Make Sense: Leadership From The End Of The Leash

Over the last two months, I was privileged to create and deliver a seminar called “Survive – and THRIVE! – Through Change” to my organization’s front line leaders. It was well-received and confirmed to me that there’s something for me to build on as I start expanding from writing to speaking. Delivering my program – I was the actualized Todd.

In the program, I used lessons learned during my time as a Military Working Dog Handler in the Air Force to explore some factors that drive effectiveness in moving through change for people, teams, and organizations. I’m building on this concept to create a larger program focusing on the foundations of effective leadership. I’ve named it “Leadership From The End Of The Leash”. Today I want to share one concept from that program:

Make Sense

As I talk about in another section (Fail Small, but I haven’t shared it online yet) as new Military Working Dog handler students, our first “partners” were empty 5-gallon dog food buckets. We began to learn Basic Obedience commands and practiced them daily – first with those buckets, later with our dogs. As another section (Practice What You Do And You Will Do What You Practice, again, not online yet…) describes, we practiced basic obedience every day, even after we moved to more advanced topics. We were continually practicing and polishing our own abilities. But how hard can it be to deliver those commands for basic obedience?

Like any skill taught by the military, basic obedience was to be executed just so. The verbal command had to match the tone of the voice and the hand gesture. And it didn’t stop at delivering the command. What happened next was just as important. Your dog didn’t obey the command? Deliver a correction. Repeat the command. Your dog followed the command? Verbal and physical praise! Excited tones! Vigorous scratching and petting!

Fail to offer sufficient praise? Didn’t have enough excitement in the tone of your voice? Physical praise was lacking? Time for some PRAISE DRILLS! This really wasn’t an issue by the time we had the dogs as partners BECAUSE WE SPENT LOTS OF TIME PRAISING THOSE BUCKETS! Praise drills – 60 seconds of over-the-top praise for our plastic companions did wonders for our commitment. Feel silly praising the bucket? Maybe on day one. Certainly not by day five.

Before we ever took our real dogs out of the kennels for the first time, the lesson had been learned, reinforced, and was in the process of being mastered. Obedience training wasn’t about a command word. It was the summation of all of those pieces that we delivered. Verbal command. Tone of voice. Hand gesture. Reinforcement.

This was another leadership lesson being delivered. It’s not enough to say the right things. All of our messages – what we did, said, and showed the dogs mattered. All of those pieces needed to make sense.

As a leader, do you Make Sense? Ask yourself:

  • Do you pay attention to all the ways you can communicate your intent?
  • You may say one thing but do your actions support those words?
  • The things you say, the actions you take, your formal and informal interactions with your people – do the messages align in each of those channels?
  • What do you do after you’ve delivered your message? Does it support your intent?

Ask yourself. But more importantly, ask your people! If your organization has a mechanism for anonymous feedback, use it! But be prepared: the first time you receive anonymous feedback from your team it may shock you. It sure shocked me!

Have you ever seen a leader (or someone who should be leading!) say the right words but fail to connect with their people? Did the message ring hollow? Could it be that they never connected all the ways that we communicate our thoughts, values, or intent? Did they reinforce their intent after they shared the message?

A few years ago, my organization had a senior “leader” (thankfully no longer with the company) who perfectly fit this example. We were working to adopt the FISH! Philosophy to drive employee engagement. This “leader” aped all of the mechanics of the program. He used bright colors in his emails to the organization. He inserted the buzz words into his communications. And that was as far as he went.

The FISH! Philosophy requires more than simply knowing the four tenets that Wikipedia will share with you. This person failed to “walk the walk”. He certainly wasn’t making someone’s day or being present with the people he should be leading. So guess what? That initiative died on the vine.

I’m grateful for the continued opportunities to learn and grow. Last month, at the final session with our Team Leaders, I was talking with Kim, one of our TLs. Kim works out of a different office than me and supports a different product than I do. So while we don’t interact with each other every day, we’ve worked with each other plenty on various projects spanning the last few years. During that work, I’ve come to respect Kim and her abilities. In addition to being a strong leader, she’s demonstrated the depth of her technical abilities time and again. I’ve counted on her as someone who can lead her folks through change. She gets the strategy behind our tactical work.

She told me that during one of the project meetings we were both in, she felt really validated when I told the group that I was really interested in, and deferred to, Kim’s perspective on the course of action we were discussing. She said that me deferring to her perspective was validating. It was a defining moment for her, she said.

I was shocked when she told me this. Shocked because I’d been counting on Kim for her perspective for quite some time – well before I specifically asked for her thoughts at that project call. Kim and I are not in the same leadership hierarchy. If you go high enough up each of our chains you get to the same very senior leader. But from a practical perspective we just work in different areas. And my tier (Director) is a higher one than hers as a Team Leader. Which really doesn’t mean anything.

We have different responsibilities. Our daily focus is different. But Kim is a trusted partner. I trust in her integrity and expertise. I value her perspective. But it took me deferring to her at a project meeting for her to know that about me.

Hey – never stop learning, right? I walked away from a wonderful experience speaking with our Team Leaders with my own takeaway. I had an opportunity to be more effective and Make Sense.

So thank you, Kim, for giving me the gift of learning and the opportunity to improve my own abilities! And thank you for your hard work leading people in our organization. We couldn’t succeed without effective front line leaders like you.

Dear reader, here’s your takeaway: do you Make Sense? Are you connecting all of the different channels of communication and reinforcement to deliver your message and meet your goals? Most importantly, what do your people think?

Need a praise drill?


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