Why You Should Treat Employees Like Puppies


Most of my writing at Inc. Well is inspired by activities in Chicago’s business community. This post is inspired by my dog, Cooper.

Cooper and I met two months ago. Back then he was an 8-week-old furball with a penchant for chewing floor molding. As first-time dog owners, my wife and I did the most sensible thing anyone would do when faced with a new challenge – we sought the advice of an expert. So, we hired a dog trainer -- or “dog whisperer” as we call him now.

Six sessions later, I’ve come to realize that the approach to successfully training a puppy is the same approach every CEO and business owner should take with their employees.

If I want Cooper to do what I want, like stop treating our remote control like a chew toy, I need to command his respect. But respect cannot be forced through a “command-style” leadership approach. Rather, it needs to be earned through care, nurture and patience.

With Cooper, I must be the “four C’s:" cool, calm, confident and collected. Likewise, I’ve found that successful business leaders adopt a similar mindset.

At a past Chicago Innovation Awards event, we hosted a panel discussion featuring several business leaders. When asked, “What two words describe your leadership style?” Jack Philbin, CEO of mobile marketing pioneer Vibes replied “By example.”

Whether your follower is a dog or a person, leading by example is the source of follower inspiration. It’s also a critical ingredient for creating the right environment and culture.

As Cooper’s pack leader, I set the tone for our interactions. I must constantly exude positive energy because his behavior mirrors mine. When I yell, he barks. When I’m calm and confident, he follows my lead. And when he does, that’s when I reward him. It creates a positive feedback loop of desired behaviors, actions, and ultimately, mutual achievements.

Great business leaders know the importance of how their actions are the most important element in fostering a positive culture. A number of books have been written on the topic.

One of my favorites is "Sacred Hoops," in which author Phil Jackson, former coach of the Chicago Bulls discusses “staying calmly focused in the midst of chaos, so that the ‘me’ becomes the servant of the ‘we.” And he stresses being understanding of mistakes.

In "Apples are Square: Thinking Differently about Leadership," authors Susan and Tom Kuczmarski emphasize that today’s business leaders should focus on developing personal traits like humility, compassion, and transparency, as well as ensuring that collaboration inclusiveness, and values-based decisiveness are employed to inspire and motivate others.

So whether you’re staring down a Shih Tzu or a salesman, remember that all followers respond to compassion and consistency. If you can remember that, expect employee happiness to go up, and urine stains on the carpet to go down.

Luke Tanen is executive director of the Chicago Innovation Awards, the region’s foremost celebration of new products and services, and co-author of Innovating…Chicago-Style, which tells the stories of 80 Chicago-area innovators who have launched groundbreaking new products and services over the past decade.

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