Sunday, August 5, 2012

Spotting the Big Dog

Every organization has a Big Dog.  Every division.  Every department. 

How do you spot a Big Dog?  He's the one whose assistant breaks into a meeting to deliver an important, whispered message--a message that just can’t wait.  He's usually late to that same meeting, and the first to get bored, stand up during the discussion and wander around.  If it's a technology Big Dog, he's often the worst dressed, or at least without socks.  He's inevitably the one to send the first text while you're talking, the one to flip noisily through the slide deck when you're focused on slide 2.  Big Dogs have a LinkedIn account but no contacts, and they don't carry business cards. Big Dogs park near the front door in an inviolate spot and fly First Class, even when nobody else is allowed.  

At home, the Big Dog is the one who falls asleep after Thanksgiving dinner, snoring on the couch while everyone else helps the hosts clean up.  

I can’t wait.

When Big Dogs Collide

Sometimes there are meetings when Big Dogs collide.  They circle each other.  They sniff (which isn't pretty).  They growl.  Big Dogs don’t like competition. 

Witness the day John Doerr (legendary Silicon Valley Big Dog), Dean Kamens (of Segway fame, a Great Dane said to suck all of the air out of a room when he enters), Jeff Bezos (of Amazon, and Times’ 1999 Big Dog) and Steve Jobs (King Dingo) all gathered to review Kamens'
Segway design.  The meeting began 30 minutes late because, of course, Jobs was late.  When King Dingo finally showed--holes in his clothes--he got the bone in his mouth and never let go.  Eventually, when asked about the design, he replied (three guesses, first two don’t count):  “I think it sucks!”

You can read about the whole hilarious, unnecessary dog fight here. (And to give credit where credit is due, Jeff Bezos seems to be a smart, magnanimous guy who actually knows how to leash his Big Dog.)

When Big Dogs Emerge

Like nature, Big Dogs abhor a vacuum.  So when none are present, one spontaneously arises.

Writing in HBR, Stanford professor Robert Sutton cites an experiment in which teams of three students were asked to produce a short policy paper.  Two members were assigned to write the paper, the third to review and evaluate.

Number 5 is safe, but Number 4 is for the Big Dog.
Don't even think of taking it.
Believe it or not, that simple and random assignment created a Big Dog.  About 30 minutes into each meeting the experimenter brought a plate of five cookies. Nobody took the last cookie, more or less a cultural norm.  But who do you think took the fourth cookie?  The newly anointed Big Dog, of course.  Not only that, the BD practiced “disinhibited eating,” scattering crumbs and chewing with his/her mouth open.

We call that “slobbering” back in the corner kennel, and it's a practiced art.

Sutton believes that Big Dogs become more focused on their own needs and less on others.  They act as if the written and unwritten rules that apply to others do not apply to them.

That’s a really good lesson.  Imagine what happens to someone who is a Big Dog for most of his or her career.  Sometimes, we know, their sense of entitlement is so great it gets them fired. Sometimes it lands them in jail. Sometimes it just gets them a best-selling biography.

All dogs may go to heaven, but you can be sure who's already running the joint.  And, while the world needs Big Dogs, it surely doesn't need all that slobbering.