A hat (Credit: Shutterstock)

Periodically in the financial and insurance worlds we come across an individual who has lofty ideals but rarely acts upon them. The concept is an old one — old enough that rural Texas has a phrase for it: “Big hat, no cattle.”

Though the phrase was originally reserved for a person who has a big ego but no property or all talk and no action, like a cowboy who dresses well but doesn’t own any cattle, it applies to our sector as well. If we don’t regularly take stock of the actions we take and the image we produce, we’ll let our hats get too big for ourselves.

(Related: 3 Ways to Add Skin to the Game)

We’ve all seen the concept in family life. Before I had my kids, my niece and nephew were born. I remember watching my brother and sister-in-law struggle with certain parts of parenting. In the middle of one of their hectic days of child rearing, I remarked aloud, “Please tell me that won’t happen when I have kids.”

My sister-in-law quickly responded, “You don’t have a clue until you have your own.”

I do have my own kids today, and although it’s rewarding, I think about my sister-in-law’s words often. Raising children is incredibly hard. It’s easy to tell people how they should raise their kids when you’re on the sidelines, but it’s even harder to follow that advice yourself when you’re in the middle of the struggle.

It’s the same in sales. In the old days, it was common to have a manager who threw around big ideas and recommendations without ever having practiced the concepts, just as adults judge and advise parents before they have kids.

Picture a manager who demands 15 new clients by the end of the quarter. For many, the muttered response is, “Are you kidding? Have you ever actually done this?” Without a dedicated work ethic and proven track record from the manager, it is difficult for team members to respect their guidance. If a manager’s hat is too big, no one will want to listen.

We all run the risk of letting our hats get too big if we’re not careful. I’m guilty of it myself. I occasionally catch myself giving direction that I myself have rarely, if ever, followed. This is a problem that hits all of us in waves, and it is imperative that we remain vigilant to recognize it when it happens and humble enough to shake it off when we see it. From there, we must take the action that makes us worthy of the big hat.

To overcome the “big hat, no cattle” struggle, we must:

  • Surround ourselves with the right people. The team members around us should be comfortable enough with us to honestly report if our hat has gotten too big. In turn, we should listen to their observations and respond accordingly.
  • Maintain processes that keep us grounded. If we write a process for our team that we know we would never follow, the process likely isn’t worthwhile. Stay realistic in your expectations.
  • Regularly check in with ourselves. Once a week, take stock of the language we’ve been using and the direction we’ve given. Are we administering guidance we know we ourselves would actually follow? We need to walk the talk, so our language must align with our own actions, both in the past and in the present. If our guidance doesn’t match with our past actions, we must explain what we’ve learned from those actions and why a new direction would be more beneficial.

The more we keep our hat size in line with our cattle, the better off we’ll be in our personal and professional life. The best workplace coaches are the ones who speak from experience, not some sort of idealism they’ve never lived out. When we speak according to our hat size, we increase our authority. When we take the right action, we increase our cattle. Doing both earns us respect and admiration.

— Read 6 Ways to Capture the Rewards Hiding in the Unknownon ThinkAdvisor.


John Pojeta

John Pojeta is vice president of business development at The PT Services Group. Before he joined PT, he owned and operated an Ameriprise Financial Services franchise for 16 years.