Sunday, April 24, 2011

Leading From the Paws Up

I have three dogs and enjoy competitive dog training as a hobby. As a result, I have read dozens of dog training books, attended numerous dog training seminars, and spent many, many hours training dogs. Cultural references to "pack leadership" aside, I have found many parallels between good dog training, good teaching, and good leadership:

1. Consistency counts
Have you ever been jumped on by a dog with muddy paws? Dogs jumping up on people is a very common problem. When dogs are puppies, jumping up is often encouraged (the dogs are small, after all) and dogs are rewarded for this behavior with affection and attention.  ("Ohhhh, what a CUTE puppy!") However, this behavior often causes problems when the dog gets older aand bigger.  It's not fun being jumped on by an 80 pound laborador retriever!  Suddenly the dog gets yelled at for jumping on people and owners start complaining that their dog is being "dominant." The reality is that the dog is performing a behavior for which it was previously rewarded.  And then we humans, who rewarded the behavior for months, blame the dog.

Are you consistent as a leader? Do your employees know what you expect, and do you follow through on those expectations? Do you allow some employees to get away with certain behaviors but not others?  Do you often arrive late for meetings, then castigate staff who do the same? Do you blame employees for behaviors that you are not consistent about reinforcing? Do you "walk the talk?"

2. Positive Reinforcement works
I am a huge fan of positive reinforcement techniques in dog training. Popularized by trainers such as Ian Dunbar and Karen Pryor, positive reinforcement training works by emphasizing what the dog is doing right, and rewarding that behavior.  As my favorite dog trainer, Brenda Aloff, says in her wonderful book Get Connected With Your Dog: Emphasizing The Relationship While Training Your Dog:
"When I think about the training process, I am always thinking of ways I can communicate clearly and emphasize telling the dog she is right.  That is what the primary emphasis of all your training should be."
Positive reinforcement is just as important for leaders. This does NOT mean that you avoid setting boundaries and expectations for employees.  However, it does mean that emphasizing what an employee is doing right and reinforcing that behavior makes it far easier to modify unwanted behaviors. Scientific research abounds on the subject, starting with the work of B.F. Skinner.

3. Remember, everyone sees the world differently than you do
One of my favorite authors is reknowed animal scientist and autism advocate Temple Grandin.  She herself is autistic and has written several books in which she describes how she, being autistic, "sees" the world in pictures, not abstract thoughts.  She feels this has given her a unique insight into animal behavior, because animals "see" the world in a similar way. In her book Animals in Translation, she writes: "Whenever you're having a problem with an animal, try to see what the animal is seeing and experience what the animal is experiencing."

In my last post I discussed how I hold regular Technology Roundtables at my school to encourage regular dialogue between myself and our faculty. It is critical that I try continuously to view technology through their eyes so I can best meet their needs.  I think all leaders need to make a regular, consistent effort to see the different viewpoints of people throughout their organization.  It isn't always easy.  But making the effort to see the world as others see it - and remembering that their viewpoint is no less valid than yours - goes a long way towards building positive relationships and increasing a leader's effectiveness.

4. Are your expectations clear?
Very often, when a dog does not follow a cue, or engages in a behavior that you think the dog "knows" is wrong, it is because he is confused or because you have been inconsistent in communicating your expectations.  For instance, my husband complains that our dogs like to nap on the couch.  However, in the evenings, when we are watching TV, the dogs will frequently jump up on the couch to snuggle with us. Since at no point in their lives have we made it clear that they are only allowed on the couch when specifically invited, they assume it is OK to hang out on the couch regardless of whether we are present.  We could retrain this behavior, but it would require training and consistency on both of our parts, and my husband has not the slightest interest in dog training.  So the dogs will continue to nap on the couch and my husband will continue to complain about it, and occasionally shoo them off.

As a leader, how often do we assume that we have made our expectations clear, when in fact they were not fully understood by our team?  It has been my experience that there are often expectations which are left unsaid, even if we "think" we have explained ourselves thoroughly. As Daniel W. Davenport once said, "The greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished." I have found that the overwhelming number of problems I encounter during a work day are often caused by misunderstood or unclear expectations. I have also learned that when someone does not meet my expectations, I first need to take a long hard look at myself to see if I really communicated my expectations as clearly as I thought I did.  I often find that even if it pains me to admit it, the fault is mine, not theirs.

5. Are your actions aligned with what you say?
Dogs are extremely sensitive to body language, much more than to verbal commands.   I have often found that when a dog does not follow a cue, or doesn't do it correctly, it is often because there is something in my body language that contradicts what I just said.  Dogs, for instance, are extremely sensitive to physical space and the pressure of having someone move into their personal space. If my give a dog a cue to come in close to me, but there is something in my body language that tells my dog to stay slightly away, the fault is mine, not the dog's.

How many leaders do we know who say one thing but do another? Actions truly do speak louder than words, especially when you are in a leadership position.  If you talk about the importance of team building, but gossip about your employees behind their back, are you really committed to team building?  If you encourage your employees to come to you with new ideas, then fail to give them credit, are you encouraging your employees to think creatively?  If you tell your employees that you have confidence in their abilities, then proceed to micromanage them to death, what message does that send?

6. The relationship comes first!
Perhaps the most important leadership principle I have learned from dog training comes from Brenda Aloff, author of several wonderful dog training books.  Brenda taught me that developing relationship with your dog - a relationship based on mutual trust and understanding - is the foundation upon which dog training is built.  If you establish a good relationship with your dog, training your dog to compete is easy.  If the relationship is missing, your dog may obey your commands but will never give his best effort, nor will he trust you. Suzanne Clothier articulates the impact of this relationship beautifully in Bones Would Rain From the Sky, a book I highly recommend even if you aren't in a "canine" relationship!

Building a relationship with those you lead is no different. All of the principles above contribute to building good relationships with people.  Good relationships make it so much easier to resolve (or prevent) conflict and inspire people to do their best work. Brenda does a beautiful job outlining protocols you can use to build a relationship with your dog in her Get Connected book, but she also got me thinking about the importance of having specific protocols in place to build relationships with people you are leading. Do you just let things happen as they may, or do you have a plan to build those relationships with those you lead?  If so, what specific actions are you taking to build those relationships on a regular basis? Many leaders talk about developing relationships with people but don't have an action plan in place.  It's not enough to say "I like this person" or "I'm a supportive boss." Nurturing relationships takes time, thought, and regular action. However, I have found it increases my leadership effectiveness a hundredfold. 

How are you building relationships with your employees?

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Value of Roundtables

Last year, at the suggestion of my colleague @ckoos1, I started having technology roundtables with our faculty. It gives our teachers the opportunity to share their concerns, problems, ideas, etc. about technology at my school. Every roundtable is different and I never know exactly how it will go or how many people will show up. Sometimes I might get 8 or 9 teachers, other times 2-3. But no matter how many people attend, it is a valuable learning experience for me.

Discussion topics range widely, with teachers doing most of the talking.  I give them the chance to vent about their technology related concerns, no matter how minor they might seem to me.  It is good for me to listen to their perspective, to get back into a teacher's world, instead of the world in which I currently reside as a school IT Director.  My job, after all, is to support them in doing theirs! I am reminded of how difficult teaching is, how emotionally draining.  Sometimes my department gets positive feedback, sometimes negative. I always learn how I can improve, and I value their honesty.

Some of what I hear is a surprise to me, some of it is not.  Sometimes the round table meetings leave me frustrated.  I learn of unresolved technical support issues which make it harder for the teachers to do their jobs, or meet with resistance to learning new technologies. I am reminded how much support teachers need when learning to integrate technology tools into their teaching, and how it is my responsibility to see that they get it.  Institutional change doesn't happen overnight, and it is an ongoing process.

Other times, the roundtables leave me inspired. At a mid-February roundtable, a discussion about project-based learning led me to show the teachers present Tony Vincent's terrific video on the subject. After our meeting, one of the teachers spent her entire winter break planning a project-based learning assignment for two of her English classes.  They just recently finished their projects, and I got to watch her students present their digital media projects created entirely on our class set of iPads!  She also had her classes start blogging for the first time! Perhaps the most exciting part for me is that this teacher, an amazing, National Board Certified education professional, does not describe herself as a “digital native.” This was a big step outside the box for her, and it was exciting to see what her students came up with. Were it not for the technology roundtable, the interchange of ideas that sparked this project would never have happened.

I think that as leaders it is so easy to get caught up in day-to-day administrative activities that we forget how important it is to seek continuously the perspective of those around us.  Regularly scheduling opportunities to seek that input helps keep me honest in that regard. 

So I will continue holding our technology roundtables on a regular basis.  Because they help me remember that ultimately it my job is to help everyone else at my school do their jobs better.