How My Old Dog Taught Me a New Trick about Team Performance

user Mark Teitell
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Who doesn’t like a good dog story? This is also a leadership lesson that resonated strongly for me once I recognized it

I live in a relaxed suburb and have a well-behaved golden retriever, Toby, so on neighborhood walks he’s off-leash. For years, that meant he’d lag as much as 100 feet behind and then gallop past me to some distance up ahead, flashing a gleeful grin as he did, while I walked at a steady pace. But now he’s twelve and over the last year, his M.O. has become a steady trudge, always about 25 feet back. This means that I need to periodically stop, turn and exhort him to “come on, Toby” just to maintain that interval.

I figured brisk walking was good for him and that my setting the pace this way kept him moving. But it was a lot less fun, and during walks, I started checking my watch and thinking impatiently of what I needed to do when the walk was done.

Then recently I wondered…if I slow down a little, could we walk directly alongside each other and get back to the house at the same time anyway, but have the walk be much nicer for both of us? I had some concern this would encourage him to walk even slower, but I decided to try it.

Here’s what actually happened. When I slowed to let him catch up, he was energized and started into a more youthful trot. I even had to accelerate a bit to keep walking abreast. We were moving faster than my original pace but with Toby now about a half body-length ahead instead of 25 feet behind. Since this experiment, we’ve been on multiple walks and this practice works every time.

Somewhat like the “learned helplessness” psychology researchers have observed, I guess he’d become resigned to lagging and he saw the 25-foot gap as something not worth trying to close. But when I give him a reasonable chance to stay alongside me, some canine mix of enthusiasm, dignity, and duty makes him walk faster while also seeming happier (and I’m happier too).

After a few times of walking in our new way, it struck me that there’s a powerful lesson for leaders of organizations in this human-dog story. Ambitious leaders who face complex challenges are almost sure to feel some on their team are lagging – whether it’s on strategizing, mobilizing to execute, or being nimble to make changes. They often assume this trade-off: “I can be more inclusive and it will help engagement and team cohesion…but at the critical cost of speed.”

My experiment with Toby suggests there’s not a zero-sum game between speed and inclusiveness. In fact, when operating at an increasing scale in pursuit of non-immediate goals, I think there’s a strong correlation between the two. Not to mention that when you need to keep multiple efforts coordinated, it’s not just “lags” that you have to worry about, but also “disconnects” that are problematic.

Many years ago, during my time in the wireless industry, I sought regulatory approval for a mobile network cell site in a small town in Maine. On one of my visits, I recall the mayor advising me, “Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast.”

Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast. After all, when you lead a team you’re trying to capitalize on the energies and capabilities of a large group of people, repeatedly – not just win a one-time race on your own.

So as a leader of people, one definition of your job is to minimize the aggregate impact of the lags and disconnects that happen within your team and among teams throughout the company. Here’s a list of places you might consider “going slower to go faster.”

  • Start by asking yourself, “What’s my contribution?” in areas where you feel the team is showing uneven rates of running with things or suffering from disconnected activity. Ask for honest feedback from your colleagues and stakeholders and make a plan for how to courageously make use of it.
  • Invest time fostering team connectedness, trust, and ability to have effective dialogues on difficult topics. This isn’t just “soft stuff.” If you tap your own experience and logic you’ll likely see that team cohesion directly impacts your ability to move fast on things like strategy and planning. Want data? This study found teams with more trust, transparency, and mutual respect are 60% more likely to achieve more, faster.
  • Take time to explicitly discuss the strategic views that guide the choices you make. By crystalizing what you hold to be true about future customer needs, competition, technology, and the environment, you’ll enable greater alignment…create self-reinforcing coordination across functions…and empower all team members to do their best work.
  • Lean in more to identifying and communicating purpose, values, and operating principles. This helps your team find motivation and build resilience. That is, it helps people find their “sustainable trot” to cover the most ground over the long term.

Toby’s been my best friend for twelve years, and I hope we have as much time left together as possible. But he’s not getting any faster, so this walking trick I’ve developed just gets us back to medium pace. Among human teams, though, the upside to “going slow to go fast” isn’t capped this way. As you increasingly prioritize clarity and alignment (and the relationship depth needed to achieve them), you’ll find that fewer lags and disconnects develop to begin with. This puts you into the “bonus” territory of moving fast and well at the same time – the first time – and that’s what the highest-performing teams look like.

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