I remember the summer back in Alberta when I learned the meaning of the old cowboy saying, “riding for the brand.” It’s a saying we use in business all the time.
I was about 18 — ambitious, eager and needing some money. So when my neighbor left town for a trip, I was hired on to tend to his cows. Unfortunately, that also extended to their male counterparts. You know how bulls have a reputation of being mean? It’s earned, for the most part, anyhow.
And this bull was mean as they come. On one particular day, the bull had gotten into the other neighbor’s pasture and was on a tear. He and the neighbor’s bull were crashing into fences, pawing at the ground and running at each other at full force. It’s a dominance thing. Dogs mark their territory by lifting their legs. Bulls do it by trying, and sometimes succeeding, to seriously maim each other.
An intelligent cowboy doesn’t want to get between fighting bulls. If there had been a way to avoid it, trust me, I would have. But there wasn’t, because my job was to keep that very expensive animal from hurting himself.
I was riding for the brand.
Related: 5 Ways to Help Build Your Integrity
The expression, of course originates, from the brands that ranchers burn onto cattle hides to mark them. But what it really means to any cowboy is doing your job, no matter what. It should apply to every business out there.
It’s all about integrity. So I got on my horse and tried to separate the 2,000 pound beasts. I hollered at the bulls and got in between them even though I was worried as hell. Eventually, they separated, but were only about 50 feet apart and ready to charge again.
Then, even though I was sure it wouldn’t work, I thought I would give herding the bull a try. And, boy, was I right. Instead of running away, he turned toward me and charged right into my horse. Down went my horse. Down I went.
When you’re laying in the dirt, underneath your horse, you’re going take a moment for some reflection. You wonder, “Is my horse okay? Am I okay? How do I get up and get that bull back?”
Luckily, my horse was ok, if a little shaken. So I got up, got back on my horse and got that bull roped. Somehow, I managed to hang on to the rope and, with the help of my good horse, drag that bull back. By the time it was over, the horse was lathered, the bull was lathered and I was lathered. We all had a few war wounds.
But that, my friends, is riding for the brand.
Cowboys do it all the time, and business people should be doing it, too. It works whether you’re an employee, boss, company or entrepreneur. It’s about doing the right thing, accomplishing your task and learning some lessons in the process. By riding for the brand, you sometimes learn there is a better way than charging into a problem.
Thinking back, I should have roped that bull the first time. By roping him, I was taking control of the situation and distracting the bulls from fighting. Just like when things get heated in the boardroom, someone needs to take control of the situation to settle things down. You need to rope-in the conversation. But, as they say, hindsight is 20/20.
Let me give you another example of riding for the brand that people deal with from time to time.
Let’s say I’m working with a client on a project and I’ve been focusing all my attention to developing “X,” which is what I think my client wants. All the while, my client thinks I’m working on “Y.” I think they’re going to be pleased with the results of “X” but, when we meet, I discover there’s been a miscommunication.
What do I do?
The answer should be obvious. I make it my priority to deliver “Y” to the best of my abilities. If “X” isn’t what my client wanted, shame on me for not being a better communicator. If it takes too long or if it gets too hard, I do it anyway. If it was outside the scope of the contract, I take care of it. After all, contracts are just there to CYA. But it’s still my reputation on the line. I do what I say I will do, I’ll become a better communicator, and I’ll also do my best work.
That’s riding for the brand.
If you think that’s foolish because you’ll lose money, you’re thinking short-term. You'll only make that money once. But if you're building a long-term relationship, you can make it many times over.
There’s nothing more valuable to an entrepreneur than a happy customer. If you’re an employee who went the extra mile or two, your company will remember that.
Riding for the brand is also practical.
Let me tell you the end of that bull story.
When that rancher came back that summer in Alberta, I had to tell him what happened because it was obvious his bull had a little hide knocked off him. Besides, telling him was the right thing to do.
He thanked me and that was that. There was no raise, no glory. He simply acknowledged that I had done the job I was hired to do. That was enough for me.
But the story doesn’t end there, because as I said before, it’s about long-term relationships.
A few years later, when I was putting myself through college, I ran into a little trouble. My college fund was literally 20 head of steer that I was using to pay my expenses. Well, I was running low on grain and was just a few weeks shy of what I needed to fatten them up.
So I went and asked that rancher if he might have some grain he could sell to me. He had it, but he didn’t want to sell it. Instead, he just flat-out gave it to me.
That rancher, in fact, taught me a lifelong lesson. If I’d refused that day to save his bull, my whole life would have certainly been different. Cowboy values are self-reflective. I wouldn’t have liked who I saw in the mirror. But I rode for the brand and contribution pays back. In the end, I learned that trust and integrity are my most valuable assets.