I once made the mistake of telling one of my most important, respected team members that I had learnt all I needed to know about running a business from my time as a professional dog trainer.
She was offended.
Particularly when I got on to (Swiss Tony style) how "managing people is a lot like training a dog".
I stand by it, but may re-phrase in future.
I explained that, when training a dog, you need lots of patience, an ability to predict – quickly – what a particular reaction will be in a specific situation (and respond accordingly), a knack of keeping calm even when you're not and even the art of knowing when you can push something and, importantly, when you can't.
Dog training is one of the ultimate tests of a bespoke 'production process'.
You start at a particular point then you have to put all the bits in place. Sit, stay, come back – all need to be consistent and demonstrable. You have a furry piece of clay and you're trying to shape it in the way you (or the owner) needs it shaped. Thing is, not all dogs react to the same process. So even though you're trying to achieve consistent results, you can't apply the same exact processes. It won't work.
At the end of the process you will be judged on your work. You can't hide, you can't shortcut or you will be found out.
You're measured by whether you have achieved the overall objective – does the dog do what it is supposed to, consistently and willingly?
In business I find it reassuring to look back on my days working with lots of different dogs and reminding myself how, even though you know the objective, the methods that go toward achieving it are usually variable. You need to be proactive and reactive. You need to be able to judge, precisely, what is happening at any point during the process. You need to be adaptable and recognise problems before they arise and, failing that, know exactly what to do when they do manifest themselves.
You have little margin for error. Take a dog out on a bad day (i.e a bad day for YOU) and you can ruin months of work in minutes. Understand when to take breaks. Understand when to push on. Understand when an opportunity presents itself and also recognise when your moment may have passed (timing is everything in dog training as much as it is in business).
Dog training is quite a solitary profession (different to being a dog behaviour consultant where you will spend lots of time talking to owners about theory and practice). You know exactly what the final picture of this jigsaw should look like but putting all the pieces in the right place isn't something that can be done in a painting by the numbers fashion.
Above all, I'd say the best thing I have learned about running a business is that you actually have a larger margin for error in running a business than you do in dog training. In fact, it's your errors that are some of the most valuable learning experiences. People may say the same about dog training but I disagree. My experience has shown me that making errors when training a dog are usually costly. You have to avoid them and know how to avoid them. My particular favourite lesson learned from dog training is that there has yet to be a single day, single incidence or single experience I've had – be it talking to clients, presenting to rooms packed full of important people, going on TV/radio etc that comes anywhere close to the nerves you feel when demonstrating a dog to an owner who has left it in your care with a particular brief; to make it obedient. One slip, one error, one ignored command and your client will think you're lousy and will wonder why they've been spending money on you. This despite the fact that you know you've done a great job and the dog is 100 times better than it was when you first started working with it. In a 'live' environment, anything can happen and the nerves don't help. That's why when anyone ever asks me why I don't get nervous about ANYTHING in business I tell them: "if you've taken out an 18-month old, highly motivated, highly energetic Springer Spaniel to demonstrate all the wonderful new things you've taught him to his doting owner…and then a rabbit runs across his path, you hold your breath, pray to the sky and hope above all hope that he's not about to make you look like a mug. Until you've done that a time or two, you will never know what it's like to have good reason to be REALLY nervous! Everything else, a piece of cake."