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The Management Wisdom of Buddy the Dog

(Disclaimers: 1. I'm not comparing people to dogs, but I did learn some things from Buddy about people, 2. Don't worry, that's not a wine bottle in the picture - it's a squeak toy.)

Years ago, we adopted a rescue dog named Buddy. We spent a lot of time training that dog (before we had kids). He was so well trained that he would sit or lie down with just a hand gesture from a hundred feet away. 

Buddy joined the family right around the time that I had my first role as a people manager. I learned a lot about management from him:

IMG_0826Buddy with one of his favorite squeak toys

Lesson 1. Use Positive Reinforcement: 

The way to stop a dog from jumping on people is to tell them to sit (ideally something they already know how to do.) If you praise and reward them enough, they will naturally sit instead of jump when people come through the door because that’s what gets rewarded. 

The words “no” or “don’t” are confusing, meaning everything from “stop eating that” to “get off the couch.” Most importantly, those words don’t provide an alternative behavior.

People, of course, actually understand what not to do, but they still respond better to the positive. Tell me what not to do, I will try not to do it. Tell me what to do, I will quickly become self-sufficient without needing to check whether I’m doing something wrong.  

Lesson 2. Break Things Down: 

When a well-trained dog, like Buddy, comes on command, it looks like a single behavior. It’s really the sum of many behaviors. The dog learns to sit, then stay, then there’s a series of lessons on leash at various distances, then off-leash. 

People are often asked to do things they haven’t done before. The results are mixed. Feedback like “you need to be more strategic” or “ you need to present better” creates confusion. What does being more strategic look like? What specific elements of presenting do you need to work on - the slides? The pace? The tone?  

For complex tasks, it helps to break the work into specific behaviors that can be joined together. Mastery of the parts leads to mastery of the whole. 

Lesson 3. Invest Time in Training: 

Buddy hasn’t been with us for many years now. We now have a beagle (Jenny) and a beagle mix (Macy) who are both wonderful dogs but incredibly badly trained. It’s our own fault. We didn’t put in the hours like with Buddy. You can’t let Macy or Jenny off-leash across a soccer field. They’d run off. Buddy’s level of mastery and independence came from the time we invested in his training. 

Training people is worth the time. A well-trained team is more productive, resilient, and independent. The manager spends less time troubleshooting and correcting. The manager gets to level up, and everyone is happier because they feel empowered rather than micromanaged. 

So that’s what Buddy taught me about leadership. Smart dog. 

Empowered middle managers are essential to effective, proprioceptive organizations. If you are looking for support for the middle managers in your organization, or you’re a middle manager looking for coaching, send me a message at