What Puppy Training Can Teach Us About Leading a Team

January 24, 2024

By Lisa B. McNeill, PCC

We brought home a new puppy just before New Year’s. 

Day Two, and we were teetering between puppy joy and exhaustion, mixed with a good dose of anxiety.  We asked ourselves, “Are we doing it right?” “Have we ruined this experience for her so she’ll never be able to use (fill-in the blank: the crate, the leash, the food dish, etc.)?”  We understood that every moment was a training moment, but was what and how we were teaching her correct?”   

We’ve had dogs for 23 years now, but our last (and only) puppy before this was 23 years ago. Even though we have had three great dogs, we were beginning to question whether we could raise a new puppy into a great dog. So, we did what many people do now when they bring home a new puppy – we watched lots of YouTube training videos! 

Day Three hit, with loads of videos under our belts, and I started thinking about how having a new puppy – or a new dog of any age – is a lot like leading a team: if you want success from the beginning, show what you want from them, tell them what success looks like, and praise them for a good job.

Mazie, our new puppy, does not naturally like the crate. But we know she will be happier and safer if she uses it at night and while we are away or in meetings. Each day gets a little easier as we practice with her getting used to the crate and using it for certain periods of time.

Pepper, our old recue dog, spent the first 2.5 years of her life in a crate, so when she came to us, the crate was no problem for her. However, she had never walked on a leash before, so we had to spend a lot of time and provide a lot of patience in order to give Pepper the opportunity we knew she deserved – going on fun and safe walks.

Sometimes, when I’m working with new managers or new CEOs, they tell me they feel like members in their teams or organizations don’t know their roles.  I ask them, “Do you have position descriptions, and do you make use of them?”

We spend time talking about how an employee would actually know what their role is in the team or organization and how the leader might bring some clarity to that through setting expectations. We might also delve into how project development and planning get done so that team members (and the leader) know their roles on various projects. (My colleague Dave Bushy had an excellent article on “micro-knowing” for leaders.)     

Leaders, especially new leaders, can also have challenges delegating. Sometimes they say, “It’s just easier to do it myself.”  In this case, we talk about how their role has expanded with a lot more responsibility. I might ask, “Do you think you’ll continue to have time to do that work as well as your new, expanded responsibilities?” And, “What will happen if your team member doesn’t have the opportunity to learn that task (correctly) – will they be able to grow in their role?”  (I don’t mind picking up our 13-pound puppy right now to teach her how to go potty outside, but I sure don’t want to do that when she’s 40 or 50 pounds!  And that’s not my role in our relationship.)

Finally, if the puppy training videos are teaching us anything, it is this: puppies and dogs need praise to understand when they do something correctly, and they need to be redirected if they do something wrong.  I’m not saying your employees need a “good boy” or “good girl” when they do something right or make a positive contribution, but even a person who says they don’t need recognition or thanks needs it. They need to know that their work is appreciated and valued. We all do.  One-on-one meetings to review workplans and accomplishments and annual performance reviews provide excellent opportunities to talk about what is working and what needs to be adjusted.

Oh, and one last thing: my husband pointed out that the “experts” making the videos are gracious enough to talk about their mistakes too. It was a good reminder to give ourselves some grace when we don’t always get it right on the way to raising an excellent dog.

Lisa McNeill is an ICF-certified coach and consultant who works with leaders in a wide array of industries as well as those in transition. Throughout her career, she has worked to build and develop strong teams in international to grassroots settings.

Photo: Puppy Mazie Gray at 8 weeks old.

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