The ‘Dog Pack’ Leadership Lessons

Whenever I talk to groups of financial advisors about practice management, the issue I get the most pushback about, by far, is from owners who don’t believe that employees will discipline themselves. That is, when an employee steps out of line by spending too much time out of the office when they should be working, delivering lackluster performance when they are in the office and/or not cooperating with other employees, etc., the other employees will sit them down, and set them straight. 

While it may be hard to believe, I know they do, because I’ve seen it happen over and over again. In fact, I even have a name for it: the “Dog Pack.” What’s more, in advisory firms that are designed to create this “pack” behavior, owners almost never have to discipline employees, or even do much else in the HR area: Their employees literally manage themselves. 

Let me explain. As I understand how dog (or wolf, or coyote) packs work, there’s an alpha dog that leads the pack, making high-level dog-world decisions like where they’re going to go, what they’re going to do, how many times day they’re going to take naps, etc. But while alpha dogs provide direction to the pack, they don’t usually engage in discipline—it’s beneath them. 

The rest of the dogs in the pack are responsible for keeping each other in line: ensuring that everybody does their job when hunting, doesn’t eat more than their share, gets along with the other dogs and, of course, doesn’t interrupt anyone’s nap. If one dog is a regular problem, the other dogs will force it out of the pack. Then the “bad” dog will be required to earn its way back in, perhaps by bringing back some good food, or finding something particularly stinky to roll in. 

Dogs are the original “team players.” Their survival depends on cooperation. Over many millennia, they have developed finely honed instincts and intelligence that enables them to work effectively together in “teams.” In fact, they are one of few animals on earth that can successfully hunt and kill animals much larger than themselves. 

Humans are one of the others. Our ancestors used to hunt buffalo, elephants and tigers on foot—but not alone. When you think about it, there’s hardly anything we humans do that doesn’t involve groups: religious, professional, charitable, athletic, military, political, educational, Facebook, etc., etc. We are team players, too. While most of our groups have rules and/or ethics standards, much of the discipline within our groups comes from the members themselves. There’s no reason why businesses can’t operate the same way: it’s instinctive. 

And so they do, even in independent advisory firms.

After my talks, particularly when the audience includes employees as well as firm owners, I often get emails like this one, from a junior advisor:

What you said about the ‘dog pack’ is so true; we tend to regulate ourselves. If someone is not pulling their weight, they are reprimanded quickly by the other teammates. We all rely on each other and somehow it works out!

Last year we had an example of pack behavior in one of our client firms. In a very well-run firm, two married employees were having an affair, which apparently was getting out of hand. Neither the owner nor I had any idea this was going on. But one day, while the owner was on vacation, one of the employees came to me and said: “We want you to know what’s going on. The rest of us know these two employees are having an affair. It’s against the core values of firm because they are both married. We’ll handle it.”

Shortly after that, the two employees quit their jobs. I don’t know how they did it and I don’t want to know. The “pack” decided the behavior was not okay and solved it. 

To create this kind of self-disciplining “dog pack” behavior in employees requires training them in their firm’s corporate culture, its core values, and its mission (including that what the firm does—and what they do—makes a difference). Then firm owners need to back that up by supporting employees with job training, ongoing education, the tools to do a good job,and encouragement to “own” their jobs.

Finally, owners (and other managers) need to trust their employees by giving up “micro-management” of their jobs, their behavior, and even the time clock.

We find that when you give employees responsibility, they will act responsibly. They’ll also make sure that the other employees act responsibly.

The good will rise above and the bad will get weeded out. Peer pressure is a very strong motivator: especially when it comes to employees who want to dog it.

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