Mark Richardson, CR, is an author, columnist, and business growth strategist. He authored the best-selling book, How Fit Is Your Business? as well as his latest book, Fit to Grow. He can be reached at or 301.275.0208.

Donkeys and Thoroughbreds

When applied to employee personalities and skills, any organization needs the right blend of both types

June 07, 2016
Professional Remodler contributor Mark Richardson

In a recent discussion of team development at a board meeting, someone asked if a certain member of the organization’s team was a thoroughbred or a donkey. Like most others, I thought I immediately understood the metaphor, and my first reaction was to favor the high-achieving characteristics of a thoroughbred over the plodding image associated with a donkey. But as the discussion continued, it became clear to me that both creatures have strengths and weaknesses and, when applied to employee personalities and skills, any organization needs the right blend of both.

What’s critical, however, is that managers don’t expect a donkey to run in the Kentucky Derby and a thoroughbred to carry heavy loads through narrow mountain passes. 

People are not only the most crucial asset in your business, they also are the most complex, and it’s important to understand their strengths and weaknesses. Are they smart, sure-footed, and unflappable, like donkeys, willing to take on any load and persevere until the job is done? Or are they high-energy and strong but unpredictable, like thoroughbreds, performing spectacularly well in a sprint but fading over the long haul?

As Americans, we’re taught that everyone is created equal in the eyes of the law, and we’re discouraged from discriminating against different types of people. But this doesn’t prevent us, as businesspeople, from identifying differing skill sets among our employees. 

Here are several ways you can use that knowledge to match your team members to roles in which they’re most likely to excel.

[1] Classify the roles in your business. “Donkeys” is probably not the best metaphor—although donkeys are smarter and more even-tempered than horses. Using the term to describe team members may not go over well, so choose another pairing—like pickup trucks vs. race cars—whatever will resonate best with team members. Have fun with it and make it a discussion topic for your senior management team.

[2] Identify attributes for each team member, and think about which side of the metaphor best fits each one. If you’re creating a new role, use this metaphor to better understand the type of person you’re looking for—do you need steady effort or shorter bursts of high exertion? A big payload or lots of speed? 

[3] Discriminate. In this context, it isn’t a nasty word. If you were to treat salespeople the same way you treat production people, you’d not only reduce their effectiveness but would possibly drive them away from your company. The key to healthy discrimination is understanding how differences affect roles and how they fit into the context of your company vision.

[4] Generate buy-in. More than ever, business is a team sport. Your team must not only pull together but also must be motivated to achieve the same goals. Get buy-in on the concept of the need to understand differing roles and to match people’s skills to those roles.

[5] Celebrate the “donkeys.” All people bring a particular attitude and set of skills to your company; what matters is what they do with them. Excelling in a given role requires the same effort regardless of the characteristics required. All achievements need to be celebrated equally.

I hope I didn’t offend the horse industry. I hope I made you think about people and roles differently. And I hope I made you smile. 

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