How great leaders take “the unexpected” in stride
Toby was a really fun surprise.
In a period of two years, we’d lost five pets—something that comes with the territory when you are as active in rescue as my husband Paul and I are. We found ourselves thinking, “Would we be okay with just one dog and one cat?” I have lost count of the times Paul said “Sure!” when I’ve wanted to bring home another pet. So when he said he was ready for another dog, what could I say? He had done considerable research and knew he wanted a smaller dog—a female miniature Australian Shepherd, to be exact. And a rescue, of course.
The shelter said they would love to show us some miniature Aussies … but … “We have a really special Aussie mix dog that we think would be just perfect for your situation,” they wrote in an email. “Would you consider meeting him as well?” Of course they sent us a picture of the little guy, and he was amazingly beautiful. He had perfect brindle markings and a naturally docked tail like most Aussies. That Thursday we went to meet him, and we took along Caleb, our Bichon Frise/poodle mix (who helped teach us about observation, attention, and focused incentives in the February 2017 Rough Notes Leadership article).
Caleb sniffed him a few times and lay down. Toby just sat there and was very docile. It was a match.
At that time the two dogs were about the same size. We took Toby home and started to get him acclimated to the place. After a couple of days we had him checked out at the vet, and that’s when we got our first surprise. “He’s five months old and he weighs 24 pounds. Great dog,” they say. “He’ll be around 55 or 60 pounds fully grown.” Whoa! Wait! Did they say 60 pounds? That was not very miniature in our book.
As a leader, you will find yourself surprised frequently. You’ll have people who don’t necessarily react the way you would expect them to.
We quickly learned it was time to pivot. We realized we could be better parents to this dog if we knew his heritage, so we decided to drop $60 on a DNA test. Here’s what we learned about Toby: Was he Australian? Check. A herding dog? Check. Australian Shepherd? Nope. It turns out he is part Australian Cattle Dog, but he’s mostly Great Pyrenees! If you’re familiar with that breed, you’ve probably figured out what we did: This dog would be very large. Great Pyrenees—or Pyrs, as they’re often called—can weigh 120 pounds.
Toby has taught me a lot. The first and greatest lesson is simply this: Enjoy the surprises! He’s a little harder to train but still gets things in his own time. He’s so much fun, and he loves us unreservedly. Like Zeke, our shepherd mix, Toby thinks he is a lap dog, although sometimes he sort of stands on his head on the couch.
He’s a bit of a clown. Like the Aussie we were expecting, he has more energy than most dogs. That means he needs some serious exercise. Perhaps our greatest single challenge is convincing him that Pearl, the cat, does not want to be chased. She’s helping us teach him that, and eventually they are going to be great friends.
This wonderful surprise is a lesson in paying attention and being ready for anything.
By doing some basic research, we have been able to help Toby be the best dog he can possibly be. We know that he takes longer to train, so we aren’t frustrated when things don’t proceed as we’d like. If we’d continued to expect him to react like an Aussie, it would have been confusing and harder on all of us. But knowing his background means we have different expectations. He has been a model student at training classes and has been recommended as a therapy dog because he’s so gentle. We may just try that.
As a leader, you will find yourself surprised frequently. You’ll have people who don’t necessarily react the way you would expect them to. You need to be familiar with their backgrounds. Ask a lot of questions to be sure you’re teaching, leading and coaching in a style that works for them. You can’t just lead everyone the same way and expect the best result, or even similar results.
There are lots of ways to do this, the best being to simply talk to people as you go. You can study books such as Soar with your Strengths or Strengthsfinder or others. Some people are motivated by money and others by time off or attention or public recognition. You may find that some employees want to have time to read up on a topic before you visit, and some need the follow-up documentation. A few need both.
Remember the basics of learning styles in humans, too. Audio types like to hear the lessons, and some people need hands-on kinesthetic experiences to learn. Most people are visual learners. I’ve found that everyone learns best with some combination of the three.
Set expectations based on the reality of who you have on the team. It’s not a simple cut-and-dried process in every case. I’m known for using the phrase “standardize and scale!” I love that sort of efficiency model. But it doesn’t work with people. People (and dogs) can’t be standardized! Learn what motivates each one, what they need, and how they communicate.
Be the chameleon who makes the necessary adjustments to your own behavior and to the assignments you make to your team to match what your folks need the most. Don’t ask someone to do something day in and day out that is not natural for them. It happens sometimes, of course, that we have to do things that are outside our comfort zone. But if that’s all we get to do all day long, the stress will add up in negative ways. People want to do well, and they do best the things that fit their natural talents.
One trait of a Pyr involves the paw. They literally want to hold you and have a paw on you, and they will wrap their paw around your arm or knee. Toby is very gentle with this gesture. He’s still a clumsy guy, but when he wants that love, he just puts the paw on you. If I had the expectation to train that out of him, we’d both be frustrated. But knowing the trait, I can treat it appropriately and we both get what we need.
When an employee has a particular trait that you don’t understand—perhaps it’s a phrase that they use a lot or a tendency to act a certain way—pay attention. Try to find out what’s behind it. Nervous gestures also are something to note. If you can tell when someone is starting to be stressed, you can head that off or create an outlet for them.
Stress builds up in small ways, and often a number of small stresses can be harder on our bodies than one large one because we try to ignore or dismiss them. Watch for the signs and learn what each individual needs from you to be most productive.
After the initial shock of Toby wore off, we found our big surprise to be an amazing and loving addition to our lives. By taking things in stride, evaluating the situation, doing a little research, and adding a small dose of patience, we learned how best to welcome him into our little family, and we are thrilled!
But wait, there’s more
Sarah is another surprise. Just a few months after we got Toby we recognized that the balance was still off in our house. Being so young and active, Toby needed a canine running mate. Around the time we were thinking about this, fire destroyed the home of the executive director of the rescue organization where we got Toby. We responded quickly with an offer to help out by taking in a foster dog. In a few days, Sarah, a Shepherd/Chow mix, arrived.
We fell in love and so did Toby. Sarah brings real joy and exuberance to our home. Pearl the cat is doing fine, although she isn’t quite so enamored. But that’s another story.
Sometimes the surprises you get in life are much better than the plans you laid for yourself. Take time to enjoy them. And as a leader, recognize how to handle and benefit from them.
Lisa Harrington, CPCU, AAI, is the author of Taking in Strays, Leadership Lessons from Unexpected Places, a book from which this article is adapted. She is CEO of Sapphire Enterprises LLC. Connect with her at www.LisaHHarrington.com