Leadership lessons from Gary Gower – a wire fox terrier

Gary

I was worried about money, the huge responsibility of keeping something alive and having to change my lifestyle – no more last-minute trips or evenings out on a whim. Close friends and family gave me an ultimatum ‘set yourself a deadline and either get a dog or stop talking about it’ Fair enough if I was bored it’s no surprise that everyone was too.

I remember having a dog as a child; a black Labrador called Barnaby (I was proud to have named him after my favourite TV programme Barnaby the Bear). I remember him being a best friend (especially in my early teenage years). Barnaby knew all my angst and he was an excellent listener, never judged, completely trustworthy and was just ‘there’. I felt safe when Barnaby was around. I remember long walks, day trips to the beach, how he forgave me for painting his nails, how he’d know when you were sad and lick your hands (or feet) and he was a lovely, well-behaved gentle soul.

I wanted a dog to hang out with, to go for long walks with, to give me a distraction from work. When you work for yourself and love what you do it’s very easy to work all the time and I was falling into that trap.

When I told people I was thinking about getting a dog they’d say ‘you’ll have to walk him every day’.  No problem. Walking is how I get my thoughts together, plan my day and keep my sanity in check. I felt like I was the only person walking around Alexandra Palace every day without a dog.

Introducing Gary

To be honest I wasn’t quite prepared when Gary arrived aged 12 weeks in March 2018. The first thing he did was a poo under the kitchen table. I was only a puppy myself when Barnaby came to live in my house so I missed the hours of standing in the garden in the rain toilet training, non-stop play, leg humping and the chewed shoes, books and laptop cables.

Gary is a wire fox terrier. He is now one year old. Here he is.

Gary the dog
Gary the wire fox terrier

The fox terrier breed is known for being curious (when Gary arrives anywhere new he needs to check everything, and when he goes somewhere he’s been before he needs to check everything is still in the same place). They are independent – all the other puppies stuck close to their owners in puppy training class, if I’d let Gary off the lead he’s have headed out to explore for himself on his own terms. They are also stubborn, if they decide something, it’s a cunning game and a battle of wills to get them to come around to your way of thinking.

Let’s face it, If I was a dog, I’d likely be a Wire Fox Terrier.

I’ve never apologised so much or felt like such a giant failure as when I’ve been training Gary. He’s taught me a lot about dogs and inadvertently has made me think more about human behaviour and how to get the best from people. This is what Gary’s taught me;

Patience and perseverance – people don’t necessarily understand what you want first time. It’s not because they’re being obstructive.  Is up to you to try different tactics and to keep going until they understand.

Reward good behaviour – if someone does a good job tell them. Make it abundantly clear that they nailed it so they are more likely to do it again.

Tone of voice and body language is more important than words. Professor Albert Mehrabian‘s research cited that 7% of communication is in the words that are spoken, 38% in the way that the words are said and 55% of communication is in facial expression. If I get the tone of my voice and my facial expression right, the words are less important. If Gary’s running off and I call him and I sound and look cross he’s not likely to come back in a hurry. If I call him like he’s missing out of the best party of the decade if he doesn’t do a U-turn, I have more success.

Forward plan and avoid bad situations – it’s possible to minimise bad outcomes, for example, I’ve learned that if there’s a children’s party in the park with lots of small people waving chicken twizzlers that we go a different route and avoid the likely chaos of Gary being an unwanted guest. Can you simply avoid some of your potentially bad situations?  

Other people’s treats are nicer than your own – Gary wants something because someone else has it. My human example of this is when you are employed to do a job, you present your expertise/business case to the board.  They are not sure. You call in the consultants to do the same presentation. The board agree and are delighted. If you get the result you want it doesn’t matter how you get there. (even though it’s annoying)

See the situation from someone else’s perspective – no one sees the world in the same way that you do – and even if they do how will you ever know? Not to get all philosophical here, but you have your own unique lens on the world, never assume that anyone else sees a situation in the same way that you do. Gary sees me running about trying to put him on his lead as enormous fun. I see it as massively annoying, embarrassing and inconvenient.

Keep it simple – humans are excellent at over-complicating things. When things are getting too complicated and I’m trying to make it simple I ask myself ‘What would Gary think?’ It might not get the right answer, usually it’s  ‘if its fun do it, if it’s not don’t’ but it helps put my mind in a different train of thought.

Ask for help – if you ask for help people are generally kind and will offer it. You don’t have to take all the advice, but listen, and make the best decision for you in your unique situation with your unique perspective.

Dogs bark at things they don’t understand – and so do humans. It can be easy to become anxious or defensive when we don’t understand. If you don’t understand be brave enough to ask for clarity.

There is no one right answer – you just have to take the information you’ve got and do what you think, do the best you can, learn and keep going.

And if that wasn’t enough Gary makes me laugh every single day, sometimes joyous laughter and sometimes in frustration, but thanks to Gary I’ve made some new friends, walk my daily 10,000 steps, switch off from work more often and have a different perspective on many situations.  And something surprising happens every day.

You can check out Gary for yourself on Instagram – he’s Garygowerwft

Is your smartphone addiction stressing you out?

Confession: I grew up before the Internet was invented

I remember being shown round a ‘computer cluster’ (room with lots of computers in) at University by my housemate. He introduced me to Netscape Navigator. He showed me how to use email. My first ever email message was to him. He was sitting next to me. It read ‘Shall we go to the pub now?’

I didn’t really understand the point of email back then. Skip forward twenty years and the world is a very different place. One in three people on the planet have an email address. By 2018, it is projected that over a third of the world’s population will own a smartphone – that’s an estimated total of almost 2.53 billion smartphone users in the world.

We are constantly connected. Strangers stumble blindly into each other in the street, their eyes glued to their phones. Friends sit together in silence in bars, restaurants and coffee shops scrolling through their news feeds. Business meetings become ineffective as executives pay partial attention to the agenda discussion in an attempt to keep their email messages under control.

If aliens landed they might think our smartphones were a physical part of us. For many people they are. Have you experienced that gut wrenching panic when for a split second you don’t know where your phone is? Is that healthy?

Our smartphones rule us. They buzz and chime when we receive a text, a WhatsApp, an email, a Facebook update or when we are mentioned on Twitter. And the list goes on. Sometimes people even call us, but actually speaking to someone doesn’t happen as often anymore.

When we hear a buzz or a chime we jump to attention and respond instantly. We are constantly connected yet always distracted. I don’t believe that this can be any good for our mental or physical health

I was at a workshop on ‘Resilience: holding onto your sanity in an increasingly crazy world’ with the excellent Sarah Pryce, The Critical Friend last month.

The group discussed the things that caused them the most stress and feelings of overwhelm. It wasn’t Brexit, or the impending General Election or even Donald Trump as president of the USA. The biggest stress trigger was email.

Can your email really be the biggest cause of stress?

The constant pressure of being contactable at all hours because your email is in your smartphone (whether the sender expected a reply or not) was massively stressful for many people. Then on top of the email stress add the alerts and reminders from other apps and most people felt that they were in a state of perpetual overwhelm.

Smartphones have changed our behaviour. I believe many of us are addicted. We are addicted to the gratification of the buzz and chime. We restlessly check for responses to emails or if we have been ‘liked’. We seek the reward, the self-affirmation when someone likes or comments on our posts. We get upset if we are not ‘liked’ enough. We keep checking and checking and if we don’t get the response we need it becomes less about reward and more about anxiety.

Psychologists Kent C. Berridge and Terry E. Robinson would say that we are caught in a dopamine loop.

Dopamine is a chemical released in the brain during pleasurable situations. It also stimulates us to seek out the pleasurable activity. The dopamine system is especially sensitive to “cues” that a reward is coming. So if there is a small, specific cue that signifies that something is going to happen, like for example the sound of a text or email arriving we are flooded with dopamine and it feels good.

We are like Pavlov’s salivating dogs. We hear the smartphone chime and we pick it up to get our reward.

I believe that this reward and anxiety that smartphone use can trigger is bad for both our physical and mental health. So here are our tips to keep a healthier relationship with your smartphone.

  1. Turn off your email reminder. Check your emails first thing in the morning, midday and in the late afternoon. For the rest of the time get on with doing the day job. You might take the pressure off by setting an out of office telling people that you will only be checking email x3 a day.
  2. Stop idly checking Facebook /Twitter/Instagram etc, it sucks away the most precious commodity you have; time. Set yourself an allocated time each day to check these channels.
  3. Practice mindfulness – being more present in the moment. For tips on how to practice mindfulness go here. 
  4. Think before you post – why are you posting something? How does it add value to the people who will see it? If you’re only posting it for your own gratification and it doesn’t benefit the people who will see it – don’t post it.
  5. Be present. If you are spending time with friends and family, are in a meeting, or have a piece of work to do that requires concentration. Put your phone away. Get into the habit of not checking it every two minutes.

What if we stopped being constantly connected in favour of being more meaningfully connected? Might this help to tackle those feelings of stress and overwhelm.

Be the person others want to work with

A guest blog by Jemma Molloy.

Do you wake up at night wondering how you might connect better with your colleagues? Do you worry if you are communicating well with your team? Do you ever feel like you are not performing at your best?

We lead busy lives. It seems to be expected of us and society reinforces the idea that successful people are busy people. If we have a packed diary, we are doing well. Sometimes it’s almost like a competition – ‘I’m far too busy to go for lunch with the team, I’ve got too much on.’

Sound familiar? The reality is we are more stressed than ever. In 2014/15, according to the Health and Safety Executive for the UK, there were 440,000 cases of work related stress.[1] With a never-ending to-do list and unrealistic targets, tight deadlines and demanding clients we can easily end up feeling like a hamster on a wheel going round and round in circles.

All this stress and ‘busyness’ can make us disconnected from our team members too. We are so caught up ‘doing’ things we don’t notice what is going on around us.

For example, when was the last time you asked a colleague how their weekend was and could remember their answer by the end of the day? Most of us ask these questions out of social politeness, but before our colleague can answer, our brains have moved onto the next thing on our list that we need to do.

How hard can it be to stop and listen? For some of us, surprisingly it’s almost impossible. Why? Because our minds are so used to being busy ‘doing’ we don’t know how to just ‘be’ in the moment.

If we can more deliberately stop and listen when we ask these questions and give our colleagues a few minutes of uninterrupted attention it will make a positive impact on our working relationships. We so rarely really listen to one another uninterrupted it’ll feel almost revolutionary. And better working relationships lead to better results.

When we are ‘present’ in conversations and meetings with colleagues we learn so much more about them. When we know and understand people, we’re able to work more effectively with them. We’ll become recognised as a team player, someone who works with others to get the job done, someone who other people want to work with. And work gets done more quickly when we know and trust people.

How to be the person others want to work with

Be more mindful. Mindfulness is about staying in the present moment and focusing on the person you’re speaking to or task you’re completing, rather than letting your thoughts distract you. Mindfulness is all the rage, and science backs it up. For example, research conducted at Harvard University found we typically spend 50% of our day ‘mind-wandering’ (i.e. lost in negative thoughts about what might happen, or has already happened.) After practicing mindfulness, activity in the part of the brain that focuses on ‘me’ reduces, making us more able to return our focus to the present moment.[2] And to your colleague who is still telling you about their weekend…
Practising mindfulness can be as simple as sitting and counting your breath, and returning your focus to your breathing every time your mind wanders. Or mindfulness can even be achieved by enjoying a piece of chocolate; smelling, feeling and tasting it totally; doing nothing else but that for a whole minute (great news for chocolate lovers!)

Mindfulness is very simple, but like any skill it takes practice to achieve it. Be patient with yourself and keep trying, soon you’ll notice a difference.

Tips on how to practice mindfulness everyday

  • When you’re in a meeting and you notice your mind wander, bring it back to focus on what the person leading the conversation is saying. Don’t reprimand yourself for letting your mind wander, just notice and return your focus to the present.
  • When you’re on the phone, move away from your desk so you won’t be distracted by emails coming in. Focus only on the conversation you’re having.
  • Next time you ask a colleague how their weekend was, focus totally on their reply. Pick up on particular points they are making and repeat them back, or ask a question.

Have a go at mindfulness to increase your effectiveness as a team member. What do you have to lose? Nothing; except sleepless nights.

Jemma Molloy is a learning and development manager at The Children’s Society and an accredited career coach.

[1] http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/

[2] Adapted from Sane New World by Ruby Wax