Most Tuesday evenings, Taquito (my 18-month old Border Terrier) and I can be found at dog training classes. We’ve been doing this since he was a puppy. At first, it was mostly to teach him basic skills — like not going indoors or how to walk on a loose leash… A year and bit later, we’ve progressed beyond the basic needs and stuck to the programme mostly for fun and to learn a few cool tricks.
After all, Tuesday evening is the one time in the week when the two of us have each other’s undivided attention — and I get to think of nothing else. Because when you are working with a dog, you must be 100% present: you can’t look at your phone as you say a command out loud because the dog won’t know if it’s meant for them or not, or think of something else while executing a trick as you’ll miss the precise time when the treat reward needs to be delivered.
So while this may have originally started as a way for me to teach Taquito something new, over time he has taught me much more than I have him. He has made me realise that for us to become a great team, there are a few things I must always keep in mind. These 10 principles, which I have listed below, have also been incredibly helpful in my everyday job leading a team of 60+ people (planners, technical consultants and account handlers) for one of the largest media agencies in the UK. I hope some of these will be helpful to you too, whatever it is you do in life.
1. Be clear and precise. Different to human beings, dogs can’t extract meaning beyond the command given. Ambiguity for them does not mean room for interpretation as it does for most humans; it means confusion. If a specific outcome is desired, the command must be clear and precise.
Clarity and precision are invaluable to fostering teamwork and collaboration, especially under tight deadlines (for example, during a pitch) or on complex projects with multiple dependencies. In these situations, the ability to clearly lay out expectations, especially to more junior members of a team, is important to ensure everyone has an opportunity to create their best work and contribute meaningfully to a project.
2. Be consistent. Similar to humans, dogs learn out of repetition: a certain command must be done many times before we can consider it an embedded behaviour. Consistency is fundamental in cementing the knowledge: if at every repetition the command changes slightly (either the vocal or hand gesture), the likelihood to succeed is decreased.
When working as part of a team, consistency is equally important. It is how individuals begin to trust each other as part of a whole. As a leader that consistency (and I should also add coherence) helps develop a minimum standard across the team and the right behavioural tone as we lead by example.
3. Don’t force it. As tricks get more difficult, you can easily be tempted to try it one more time until it works. However, hammering on and on when things aren’t working is a recipe for disaster: it leads to no fun, no learning, and more importantly, it can undermine the bond built previously through hard work as both parties, dog and owner, get frustrated.
I have seen this happen to teams too — more often than not, under difficult situations (a trying problem, a tricky client). When this happens, taking a step back, doing something else, and then trying something different when everyone has had time to switch off usually leads to the eureka moment and the (then obvious) solution. As a leader, it is important to know when to push on, and more importantly, when to take that break… and sometimes, when to let others take the lead too.
4. Take responsibility. When a command does not lead to the expected result, chances are the handler (in this case the human) has made a mistake: either delivering the command too quickly or unclearly. The first step, then, is to focus on what you could have done better before placing the blame on the dog.
This immediate demand for self-awareness and kindness towards your working partner is something that also directly translates to effective teamwork. Being able to ask oneself, what could I do better to enable my teammates to do great work leads to teams where everyone is accountable for the role they play and committed to delivering for others.
5. Trust your partner. Repeating a command too many times without giving the dog a chance to understand what’s being asked and deliver the action required is a common mistake. Not only does this undermine the importance of the request, but it also creates less accountability in the partnership: it isn’t uncommon for dogs to decrease in responsiveness as they know the handler will ask for the behaviour a second or third time.
Giving people a sense of ownership in the work delivered is part of creating an effective team. To enable that, every member must have room to listen, understand and act. ‘Micromanaging’ or overly directing team members — regardless of seniority — is stifling. The most rewarding experiences from teamwork come from giving people the time and space to surprise themselves and the team.
6. Vary up the setting. To truly consider a behaviour learned, the dog should be able to do it in different settings. By changing things like location, time of day or by adding distractions, dogs learn that a command is applicable to many different situations. This is crucial in delivering progress throughout the training.
The kind of work that most of us do today, often takes place in the same (or at least a similar) setting so, occasionally, it is useful to shake things up to awaken creativity. Off-sites are particularly good at achieving this but smaller changes like a different setting (a coffee shop for example), some added constraints, or new team members can force a change to the day-to-day workings of a team; in many cases, with long-lasting, positive effects.
7. Build on your accomplishments. As you progress through dog training, it is common to find tricks that require breaking down into two or more behaviours that, when strung together, can deliver a more complex action. These are often known as “shaped behaviours” and success on these is dependent on building upon previously mastered, simpler behaviours. Interestingly, shaped behaviours highlight how every dog learns differently from others so the handler must observe and understand the strengths and weaknesses of the dog to coach accordingly.
As tasks within a team are delivered more than once, we begin to understand who is good at doing what and assign the work accordingly. Initially, as mastery is developed, this proves effective and efficient. Yet with time, it leads to boredom and decrease in team productivity. Creating great teams, hence, requires approaching teamwork with a growth mindset: understanding what inherent talents each member contributes, but more importantly, how each team member can strengthen the others and build on shared success over time.
8. Leave on a high. Keeping yourself and your dog motivated throughout the training is tough, especially as tricks get harder! One of the best ways to end a difficult training session is to go back to a favourite trick and finish on a couple of repetitions of this. Not only does it help ease off the frustration that may have built up while trying harder tricks before, but it is also a precious reminder of what you and your dog have accomplished together.
I have seen high performing teams lose momentum many times. There’s often a turning point when the emphasis on how the work could be better takes a toll on what is working well. This ability to understand opportunities for improvement is crucial but this can act as a double-edge sword when it becomes the only area of focus: it is demotivating. As a team leader, it is important to ensure the team never loses track of their accomplishments — especially during tough times — so that momentum is maintained into the future.
9. Celebrate every achievement. One of the most enjoyable parts of training a dog is how excited they get when a trick works and we get to celebrate together. So much so, that it has made me realise I don’t do this enough in other areas of life. The bond that is created when you share that moment of joint achievement is strong and continues to build on as tricks get harder… it becomes part of the motivation to get things done.
In a team, there is always that person who is positive (in demeanour and language), and celebrates the small and big victories of the team. I call these people team builders: their energy is contagious and they help everyone else bring the best of themselves to work. As a team leader, it is important to find and take care of these team builders: they are the glue that keeps the team together and constantly remind us that, no matter how small, an achievement should be celebrated.
10. Make time for fun. Every dog training session I’ve attended has time built in for play. A bit of ‘tug time’ here and there is a great aid in keeping concentration of both, dog and owner, high throughout the session. It is also a great reminder that — while we are there to get results — we are mostly there to do so in an enjoyable way.
Fun time is equally important to creating great teams. It is those conversations at the pub or during a social activity that give you a glimpse into your teammates lives outside of work. We spend a lot of time in a work setting (most of us at least two thirds of our week); so I’ve always endeavoured to make my team feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work. This matters to the work itself too: knowing your teammates well makes it easier to understand why they do things — their values and motivations. And I’d venture a guess that, while work results are incredibly important for most of us, so too is delivering these in an enjoyable setting where everyone can be themselves. A bit of play time never hurts.
Life gives us lessons through many different routes so I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article if you have time. What have you learned outside of work that has been useful to delivering great work? How do you motivate yourself and your team?