First of all, and this is a major point, I am in no way implying that your employees are dogs. Nor am I implying that you should treat them like dogs (though some owners do treat their dogs better than they treat humans). The purpose of this post is simply to show the similarities between having a dog, which a lot of people have had experience with, and managing people, which can be a scary concept.
If you can own and train a dog, you’ve already gained some management experience.
It’s similar to the concept of a pet being a “practice child.” People often joke when a newlywed couple gets a puppy that they are just practicing for when they have actual children. No one is implying that their future child will actually be a dog, but rather that the concepts and principles of raising a puppy overlap quite a lot with those of raising a child.
And they’re right, dogs are great training wheels for becoming a parent. But they can also be great training wheels for becoming a manager. There’s a lot to be learned about management from your dog.
One of the first lessons you can learn is the importance of reinforcing the correct behaviors.
Growing up we had a poodle named Pepe. Whenever my father sneezed, Pepe would come running. Literally, running. Tearing through the house to get to him. One day we were all in the car on the way somewhere, maybe school. Me, my siblings, and Pepe in the back and my father upfront in the driver’s seat, smoking a cheap cigar and drinking a cup of coffee. About a block down the street from our house, he sneezed and, as if shot from a cannon, Pepe jumped from the back seat right into my dad’s lap, spilling hot coffee all over my father. We all survived, thankfully. Dad wasn’t all that happy, but we siblings in the back were snickering as loudly as we could without catching his ire.
My father didn’t intentionally train Pepe to act this way, so why did he? My dad had somehow reinforced this behavior to the point that it became a habit. He rewarded the behavior enough those first few times, with a pat on the head or a “good boy”, that his furry companion assumed that he would get a reward every time. He wasn’t intentionally rewarding this behavior, but he also wasn’t intentionally discouraging it either.
Take a minute to think about how you manage others. Are there any behaviors that you are unintentionally rewarding? Maybe some unwarranted or unproductive behaviors? Are you giving feedback? Enough feedback? Honest feedback? Timely feedback? Are you intentional about rewarding the behaviors that you want to reinforce and discouraging the ones you don’t?
If you don’t want to end up driving down the road, covered in coffee, with a poodle in your lap, you’d better start being more intentional with your feedback. Be fair. Be firm. Be consistent.
Second, you can learn about hiring from your search for the perfect dog.
When picking out a new dog, people do mountains of research to understand the different options available and to determine which breed is right for them.
There are a number of different factors that go into deciding which type of dog someone should get. Are they a runner looking for a companion to take on their 5 mile daily jaunts? Do they live in a small apartment in the big city with little access to parks and open areas? Are they starting a family with lots of little kids around? Different dogs are best suited to different lifestyles and living situations. A dog’s athletic inclination, size, and general demeanor are all important factors that must be taken into account before you can find the right dog for you.
You should be spending the same amount of energy and focus, if not more when finding the right candidate to join your company. Not every candidate is right for every role. You need to take into consideration their natural skills, their overall experience, their passions, their general approach to work, and more. Just looking at a resume and asking a few questions in an interview are not sufficient to ensure that you’re bringing the right person on board. You need to take the time to get to know the candidate as much as possible before you make the hire.
Third, you need to understand that some dogs need more attention than others.
There are certain breeds of dogs that are notoriously needy. They like to have their owners around all the time and start to act out if they aren’t feeling connected enough. These breeds of dogs need a little more attention paid to them than others. And it takes time to understand exactly what your dog needs from you.
The same goes for your teammates. Some of your employees will need more hand-holding than others. This is natural. Some employees will want to talk through every decision with you and some won’t want to run anything past you. You as a manager have to take the time to understand each of your employees individually to find out what they need from you in order to be successful.
It is a natural human tendency to assume that everyone else likes to be supported in the exact same way that we do. But that is simply not the case. Not everyone responds to the same sort of praise and not everyone responds to the same sort of feedback. Following the golden rule is not enough, you need to follow the platinum rule. Everyone needs something different in order to perform at their best.
Ask your employees what kind of support they want from you and tailor your approach accordingly. Continue to check in with them to see if they are still getting what they need from you and give them regular opportunities to talk about how their work is going.
Fourth, you can teach any dog new tricks.
Training a dog takes patience and consistency. They need to practice hearing commands over and over again until they understand what you’re asking of them. It can be frustrating as an owner to put in the time necessary for some of the more complex tricks and you may feel frustrated when your dog messes up along the way. But the sense of pride and accomplishment once your dog gets it is incredible.
The same goes for the training and development of your employees. Every employee should be able to set aside dedicated time for them to learn something new. You need to show them the importance of continuous learning and continual growth.
These can’t just be one and done sessions though. Not everything can be taught in a neat and tidy two-hour seminar. Some skills take much longer to develop and they need to be practiced in the real world to gain experience. This may lead to mistakes, but that is the only way that real growth happens. You have to give your employees the leeway and the grace to test out their new skills. Let them know that you welcome mistakes, as long as they are learning and growing from them.
If you place an emphasis on training and development in your organization, you’ll help your team members become the best versions of themselves. Ready to take on any challenge that comes their way. Owning and training a dog develops skills that are remarkably transferrable to the management world. So if you’re a first time manager, but a long time dog owner, you’ve got more experience than you think. Don’t be afraid to be creative in bringing that experience to the workplace.