In her professional speaking and executive coaching career, Shawna Schuh, Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), frequently draws on her years of raising animals and working with Women in the Pet Industry Network.
JATHAN JANOVE: You sometimes tell executives to get a dog. Why?
SHAWNA SCHUH: If you want a dog to behave a certain way, you have to focus on your own behavior. You can’t blame the dog. You have to examine what you need to do differently. The same principle can be used with leading people.
JJ: What are some examples?
SS: One is consistency. Most executives have no idea of how inconsistently they behave around their employees. They aren’t aware of the number of times they reverse course, give inconsistent instructions, change assignments, or behave differently based on the mood they’re in. “The boss didn’t smile and say hello this morning—uh oh!”
JJ: How does the issue of consistency apply to training animals?
SS: If you want a dog to sit or a horse to canter, you can’t be inconsistent. If you are, you won’t get the results you desire. This principle teaches you to focus specifically on the behaviors you want to see, identify your own behaviors that will produce them, and discipline yourself to be consistent with those behaviors.
JJ: What about praise?
SS: The best animal trainers don’t focus on the behaviors they don’t want. They focus on the ones they want. It’s not “No! No!” or “Don’t!” It’s praising the trainees and positively reinforcing certain actions—whether it’s with a treat or a display of affection.
These lessons can be carried into the workplace. Instead of running around looking for things to criticize, an effective leader looks for things to praise, and does it not just with words but with tone and body language that convey a message of true appreciation.
JJ: What other leadership lessons come from working with animals?
SS: I remember an occasion when I’d cinched my mare (evidently, too tightly), and she tried to bite me. I was outraged! I remained mad until my husband said to me, “She’s forgotten about that already. Why don’t you?”
The lesson is: You can growl, but then move on. Don’t hold a grudge.
Another lesson: Animals don’t lie because they have no hidden agendas. But, if employees lie, it’s usually for a very important reason—they want to remain employed. As a leader, are you behaving in ways that unwittingly encourage your employees to lie or pursue hidden agendas?
JJ: Any final advice that corporate leaders can glean from working with animals?
SS: Just as you would help your dog sit until he or she understands the command, set up your own consistent patterns with your employees. For example, begin every conversation with a pleasant tone, whether in person or over the phone, and when you arrive at work, acknowledge everyone with their first names.
I’m not saying pets or other animals are the same as human beings. I’m saying that consistent, positive actions pay off, regardless of species.