4 Things I Learned About Leadership By Training a Puppy
Turns out, raising a puppy and leading a team aren’t all that different.
A few months ago, I became a statistic. I got a pandemic puppy. After a 7 month waitlist, Mrs. Maisel now sits at my feet as I work from home, chewing on toys and shoes during meetings and adorably tilting her head in my direction when she hears the “thanks, bye!” that signals the end of another Zoom meeting.
Also in 2020, I started leading a team at work. While I’d managed in previous organizations, this was my first time building a team and managing other people’s careers.
Do you know what I’ve learned so far? Training a puppy is not all that different from managing a team.
Building a team and being a good manager is hard. For one, being a great individual contributor does not mean you’ll be an impactful manager. Even if you have incredible management instincts or have been called a “natural born leader,” that doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be a great manager and be able to help someone navigate their own journey to leadership.
Do you know what else is hard? Training a puppy. A sweet puppy smile or a cherubic sleeping puppy face do not translate into a well-behaved, easy-to-train-puppy! Learning how to sit does not mean they’ll listen to everything else you say (unfortunately). Since I’m currently training Mrs. Maisel while at the same time learning how to be a better manager, here are a few similarities I’ve discovered between the two.
Talk Less, Smile More
With a puppy, fewer words are better. Anyone who knows me knows “talking less,” as Aaron Burr suggests, does not come naturally to me. But after weeks of trial and lots of error, I’ve learned that instead of a dissertation on why Maisel needs to sit before I put on her harness, a simple and firm “Sit” will do.
As a manager, it’s less about using fewer words, and more about using those words carefully. I’ve found the shift from tactician to strategist to be one of the hardest parts of the leadership transition. So, I’ve learned to ask more questions instead of jumping straight to giving answers. That way, instead of me coming up with ideas and remaining tactical, my team can arrive at the next steps themselves and move projects forward.
Sometimes, I deliberately aim to talk less. In meetings, I try to let others take the lead so they can get exposure to executives and take on new projects. This also means I get practice supporting rather than doing. While I still have to make a conscious effort not to be the first to respond, I’m already seeing the benefits of stepping back so my team can step forward — and we’re all growing as a result.
Praise and Recognition Are Important Motivators
Treats are the easy, go-to reward for puppy training. However, I’m often delinquent in refilling the treat bag, and I don’t exactly carry it with me around the house. After reading the puppy blogs and AKC books I’ve learned that verbal praise is as integral as treats. I now shower Maisel with a hearty dose of “Good girl!” and “I’m so proud!” in my highest and happiest falsetto. Maisel seems pleased, and it often works!
While I wouldn’t dare subject my team to my puppy voice (you’re welcome!), they do deserve verbal recognition of their hard work. With a puppy, you need to reward behavior when you see it, otherwise, your puppy won’t remember what they did to deserve your adoration. A team should be no different — why save praise and recognition for annual awards or the completion of a major project? Instead, I strive to make sure I recognize good work as I see it, no matter how large or small. When recognition is timely, it’s an incredible motivator and feedback mechanism. Especially when everything has been particularly stressful this past year, I want to make sure my team knows how much I value their contributions.
A Little Patience Goes a Long Way
Maisel couldn’t care less if I have a meeting to attend, or if it’s 20 degrees outside and I forgot my gloves — she will take her sweet time outside, and I can do nothing except repeat “Go potty” and wait. And wait. Having patience should be the number one requirement for getting a dog, and spoiler alert: I am not patient! But I don’t have a choice, so every day I’m learning to try again with a command and a training session, and eventually, she’ll get there.
At work, I can’t expect my team to learn and grow if I’m the first to respond on an email thread or jump in with an idea. I need to give others an opportunity, which means giving them time. Practicing patience is the best thing I can do for my own development and my team’s growth, so it’s something I have to work on daily — it’s that important!
You Learn From Them as Much as They Learn From You
When I hired a trainer to help me teach Maisel not to jump up on people, I thought I was hiring someone to teach her. Instead, the trainer spent time teaching me the appropriate tone of voice to use, and the importance of body language. There really are no poorly behaved dogs, just poorly trained humans!
I shouldn’t be surprised by how much I learn from my team. I’m constantly learning from how my team engages and interacts with others. I’m inspired by how they approach problem-solving because it’s often so different from how I’d approach it. I watch closely as they lead meetings, propose new ideas, or respond to questions. Approaching leadership and puppy training as bi-directional learning opportunities has helped me grow and learn more every day.
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