Nothing translates love in business more than its collaborative environment with its team and customers, and where value is truly served in all sides. Unmistakably exhibiting that in his company is Neil Gill, the CEO and president of Dogtopia, the nation’s leading franchise of dog daycare, boarding, and spa facilities that offer your dog a loving experience focused on trust, safety, and transparency. In this episode, he sits down with host, Steve Farber, to talk about his fresh approach to vision, mission, and values, which he calls the Dogtopia-isms. He breaks down each of the Dogtopia-isms that helps build a culture of alignment and guide the company to deliver love and value to everyone involved—from the team to the customers and their pets. Listen in on this great conversation that could help you build a business founded on purpose, trust, accountability, tenacity to never give up, and, ultimately, love. After all, it is in these qualities that businesses can truly thrive alongside the people that matter most to them.
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Dogtopia-isms: A Fresh Approach To Vision, Mission, And Values With Neil Gill
This show is brought to you by the Extreme Leadership Institute. Come visit what we do at www.ExtremeLeadership.com. We’re in the business of helping organizations operationalize love as a foundational business practice. The name of my book is Love Is Just Damn Good Business. Why do we call it that? For one simple reason, love is just a damn good business. Towards that end, I want to introduce you to my guest, Neil Gill, who is the CEO and President of Dogtopia.Stay loyal to the pack and never throw each other under the bus. Click To Tweet
Founded in 2002, Dogtopia is the nation’s leading franchise of dog daycare, boarding and spa facilities. They are offering your dog a loving experience, focused on trust, safety, and transparency. With an emphasis on socialization, education and exercise for your doggy, pet parents have the assurance of leaving their beloved furry family members in the hands of highly trained professionals in an environment created with the well-being of dogs in mind. Each facility averages between 3,000 and 10,000 square feet. It is designed to provide dogs and pet parents with the best loving experience while creating an environment that is ideal for your puppy. They have over 130 locations across America. Neil has spent many years in the franchising world with international brands like KFC, Pizza Hut and Brinker International. He spent more than eleven years at Gloria Jean’s Coffees as the CEO, opening more than 1,000 stores across 39 countries.
This guy has lots of expertise and experience in taking franchise brands all the way through IPOs. He worked in a variety of sectors from online education to weight loss, to bakeries, to Asian tea. He has a love of franchising and he’s got an entrepreneurial spirit. Our conversation will turn to love. You love your dog, don’t you? Let’s hear how Dogtopia creates an experience that pet parents, doggies and employees all love being a part of.
Instead of doing the typical work on vision, mission, and values, you took a different approach to it.
Vision, mission, and values are incredibly important parts of the business. It was becoming a little old school. I went out and started talking to friends, team members, and other teams here in the support office during discovery days where we bring in new franchisees into the business. What I wanted to do is to bring back to life the old school vision, mission, and values days so that people could believe in it, live it and stand by it.
How did you go about making it different and engaging for people?
We started by repositioning the brand and get an understanding of what it looks like out there for the target demographic. Millennials definitely wants to be proud of the brand. They want to have their own fingerprint on the brand, but they also need to understand what the brand stands for. It needs to be aligned with their own belief sets.
What it sounds like is you did a number of things. First, you made the decision that, “We’re not going to do the traditional saltine cracker vision, mission and values stuff.” Your expression of what you believe in had to reflect the soul, the brand and the people of the company. It was a collaborative process.
Part of my leadership style is bringing your people around you and then listen to them.
We’ve been talking about that for many years. It should be common knowledge by now. It’s amazing how often we still have to remind people of that.
Life and business get in the way when people thrive for things. We’ve got to constantly remind ourselves.
Geographically, where are you located?
Originally, the office is in Virginia. We moved to Phoenix in 2015 mainly because of the amount of franchise talent there is in Phoenix. There’s a number of different franchise groups based here. What I knew I needed to do was to build a leadership group and a support group fairly quickly that had solid, deep franchise understanding. The business had grown up on a group of people that were understood dogs and established wonderful safety protocols, but it had taken a long time to grow. There were nice strategic elements to it all and little franchise understanding. TFS already had offices here. I utilized some of their skillsets early in the phase, and Arizona is quite a company-friendly state as well.
Where are your stores across the country? Is it regional or nationwide?
We’re in fourteen different states of the US, plus we have five stores up in Canada. Geographically, we’re spread from the East Coast to the West Coast of the US, and the East Coast to the West Coast of Canada.
When you started to launch this process of capturing what you stand for, believe in and your operating principles or whatever generically you call it, how did you get that input from people that are scattered all around the country and Canada?Find your purpose, understand your purpose, and then lift the team's purpose. Click To Tweet
We started a weekly communication piece that goes out every Friday night. I brought on board an incredibly, emotionally-intelligent VP of operations. She started straightaway developing real relationships with our franchisees. We did a series of things like workshops in the field. We went out and spent a couple of days at a time running workshops together. What are the key needs of the franchisees and their teams? We have four corporate stores over on the East Coast. I’ve spent some time with our store managers and our team members. I spent time in the actual playrooms working with the room attendants and the dogs to get a clear understanding of the challenges in the businesses is about. We ran a series of workshops and webinars. We continue to run both of those. We did a number of surveys through Survey Monkey online as part of weekly communication piece, and also direct phone calls with franchisees.
You first came in 2015. It’s still early on with the grand scheme of things. When you started to reach out to the field in this process, was that early on in your tenure there?
I hit the road in the first month. I went to change and said, “I’m here to learn. I’m new to the dog world. Teach me everything that I can learn.”
Did you get any resistance to what you were doing? How were you met?
Some of our franchisees weren’t used to a collaborative approach. It’s interesting when you throw a collaborative approach at a team of people that aren’t used to it, they approach it nervously. They always think that there’s some ulterior motive around it. It took a little while to build that trust. That’s why I did the decisions in 1 or 2 days. Some of the times, it’s having dinner together. I find out having dinner with people over a glass of wine helps break the ice. It helps them understand you’re human and ultimately, you want the same things.
It flashed back on a metaphor that a mentor of mine used to use. If you ask most people, “Would you rather be told what to do or would you rather be in a collaborative environment?” Most people will tell you, “I’d rather be in a collaborative environment,” but then when it comes time to do it, you’re met oftentimes with suspicion. Everywhere, the whole spectrum from suspicion to downright cynicism, skepticism, and everything in between.
There is fear that they face as well. If they’ve been in an environment where they haven’t had to think about that, life’s a lot easier when you’ve got someone telling you what to do it. The part of what I hope of my time about here is that we build the right culture. Building the right culture comes with responsibility and that is owning up to your mistakes and then bring the solutions.
The metaphor that it reminded me of that a mentor of mine used to use was around the empowerment idea. Everybody says they want to be empowered. If you take a bird that’s been in a cage for his whole life, and then you throw open the door to the cage one day and you say, “Fly,” it won’t leave the cage. You have to put your hand in there, you have to coax it out little by little. That’s what strikes me is when you said that the way through the resistance was to sit in the same room, eat food together, breathe the same oxygen and have them see you as a human being. The other thing I heard you say is that you spent a good deal of your energy in your workshops asking, listening and saying, “Tell me what this business is about.”
What’s interesting that helped me to build trust phase is that it’s easy to trust people when things go well, but it’s always in times of adversity when you definitely go back to your values. That’s when you have an opportunity to test people better, understand where their cause is coming from. That’s why at Dogtopia, it’s a super important part of that and referencing those back with the team regularly in real life events.
Can you give me an example of how that might have played out in a challenge or the moment of adversity?
In any franchise environment, there are always challenges around alignment and what other brands might call compliance. Compliance is a dirty word in my mind, it’s too much of policing. I prefer to use alignment in place. It’s always easy to take the legal route when it comes to alignment. It’s always easy to refer back to the franchise agreement. One of the beliefs sets we had in businesses was that they never ever refer to the franchise agreement. Overall, it is to constantly be able to sell the features and benefits of the organization and convince the franchisees that it’s the right thing to do.
When things go wrong on that journey and we had a situation where our sales team had sold a store within an existing territory and they stuck to it straight away. We had to go about rectifying that. It would have been easy to fall into the place of blame. Instead, people came together. I said, “Let’s get back to our values and to stay loyal to the pack. We never throw each other under the bus. We’re going to make mistakes. I encourage mistakes. That’s probably the right culture. Let’s figure out how to do this together.”
These elements like stay loyal to the pack, wake up every day like it’s going to be the most exciting day ever, chase high standards and play to your full potential. Are those the elements you’re referring to or is there something else?
They’re the top reasons. Love life unconditionally like a dog, stay loyal to your pack, live in your full potential, treat every day like it’s the most exciting day with the highest standards of safety. They’re all about purpose, trust, accountability, enjoyment, and then tenacity, never give up. Enjoy what you do is one of my absolute values. Life’s too short. Find and understand your purpose, and then lift the team’s purpose. That’s the purpose of the whole. If you can’t relate in what you’re doing, then find something else to do.
These are wonderful reasons that we talked about before. They’re not generic. They’re reflective of your brand, your personality as an organization and what you do for the doggies. You’re then translating that into these human organizational attributes that put it in a more clinical way. If I’m an entrepreneur and I’m thinking about my company, I’m wanting to do something similar to you. What I’m not going to do is take these words and say, “We’re going to stay loyal to our pack because we’re a pack too.” It wouldn’t make sense if I’m a widget manufacturer, for example. What advice would you give to me? It’s a small to a medium-sized business owner that wants to be like, “I want to build a culture of alignment myself.” Is there a punch list or something that you would offer to me or things that I need to consider as I go forth and do that for my company?
One of the things I did many years ago while I was running the Gloria Jean’s brand throughout the world, we were in 39 countries with a range of different cultures and different management styles throughout the globe. What became obvious to me was that we needed to establish a planning process. You had touched on it before in the sense of we all know what we should do. Once you’ve been in business a little while, we’ve got to be old that we know what we should be doing. We need something that reminds us of it because it’s easy to get distracted and it’s easy to listen to other people’s ideas. What I did was I built my Greatness Planning Program.
Every business has a time planning processes. Everyone has done a whole bunch of courses on having a plan and selling, but the reality of it all is that you’ve got to choose one. Whatever the system is, you select and preferably building itself saying, “Belief in it,” and then you go implement it. The toughest part and businesses never have a shortage of strategic ideas and they never have a shortage of people with great ideas. Where they fall short is in their ability to execute. What gets in the way of execution is people. Running a business is like a game of soccer. It’s easy to get people involved. Does your business planning process have to have a combination of how do you build leaders? How do you build an effective individual? How do you execute on all of that?
The responsibility of the leadership lies with everybody. It’s not just with your leadership team. Every single person in the organization needs to step up and understand that they accept the responsibility of being a leader in their field and in their role. We all have responsibility for how do you become effective? The simple part of it is there are some basic rules around it all and some basic principles that if you live every single day, then it falls into place. It’s never failed me. Many years ago, I have taken a series of 140 organizations and turn them around with this process. The key element to it all every single time is tenacity.
It’s the ability to take a challenge, break it down to workable parts and get those parts done.
It sounds to me like there’s another element to tenacity in addition to the things that you said. It’s like getting those things. It’s the execution no matter what.
It’s the execution no matter what and no matter what the challenges you face as part of it. It is a key element of breaking through them because tenacity is a couple of things. Number one, you’ve got to identify the issue. You’ve then got to identify the series of the potential fixes, and then you’ve got to select one and get on with it. If that doesn’t work, you could choose the next one. It is this ability to always believe in what the end goal looks like and then work with it. A good part of tenacity is understanding what the vision at the end looks like. What does it completely look like? What does the end goal look like? What does success look like?
I’m looking at your first Dogtopia-ism, “We love life unconditionally like a dog.” Let me ask you about the use of the word, love, in the business context. That’s deliberate. Tell me a little bit about why you choose that.
I’ve done an enormous amount of work in it because what’s interesting about the dog space is it is emotionally driven and so is coffee. We did an enormous amount of work about love. Kevin Roberts from Saatchi & Saatchi in ‘96 wrote a book called Lovemarks. He was the first to explain how love can be applied to business. We did a whole bunch of research with marriage psychologists because there are a lot of marriage psychologists in franchising as well. We identified three elements to bring love to life in business, ministry, intimacy, and sexuality. I’ve run workshops on this stuff. When you talk to people about sensuality, they get a little bit embarrassed.
They immediately go to sexuality but it has little to do with sexuality. Sensuality is about how do you bring it to life? How do you engage the five senses in a retail environment? What does the business sound like? What does the business feel like? When you touch that dog, when you walk in, when you lean on the benches, what does it makes you feel? What does it sound like? We organize eighteen dogs barking in control of the eighteen members with the stress in their voice or they walk in and there’s some lovely music. It might be the sound of a happy dog barking in the team, marriage leaders, they sound friendly and happy. From a smell point of view in our business, it is incredibly important when you walk into that business that it doesn’t smell like a dog.
We act like dogs but we don’t smell like them.
The application of those five senses is incredibly important. I believe that the best retailers in the world absolutely bring to life and understand how to bring those five senses to life in the retail environment. From an intimate point of view, we call it our tripartite relationship in our world. It’s the intimate relationship that lives between the dog, the pet parent, and the dog taking. It’s a three-way relationship. That intimacy and that trust are incredibly important in our business and the success of our store is incredibly important.
The last phase is the mystery side of things. Man is terrible with mystery. We’re terrible with being mysterious in a relationship. We weren’t great at it. That’s why they changed their lipstick. That’s why they let you book holidays and it’s seen as a surprise holiday and dinners. In the retail environment or in any business environment is how do you bring this through to life? That’s changing things up. Allowing people surprises and making people feel that there’s more to life than showing up every day. There are a range of different things that businesses can do it particularly with our work. We had pet parents turn up. We have coffee available for them and donuts, something like that as a surprise of how you’re thanking, “I appreciate you signing up and we’ll look at your Scruffy today.” Many companies get up wrong. As you say with McDonald’s with their “I’m Lovin’ It,” love became a word that was tossed around in the business. Few people understood how to bring it to life because it should be natural. It should be a precious element but you can’t just throw it around.
It does make people squirm. This is a discussion that you and I can have in great depth at another time because we’re soulmates on this for sure. This idea that love is somehow this California touchy, feely, hoo-ha crap or the warm, fluffy kumbaya stuff is insanity. People acknowledge they want love in every aspect of their lives. They want to love their kids and they want their kids to love them. They want to love their spouse and they want their spouse to love them. They want to love their friends and vice-versa. We then go to work and it no longer applies. Somehow in a business context, it has no place.
I love the way you break it down into the elements and that you bring in mystery and sensuality because you’re talking about creating the full-on customer experience. The case that I make is simple. You want your customers to love what you do for them because that’s where your competitive advantage comes from. If they’re satisfied, that’s not good enough. Since love breeds loyalty, repeat business, the word of mouth and all those things that we want as business people. Any business person worth his or her salt will agree with that. The next step then is if you want to create that experience in any meaningful and sustainable way over time, you have to create a culture that your employees love working in. This is the super high-level simplified version of it. There’s no way to create that culture unless as a leader you have it yourself first.
Have you heard the expression, “Fish stinks from the head?”
I’d also point out what you and I agree on is that leadership is not the sole responsibility of the head of the fishes. It’s everybody’s responsibility. To create that environment that people love working in, it’s the responsibility of the CEO and the C-Suite, but it’s also my responsibility as a leader within the organization, regardless of my position and title to find that connection of the heart that I have with this work. I’ve got to find it somewhere, even if it’s delivering pizzas. This is a guess, but I would imagine that you don’t have people applying to work at Dogtopia that don’t love dogs.
There’s none. It’s one of the first things. I love dogs. I have three myself. They volunteer that information. That love that exists between them and their dog. We joke about that love, that humanization that has taken place with the dog surpasses the love that exists between the parent and child. We joke about the fact that parents choose to sleep with their dogs, but they refused to sleep with their kids.A good part of tenacity is understanding what the vision at the end looks like. Click To Tweet
I would imagine that the challenge then is you have people working there that love dogs. They don’t necessarily love people. It’s not the dogs that are paying to be there, it’s the people. I would imagine, when you talked about that three-way relationship, what you’re needing to do is cultivate the love of the dog owner for their dog and the appreciation of that, “I work here because I love dogs, but I also need to love that our customers love their dogs.”
We’ve done a lot of research around that phase. What does the pet parent want for their dog? We’ve broken that down into three elements. We have rebuilt and type training protocols for our room attendants. We’re going through the process where we’re naming our attendants. We would send out surveys. The last one went out. We’re down with the top three. We’re waiting for the votes to come in. Every single room attendant across the network votes on how they want to be described. We’re going to run championships on who is North America’s greatest room attendant?
We’re down to the top three and then we’ll trademark it. I want to create this dog championship and we’ll run sessions in center stage, in malls as we used to in the coffee world. I want to escalate that here because it’s the core of that emotional connection. It’s understanding that the dog in daycare needs three things to satisfy its purpose. It needs exercise and that helps the pet parent have a better life. When they come home at the end of the day, you have a glass of wine rather than having to take it for a 5-mile hike. It needs to be educated. Our routine is to provide basic training around that, which is part of the key of the dog’s purpose
It then needs to be socialized so that when you take your dog out into the Greenbelt, it’s not passed around the dogs. It’s interesting when you break feelings down how simple it can be and then having to bring people into the business that can understand that. There’s some challenge in this love phase. It’s something that makes running a business more difficult than not talking about love. You need emotionally intelligent people that understand how to do their role within gray spaces rather than a black and white line. Not everybody likes that. It comes back to that point you made earlier where some people dislike being told what to do and that’s not our environment.
Love is not easy. There is such a thing as tough love as well. It’s easy to use the word in an advertising campaign or in a branding thing. Putting it into practice is a messy process because it requires being fully human and not being a cog in the machine that moves when somebody flips a switch.
It’s about being committed to this. I talked to my team about the chicken and the pig. When it comes to our categories, the cause and manifested, we’re committed. We don’t just provide the egg for breakfast, we are in.
Thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure. I’m looking forward to more conversation with you. You’re doing great work and I’m excited to see what’s next.
I enjoyed the conversation.
About Neil Gill
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