Dain Dunston

The Language of Leadership

Dain Dunston

Archive for July, 2013

Everything I Know About Leadership I Learned From Training Dogs

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This is a reprise of a blog post from 2005, featuring my long-time running buddy and office mate, Dodger (pictured below in 2005). I’ve had lots of requests to repost this and it’s timely today, as you’ll read at the end.
Dodger 2005

It’s 3:59 p.m. and my dog Dodger is looking at me. He knows that in one minute it will be his time to play and he has waited all day for this. How he knows how to tell time, I don’t know, but he can. I once had a dog who could tell every Wednesday morning when our housekeeper arrived and began to bark to let me know, not when she pulled up in front of the house but as she slowed to make the turn into our leafy street, four houses in from the corner. The housekeeper had a late-model Buick in good condition; given that perhaps that sweet dog could tell the difference between the ways different cars sounded, how could she possibly distinguish between all the rest of the common Buicks that passed that corner every day of the week and alert me only to the Wednesday morning Buick?

In Dodger’s case, one theory could be that we have a clock, a gift from an aunt, that chimes the hours with the voices of birds. But how does he know that it’s one minute before woodpecker? And make no mistake, he knows. This is his work time and, when I lead the way downstairs, he brushes past me to run to the door that leads to the corral behind the house.

There, for the next half hour, Dodger and I will work at the time honored task of frisbee management. Any frisbee flying through the corral during this period is to be captured and brought to me for inspection. We use an orange and blue model called a Flying Squirrel, which had little “legs,” an unusual flight dynamic and a soft mouth feel. And Dodger will work with the squirrel as long as I am willing.

Dodger is a working dog, a mix of Husky and Australian Shepherd, who some young friends of ours found dodging cars on a six-lane highway, five years ago when he was a puppy. He had been hit once; not bad, just a grazing to the skin on his heel. They stopped and called him and he jumped in with them, saving his own life. The Husky blood shows in his stance, his face and curled white tail and in his behavior; like Huskies, he’s very vocal, eager to work and happy to vocalize the experience at any time. The Aussie blood shows mostly in his mottled black, white and grey coat and in this eyes, one blue and one brown.

He has two kinds of work. The first kind is running with me in the mornings, the second is herding the frisbees in the afternoon. During his time, Dodger enters into a behavior state unlike anything else in his day. His bearing changes, his face changes and his attitude changes. A nobility takes over, a sense of purpose that makes people stop and point to him while we’re running. And, each time he catches the flying squirrel, he trots back to me with the nonchalant pride of a first baseman who’s just made the third out.

I call it “joy in being.” When he’s in this state, it’s as if time has stopped for him. He can run all day, he can jump all afternoon. The rest of the time is just waiting. He sleeps, he eats, he hangs out. But when we’re working, Dodger enters into a different state in which he fulfills his dog nature so completely that, at that moment, he has the experience of being the best dog in the world. I know what he does not, that there are plenty of dogs who can run faster or jump higher, but that information is irrelevant in the moment. And besides, when he’s in that moment, there is no dog who trots prouder or prettier. And he knows it.

Can humans experience “joy in being?” Sure. People say, of a man and woman in love, if they are truly in love and good together, that they experience being the only lovers in the world. People who play music or paint become lost in their work as if they step out of time. And behavioral psychologists talk of “flow,” a state where one is so engaged in one’s work that time seems to stop or expand; a time when they step out of their “psychology” and seem to work without baggage, pure in spirit and mind. “Joy in being” is the experience of doing the work you were born to do, playing on the team you were born to play on, feeling the experience of being excellent, useful and in the right place at the right time. The proof is that we can so easily identify the opposite of the experience, “Shame in being,” which is the experience of being incompetent, useless and out of place.

Dain and Dodger 2012You can see it in the workplace. A leader who seems to be able to contain his whole team and sphere of work in his head and who can feel it all going along right; a doctor saving lives; a pilot making a perfect touchdown on a runway half a world away. And you see it in smaller ways, too. A receptionist who can balance dozens of lines and people coming to her desk, who seems to know everyone in the building and where they are when they’re needed; a checker in a grocery store who knows all the prices, knows the regulars by name, can stop in the middle of checking you out to send someone to get you the better avocados you didn’t see; the London taxi driver who not only knows the fastest way to any place in the city but can tell you the history of everything you’re passing, as well.

This kind of total engagement has two components: one the mastery of a meaningful task; the other is a connection to another person or persons in the commission of the act. I could go out with Dodger this afternoon and pretend to throw something, shouting encouragement and praise while I was doing it, but that wouldn’t interest him for a minute. And I could probably get a machine that would automatically throw the squirrel for him and receive it in a tub when he brought it back, but I bet he wouldn’t go for it. The work needs the connection with another and the connection needs the meaningful task to make it all worth doing. When our work lacks these elements, we imagine we’d rather be fishing. But when the elements are there, we experience everything we are meant to be, at least in the moment.

Fascinating, but incomplete. Here’s my question: can you teach others to get to this place in their work. How? By the way, none of this explains how Dodger knows, to the minute, when it’s time to get going.

OK, Dodger, I’m coming. We have work to do.

Eight years later…

Yesterday, we made an appointment with destiny for our old friend, Dodger. For 13 years, Dodger has been my constant companion; my running buddy and my writing partner. While we’ve had two other dogs during that time, there was a connection between Dodger and me that I’ve never experienced with another animal. We just belonged to each other in a profound way.

From time to time over this last decade, I have paused to wonder how I would handle these days. Now I know: you just do. What they can teach us is to be in the moment. Dogs don’t count days forward or backward. They have no expectation of tomorrow. They ask us to be with them in the only world they know, the present. And when we sat quietly with Dodger yesterday morning in the vet’s office, after a long night when it was clear that the tumors inside him and the arthritis were causing him pain, I could clearly feel what he didn’t know how to tell me. That he was done.
Dodger's last days
Not that he wouldn’t bravely continue to follow me anywhere he could. That’s in his DNA and in his heart. I would say “in his soul” but people will cry foul and claim that dogs don’t have souls. But there is something here with me and Dodger that is more than attachment and liking. There is a connection between us on a life force level. And after we take the long walk together at the vet’s tomorrow afternoon, that connection will always be there.

These companions teach us things if we will listen and we teach them things, too. But the one command they cannot obey is the one we wish for most. They cannot stay.

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Purpose is not enough.

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(The concluding segment of Branded to the Bone, Part 1. To start at the beginning, click HERE.)

If only all we needed was purpose, what a sweet world this would be. But there’s a reason there are four more parts to this book. Purpose alone is not enough.

When I was 23 years old, I opened a restaurant at 22 All Saints Road in London, on a small street near Portobello Road. At the time, the neighborhood was London’s version of Greenwich Village or Haight Ashbury. Island Records was around the corner and musicians and entertainers roamed the streets. These a hard, grimy part of town with nightly street fights, runaways and shady deals galore.

22 All Saints RoadThe restaurant, quaintly named Guru Nanak’s Conscious Cookery was my first ever adventure in to the world of business and it had massive massive clarity of purpose: to make the world healthier and happier through bountiful organic foods and yoga. The concept was modeled after similar restaurants in California—particularly The Source on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles—and featured fresh produce specially grown for us and delivered from the countryside each morning.

The cuisine could best be described as “exuberant.” Sandwiches where three to four inches thick and layered with flavors. Salads exploded vertically off the plate, vibrant with color and richness. Indian flavors infused rice dishes. Pasta dishes were sinfully rich. And the desserts! Our cheesecakes and pies were irresistible.

That first summer, within weeks of our opening, we were packed. Movie stars and writers, singers and rock stars. Alan Bates had a regular table by the front window. Lulu frequently came in with friends You’d see Allen Ginsberg in one corner and Wilt Chamberlain in another. Special effects artists from Dr. Who show and other local artists. The emerging gay pride movement marched in one night in drag, all carrying party balloons (talk about exuberant!) and cleaned us out of desserts and then continued coming week after week.

That first summer was a total success. Then came the second summer, which was problematic. There was no third summer.

Because purpose was not enough.

So what went wrong? First of all, I got bored. I loved cooking and inventing interesting dishes. But not enough to spend 18 hours, six days a week at it. So I delegated more of the work to others and spent less time in the restaurant. And I was exhausted. Nine out of ten restaurants fail because no one tells you how hard it is. Or they tell you and you don’t listen. Eighteen months is the average life expectancy of a new restaurant, even when they’re started by pros. When they’re started by enthusiasts, it’s amazing when they last a month.

Second, we had people problems. Most of the “employees” were volunteers from the yoga classes upstairs. They were good kids but most had only the vaguest concept of how to work. One young woman in particular was a problem. If you sent her down to the market to buy something we were suddenly out of, she might come back and she might not. When she went out the side door, she never thought to close it behind her. And this in a neighborhood rife with snatch-and-grab crimes. Once, when she was cutting onions in a fog of meditative ecstasy, she dropped the knife and, because she was wearing sandals instead of shoes, the knife impaled itself in her instep. I still remember standing there looking at that knife, as it twanged back and forth, and realizing that there really wasn’t a single job in the restaurant I could trust her to do.

Suppliers were problematic, too. Small organic farmers growing custom fruits and vegetables for restaurants worked well in sunny California, where Alice Waters at Chez Panisse could find real pros. But in London it was different. These were eccentrics who thought it would be fun to move to the country and be organic farmers but who found the pressures of pre-dawn delivery routes NS the expectations of clients to be somewhat stressful. One of them stood in the kitchen one morning and screamed at us for serving tomatoes to our customers, which everyone knew were pure poison and only one step removed from the deadly nightshade. Another refused to sell us his produce when he discovered we were cooking in aluminum pots, which were all we could afford.

Third, we had no processes. Or at least not the right ones. Yes, we knew how to cook and we knew how to entertain customers. But we didn’t know how to run a restaurant. And certainly not a business. So bills piled up and cash flow was spent on the wrong things and our ability to withstand setbacks declined. And so one day, when our 18 months of fame were over, we closed the doors. We had purpose and we had product. But without a balance of people and process, we never got to payoff.

But it’s not only bright-eyed optimists for whom purpose is not enough. As we saw, both Apple and Blockbuster had their problems with purpose (Apple worked it out, Blockbuster didn’t). Proctor & Gamble, widely known as a great company with lots of intentional focus on defining purpose for each brand and business unit, has recently passed through a troubling time under former CEO Bob McDonald, a veteran executive of the company and a champion of purpose. Already armed with a strong sense of purpose and brand integrity, Proctor & Gamble under McDonald upped the ante on purpose And yet the results didn’t follow and McDonald’s tenure lasted only four years. Purpose alone is not enough.

That doesn’t mean that P&G will abandon purpose in the years to come. In his book, It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For, purpose guru Roy Spence details and in-depth market study of more than thirty thousand brands that P&G conducted. What they found when they looked at the top-performing twenty five brands, they found that all of them were focused on what Spence calls “higher-order” purpose.

“P&G believes so deeply in the idea of purpose,” Spence writes, “and its ability to drive performance that it has recently codified everything the company has learned about purpose in an internal manual.” Spence has managed purpose for clients through the Austin, Texas, ad agency, GSD&M. They developed a concept they called “purpose-based marketing” and used it to transform the business of companies as diverse as Southwest Airlines, WalMart, Whole Foods and P&G.

“Why does purpose matter?” Spence asks. “Why not just work on sound strategy and positioning year after year and have a good, viable business in the marketplace? You can certainly do that and you may even have reasonable success doing it. But in our experience, purpose offers up a host of benefits, including easier decision making, deeper employee and customer engagement, and ultimately, more personal fulfillment and happiness.”

And that’s true in study after study, Jim Collins in Built to Last to Raj Sisodia, Jag Sheth and David Wolfe in Firms of Endearment, we see that, over time and with everything else in balance, companies that are Branded to the Bone will dramatically outperform the market and their competitive set.

Investing to make money? Or to make the world a better place? It’s not an either or question any more. It’s a question of integrity of purpose.

The final thing to say about purpose is this: companies don’t have purpose, people do. The combined sense of purpose of the people who make up a company—from top to bottom—is what defines and delivers on the purpose of the brand.

It all comes down to people.

Next: The Power of the People.

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At TGI Friday’s, the party is the purpose

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Here’s the next segment of Branded to the Bone, my new business book in progress which I’m live blogging as the first draft is written. (Read it now and you’ll find lots of things that won’t make it into the final draft!)

To start at the beginning, click HERE.

Sometimes, a brand’s purpose changes over time as its customers change. In 1965, when Alan Stillman was living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, he noticed how many young, attractive single women lived in the neighborhood—flight attendants, models, secretaries—and wondered why it was so hard to meet them. They never came in to any of the bars in the neighborhood and the only time he ever seemed to encounter them was at private cocktail parties. And then they usually had a date.

First FridayHe wondered if it would be possible to create a bar that would be attractive to single women and so he borrowed some money to buy a bar on the corner of First Avenue and 63rd St. called the Good Tavern. He redecorated it in a Gay Nineties theme that fit the hip culture of the times. He added brass rails, stained glass, red striped awnings and singing waiters and changed the name to TGI Friday’s.

Yes, the original business purpose of TGI Friday’s was for the owner to meet women. And it worked. Suddenly, newly liberated young working women had a place they felt comfortable going after work. And where they went, the guys followed. Friday’s was the original singles bar and lines of eager customers wrapped around the block, waiting to get in.

Crowded Bar At T.G.I. Friday'sPart of the success of that original Friday’s may have been the time and it may have been the neighborhood (it has been rumored that more than four hundred flight attendants lived in the building next door). But it turned out that much of the Baby Boomer population, then in their twenties, shared Stillman’s brand purpose. Franchised branches opened in Memphis and Dallas with even more spectacular results, with long lines of people waiting for a spot at the bar and sales and profits that were even higher than the New York location.

The success of the Friday’s concept lead to a boom in marriage licenses, suburban homes and baby clothes. And, as their customers moved to the suburbs, so did Fridays. As their customers’ sense of purpose changed, Friday’s went with them, changing from a singles bar to a family friendly restaurant. The staff’s focus changed from keeping the swinging party going to keeping the children entertained. And, although that worked for quite a while, by the Nineties the concept had become a little stale. A variety of public and private corporate masters worked hard to keep the brand interesting, while also keeping their costs down, but mostly Friday’s sank into what the casual dining industry calls “the sea of sameness.” And worse, by sticking to the 1890s theme and the servers in stripes and suspenders, the brand became a cliché that was widely parodied.

Along the way, the company made concession after concession to what they saw as their changing demographics. Pretty soon, they were trying to satisfy everyone, from grandparents to frat boys. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t distinctive or different enough to make a difference anymore. Even with menu and décor refreshments, the restaurants seemed like quaint reminders of Seventies style.

There was a critical architectural change, too. Once, the bar was the center of the action at Friday’s. Friday’s was a bar with good food, not a restaurant with good drinks. In the earlier designs, the bar was literally at the geographic center of the building as well as at the emotional center of the experience. But bars are noisy and they used to be smoky. Both to satisfy rules on smoking in restaurants and to satisfy family parties who wanted a quieter atmosphere, the bar was moved to the side and walled off. What had once been the heart of the brand became a sideshow. And when that happened, the brand integrity suffered.

Just for a moment, contrast Friday’s with Porsche. Just two years before that first Friday’s opened on E. 63rd St. in New York, Porsche launched a sports car it called the 911. As we write this, Porsche is celebrating the 911’s 50th Anniversary. It’s the best-selling and most respected sports car in history. It’s probably won more races than any other sports car ever. It has absolutely never varied from its basic purpose and design. And you can see a 911 from any of the eight generations of the car and know exactly what it is.

car_photo_548938_25With its red striped awnings and waiters with suspenders, the same might be said of Fridays. The difference is that Porsche never departed from his purpose of creating a fast and fun sports GT car that could go for a win at the local track on Sunday and then go for groceries on the way home. But eventhough the purpose and format never changed, the car itself has. Each generation has led the industry in design and innovation. Each as had more power and performance and each was more desirable than the one before. Porsche kept improving and making itself more desirable to its target brand audience and Friday’s didn’t. Because they kept their focus on their core purpose, Porsche has continually been able to dominate its industry while adding line extensions–like SUVs and sedans—that improved the brand integrity rather than diluting it. By maintaining a clear brand purpose for more than 50 years (actually nearly 70 for the company overall) and building products that had integrity to the brand, Porsche has become an iconic brand.

Friday’s, on the other hand, became indistinguishable from the competition.

Then, in 2010, Friday’s tried an experiment in the Denver market, called Project Rise. They took six restaurants and tore down the walls around the bar. They moved the bar to the center of the restaurant and renovated in a more contemporary style that made the place feel more like a bar and restaurant in a sleek urban setting. They reimagined the menu, with hipper offerings. They updated the music playlist. And they put the staff through extensive retraining. Bartenders learned to be expert in wines and spirits, as well as in reading the needs of customers. Wait staff were reeducated in Food 101 and could tell you where the salmon came from, what the fresh ingredients in each dish were and how it was cooked. They set out to redefine Friday’s, with a focus on the idea that at the heart of their brand promise is what they call “the Friday’s moment,” which happens the moment you walk in the door and shake off your workaday self. They went back to the original brand purpose, which was to create a place that always gives you that Thank God It’s Friday feeling.
The Rise restaurants looked and felt like nothing you’ve come to expect a Friday’s to look like. The idea was to bridge the traditional “casual dining” restaurant with a bar to create what they hoped would be a category of one: a CDBar. And nobody was more enthusiastic than their current customers. They started bringing their friends in to hang out in the bar after work. And the results were striking. By 2013, in restaurants and markets that had been converted to the new Rise concept were significantly outperforming other restaurants in the chain, as well as other competitors.

Why? Because when your customers really understand what your brand stands for—and it resonates with them—then you can build serious, meaningful relationships with them. And, just as important, they can have one with you and your brand.

Read the next segment HERE.

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