An executive training program at Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills, Michigan, uses guide dogs to teach managers how to improve teamwork skills, clarify communication, build trust, do strategic planning, use creative problem solving and ultimately become better bosses.
Meet Coco. She’s a 2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever — and she happens to be one of the best trainers of people in the world.
Coco is one of about a dozen dogs in the executive-training program at Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills, Michigan. The program teaches managers how to improve teamwork skills, clarify communication, build trust, do strategic planning, use creative problem solving and ultimately become better bosses.
“It’s the best training for people you’ll find,” said Dave Bann, corporate-engagement manager for theLeader Dogs for the Blind program.
Dog teaching man might sound as far-fetched as man biting dog. But not to those who have experienced the training course, such as Ginger Auten of Mitsubishi Motors research and development in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
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“It was amazing,” said Auten, manager of human resources and administration at Mitsubishi, who did the Harness the Power of Leadership training last week.
Auten donned a blindfold, took hold of Coco’s harness, used precise commands to communicate where she wanted Coco to go, then surrendered control and extended trust.
The result was an epiphany: “Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and let yourself rely on help from others to guide you,” Auten said. “You’re still in charge, even if you’re the blind person guiding the dog, and with any leader and employee, it’s a give-take situation.”
The challenge of overcoming fear, handing over trust and feeling “amazing” for doing it, seems to be a universal reaction from those who do the course.
“When you’re in leadership, you want to control things. That took me out of my comfort zone. I had to purely trust the dog,” said Phil Bertolini, chief information officer for Oakland County, northwest of Detroit. Bertolini and about 19 of his colleagues did the training last year. “It was kind of an amazing feeling.”
The tighter Bertolini pulled on the harness, for example, he learned, “The less the dog was able to lead you,” said Bertolini, who worked with Coco’s canine colleague Flaim, a black Labrador retriever. “If you do the same thing with your team, the harder you pull on them, the less they can help you achieve.”
Leader Dogs for the Blind started its executive training program about five years ago with Purina as its first client. Purina is a partner with Leader Dogs for the Blind.
The idea for the program came out of repeated comments from Leader Dogs for the Blind’s clients who struggled to answer people who asked, “How does the dog work?”
“We realized a lot of our clients are executives and they’re successful,” said Bann, who said Leader Dogs for the Blind has put together about 15,000 guide-dog teams globally in its 80 years of existence. “They said they often used what they learned working with the dogs across the rest of their lives: in their marriages and at work.”
Bann decided teaching the lessons his blind clients learned by working with their dogs might be valuable to others.
One of those clients was Richard Brauer, 57, who lost his eyesight at age 14. Today he owns his own company that specializes in executive recruiting, development and diversity training. He also coaches the Leader Dogs executive training courses.
Brauer started using a guide dog in 1944. “He filled me with this level of confidence and gave me the tools to be a guide-dog handler, which are the same tools required to be successful in life,” he said.
Most important is to demonstrate consistency in the treatment of people around you, Brauer said, using his partnership with his current guide dog, a 5-year-old golden retriever-black Labrador mix named Logan, as an example.
“I treat Logan with the greatest respect and the same way every day,” said Brauer. “What happens if you are happy one day, angry the next? The person who works for you is going to leave because you’re inconsistent and lack respect.”
It took about a year to write the curriculum for the executive training course, Bann said. The courses are either a half-day or full-day. They involve the blindfold walks, a white-cane walk and various team-building activities such as clicker training, in which participants must complete a task based only on cues Bann gives them by using a dog clicker.
In short, they become the dog in an exercise designed to teach them how to give and receive instructions through cues. It’s analogous to how different parts of businesses often speak different languages yet have to learn to communicate so they can work together.
About two years ago, Bann started aggressively marketing executive training at conferences. He’s done about 20 sessions since Purina in St. Louis first did the course.
“I wondered about the relevancy of this,” Amy Kopin, manager of regulatory affairs and vehicle-emissions lab at Mitsubishi, said minutes after doing the blindfolded dog walk that day. “It’s very interesting to be totally in darkness; you feel like you’re not in control and it would take some time to develop some trust. It’d be nice if there were more of that trust to trickle down in the company.”
Daniel Meloni, 56, is senior director of talent development at ProQuest, a technology company in Ann Arbor. He and about a dozen senior managers did the Leader Dogs for the Blind executive training last fall. One team-building activity that involved building a display using different colored blocks has now changed the way Meloni talks to his staff.
“I heard it from experienced leaders, ‘Grab the blue block.’ Well, the blindfolded person can’t see that it’s blue or feel that it’s blue, so you have to use clearer language,” said Meloni. “It required saying, ‘Take the block that is in front of your right hand.’ You have to be a lot more intentional.”
Training also teaches the power of strategically planning and intelligent disobedience. For example, a person who is blind must plan a walking route and be ready to change course if an obstacle appears. The guide dog must be given leeway to disobey commands when the dog knows best.
A dog-handler trainer at the Mitsubishi session told about a woman who was blind and lived in a high-rise apartment building in New York. One day, when the elevator doors opened on her 78th floor lobby, she commanded her guide dog to walk forward. The dog did not budge. Again, she said, “forward.” The dog refused. That’s because the elevator doors had opened to an empty shaft and the dog knew stepping forward would be deadly.
“So in business, even though the boss says ‘proceed,’ there is a place for intelligent disobedience,” said Meloni. “The white-cane walk is analogous to a manager who’s trying to accomplish things on his or her own and not placing full reliance on their team.”
The blindfold walk with the dog is analogous to a leader who empowers the team to deliver results, Meloni said, adding, “You still set the direction, but the team depends on you for unambiguous language.”