Down CEO! Down!

I learn a lot about leading and communicating from my dog. In fact, if I’d have known there was such a treasure trove of learning to be had from owning a dog, I’d have gotten one years ago when I was just starting my management career. Our dog is nothing special, ok, well, she is to us.  She’s a sweet 1-year-old sunshine yellow lab named Peaches with two basic speeds: I love everything and I couldn’t possibly move a muscle.

Since we got the dog six months ago, we’ve taken her to classes at a local dog training company. The most surprising thing about dog training is this: the classes really aren’t for the dog, they are for us. Most of the class is taken up with the trainers teaching us how to communicate to our dog (verbally and nonverbally) and lead her through a series of actions that help us get a desired behavior or outcome. And it actually works really well. Sure, there is the occasional scuffle or accident on the floor (usually by the dogs, not us) but for the most part, the dogs are highly successful and learn quickly.

I’m no expert on dogs or dog training and I haven’t even bothered to google it for this article.  But I do know that a few simple truths about training dogs can help technology leaders get better results at work, too:

  1.  Set clear expectations for success.
  2.  Reward desired outcomes.
  3. Honor the golden rule of communication.

Set clear expectations for success. Be clear.  What will success look like? Think it through and then share it with those who need to carry out the work. For dogs, this might mean showing them that “sit” means put your butt on the floor and guiding them into this position the first few times with a treat as a lure.  It’s not telling them over and over again to “sit” and hoping that someday they will become conversant in people-speak and will just do it.  For technology teams it might mean sharing the product vision, benefits, goals, and initial approach. Helping your team see the vision may take 60 seconds or as long as a few hours – max.  If it’s more than that, you probably haven’t broken down the work and expectations in your own mind well enough to share it with others.  Do some thinking and upfront work first and then share it with others.

Reward desired outcomes. Ok, so now they know what success looks like.  You told them, showed them and have even encouraged them with treats.   Now it’s time to let them practice, to deliver the desired outcome.  Along the way it’s your job as a leader to give them a loose leash and pay enough attention to correct or reward quickly to help them stay on track.  This really is a timing thing and while hard for many managers these days, it absolutely requires that you pay attention. Rewarding desired outcomes as they happen leads to more desired outcomes while reprimanding after the fact mostly just leads to a mess to clean up.

Honor the golden rule of communication. What’s the golden rule of communication?  Communicate with others as they wish to be communicated with.  Now sure, I’m not a dog, so I can’t speak to Peaches exactly as others dogs would but I can adapt my style to connect with her in ways she understands. The same can be applied to technology leadership.  When communicating with nontechnical people, like business customers, if we keep using “geekspeak” we might as well be standing there saying “sit, stay, heel” all day waiting for something to happen. It doesn’t take a lot to adapt our communication, and little changes can have a huge impact.

Start with the words you use and where possible, speak their language. Consider the point you wish to make and translate it into language a nontechnical audience will understand. When you can, demonstrate how it works or what to expect, just like we did when teaching the dog to sit.  And lastly, pay attention – really. For example, if you notice that your CEO speaks and walks quickly and you tend to move and speak more slowly, practice bringing up your energy, succinctness, and pace when in conversation with her.  This isn’t about losing yourself and not being who you are but it is about creating the type of connection where requests can pass more smoothly from you to her and back again.

As you move through these practices, take note of your successes, course correct where you need to, and remember that it’s a good idea to offer treats along the way.

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