The Trick in Transforming Your Workforce Zebras Into Workhorses

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Dec 19, 2013

If you’ve ever brought on a talented and highly-skilled employee who did not measure up to your expectations due to a lack of work ethic, drive, or character values, you’ve experienced a zebra problem.

This metaphor will make perfect sense to you when you consider the unique talents and abilities of a zebra.

Like human fingerprints, each zebra has their own unique striped pattern. They typically stand together because their stripes serve as camouflage making it hard for their archenemy, the lion, to single one out to attack.

Zebras are unique, but can you train them?

And because lions are color blind, even when they are standing alone in the tall grasses, a zebra’s stripes make them virtually invisible.

Like horses, zebras can walk, trot, canter and gallop at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour. They have tremendous stamina; even greater than that of a horse.

Zebras have excellent eyesight and can see in color. Their night vision is thought to be about as good as that of a cat or an owl and they have an acute sense of smell and taste. Zebras also have excellent hearing and can turn their ears in almost any direction and communicate by using a variety of sounds and even facial expressions.

They possess better resistance than horses to African diseases and can live up to 40 years.

Zebras are uniquely skilled and talented, even more so, arguably, than a horse.

So why is it you will never see a zebra race in the Kentucky Derby or pull a handsome cab in New York’s Central Park?

How to change your workforce zebras

You won’t see police mounted upon a zebra to control the crowd at a parade, and you won’t catch a cowboy riding a zebra to drive his herd across the prairie or to lasso a calf at a rodeo. You won’t hear many country western songs about zebras and you’ll never see one go for a million dollars or more at an auction.

Other than being an unusual species to see on a safari or visit at a zoo, zebras are of no real value to humans. They possess great talents and skills, but in simple black and white terms, they’re worthless — which is to say, they are worth less than just about any horse.

A horse can be trained what to do, and they can be motivated to do it. Not so with zebras.

While it may be true that you can’t change the spots on a leopard, it is possible to change the stripes on a zebra. It’s not easy, mind you, but it is possible.

However, you must first be able to recognize the zebras in your stable and then be willing to invest the time and the energy necessary to transform them into productive workhorses, perhaps even champion thoroughbreds.

Four tips for transformation

Here’s how:

  1. Determine if the end justifies the means. Is the zebra in your scenario worth the investment of time and energy? A part-time receptionist position is much easier to fill than one for a precision injection molding technician. While it’s not worth the time and brain damage to develop the zebra receptionist, it’s to your advantage to pour some resources into reshaping the habits of a talented technician.
  2. Identify the Zebra behavior (s) that must change. What attribute (s) would your talented zebra need to display to be a productive thoroughbred? (i.e. Do they lack professionalism? Are they undependable? Do they have a negative attitude? etc.) Whatever it is, identify it, and then clearly articulate this to your employee. Let them know that you feel they possess great talent and potential and could have a bright future with your organization, but that as long as they show a deficiency in ________, their value to you (and any other employer) is going to be greatly diminished. If they are not in agreement, that particular character flaw is not going to change. And for true growth to occur, they must own the problem and be committed to improving in that area.
  3. Establish a training plan. Significant changes in an individual’s attitudes and core work ethic values requires a well-designed plan of action, and the changes won’t happen overnight. The plan may require classroom study, coursework, or even professional counseling. Don’t naively believe a 15-minute talk in your office is going to turn a zebra into a stallion.
  4. Move ‘em up and over! No matter how well your plan works in its early stages, without a stable mentor inside the organization to help support the entire process and consistently model the desired behavior, the odds of any lasting change are minimal. This is the call of the new breed of leader, and it is examined and explained in this short video clip.

If you ignore your zebras …

The alternative to this four-step process is to simply get rid of anyone whose stripes are showing. Write them off as useless, a bust and thin your herd.

But turnover is extremely costly, and the practice of rapidly kicking non-performers to the curb is a management tactic that’s getting harder to justify. There are fewer and fewer thoroughbreds on the horizon, and a growing surplus of zebras.

So, unless you have a stable of stallions and your full of foals, the timing is right to develop your skills in zebra transformation.

This was originally published on Eric Chester’s Reviving Work Ethic blog. His new book is Reviving Work Ethic: A Leader’s Guide to Ending Entitlement and Restoring Pride in the Emerging Workforce. For copies, visit

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