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My Dog Taught Me How to Be a Better Leader

American Kennel Club Presents The Nation's Most Popular Breeds Of 2015American Kennel Club Presents The Nation's Most Popular Breeds Of 2015
A Golden Retriever attends the American Kennel Club. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)Jamie McCarthy Getty Images

This article is part of Tools of the Trade, a weekly series in which a variety of experts share actionable tips for achieving fast and effective results on everything from productivity to fundraising.

This week Bob Vetere shares how his dog taught him to be a more effective manager. Vetere is the president of the American Pet Product Association, a not-for-profit trade association for the pet industry.

Dogs aren’t necessarily known for being the most rational, analytical thinkers, but they’ve got the art of listening down pat.

Take my dog, for example. The moment he sees you he gives you his full attention, zeroing in on your body language and facial expressions. He takes in every word you say, his head tilted and ears back as if you’re the most important person in the world.If you’re anything like me, this immediately makes you feel calmer, more focused, and appreciated.

Unfortunately in today’s world, which seems to grow more hurried and stressful every year, we rarely receive this kind of undivided attention from our human peers. When was the last time you stopped and truly listened — without checking your phone, zoning out, or interrupting — to what an employee or coworker had to say?

I’ve been guilty of this. When I became chief executive of the not-for-profit American Pet Products Association (APPA), it took me awhile to adjust to the culture. I was coming from a for-profit company, where the work environment was very different.

Early on, a senior manager met with me to discuss a problem she was having: one of our larger members was having a problem with their insurance supplier. Before she had finished explaining, I advised her to tell the company its insurance issue wasn’t ours to solve. What I failed to understand is that, as is often the case with not-for-profits, the insurance company in question was one we had recommended and endorsed. Without realizing it, I was backing my manager into a corner with the member company.

She approached me a few additional times for more constructive feedback, but I never really listened. After that I noticed a definite change in her performance and behavior. Eventually I discovered she was actively looking for another job. Only then did I stop to consider that despite meeting with her on multiple occasions, I still didn’t understand why she was so frustrated. And so I had her sit down with me one more time. But this time instead of talking, I listened attentively. It took a few moments before she felt comfortable enough to open up, but, eventually, she did. Together, we worked on a solution, eventually meeting with the insurance vendor to address the company’s concerns.

She is still part of the team here and, in fact, has moved to an executive position.

In many parts of my professional life– and life in general — persuasion is important. As chief executive and president of the APPA, part of my job entails reaching out to leaders across the pet industry so we can form a coalition that supports and promotes pet ownership and care. This means I work with a lot of powerful executives who are used to running their own organizations, and have their own management styles. My job is to get all these people to work together on projects from opposing puppy mills, to raising awareness of the health benefits owners reap from having a pet.

But persuasion means listening. I’ve learned that when working with a new group of people, swooping in with orders and demands rarely works. Instead, I take a page from my golden retriever’s book: I start by listening to what they have to say.

If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. At the end of the day, all I’m doing is following my dog’s lead.