "because out here, I've got the better classroom."
Todd Balf (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of The Last River: The Tragic Race for Shangri-La (Crown Publishers, September 2000). Keep up with Peter Leffkowitz through the Morgan Consulting Group Inc. Web site (www.morgancg.com).
Sidebar: Roping Recruits
To build a great team, sometimes it's more important to listen hard than it is to ask hard questions, says veteran headhunter Peter Leffkowitz. Here's how to tune in.
- Don't try to sell the job. Instead, let candidates sell themselves. Start by listening for telling phrases — "I'm not getting any recognition," or "I'm not learning" — that show that this is a prospect who's ready to move, and for all the right reasons.
- Don't conduct an interview. Get candidates to give you an "inner-view." As they walk you through their experience and responsibilities, get a read on how they communicate, their technical skills, and their self-esteem. How candidates present themselves will tell you a lot more about them than their résumés or their answers to canned interview questions ever could.
- Know the difference between a perk and meaningful work. When it's your turn to talk about the opportunity, remember that benefits like "bring-your-pet-to-work day" won't get people to join your company. (At least, they won't get the kind of people that you really want.) Talk about the things that really drive people, and remember that smart, talented people want to work with other smart, talented people. They want to be part of projects that matter. They want to be recognized.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.