When owning or managing a pet business, most people figure out quickly that they’re going to need a lot more than a love of pets to be successful. For many, the people side of the business is the most challenging, especially successfully leading a diverse team of employees. How you lead your team not only impacts their productivity, loyalty, and happiness, but it also directly impacts the bottom line of your business. Therefore, it’s imperative that you take the time to focus on learning and honing excellent leadership skills. I turned to three honorees of Pet Age’s Women of Influence Award for their advice and insight on leading effectively in the pet industry.
Are Leaders Born or Made?
Many people wonder if great leaders are just born to be leaders or if their education and experiences are what allows them to become great leaders. Kat Donatello is the founder and CEO of Austin and Kat, a Seattle-based company that makes small-batch, all-natural, gluten-free and locally sourced CBD wellness products for pets.
“I think it’s a combination of both, and a bit of timing and luck,” Donatello responded when asked if great leaders were born or made. “Sometimes being in the right place at the right time can make the world of difference.”
Dr. Ruth MacPete, best known as the Pet Vet, is a practicing veterinarian, blogger and serves as a spokesperson for the AVMA’s Partners for Healthy Pets.
“There are different types of leaders,” MacPete said. “Although some people have innate qualities that make them suited to be a certain type of leader, anyone can learn leadership skills. Pet business owners can improve their leadership skills by attending workshops and lectures and by reading books about leadership.”
As president of The Pound Bakery, a wholesale and private label pet treat manufacturer, Lexie Berlund leads 385 employees with about 25 of them on her direct team creating and producing custom premium pet treats.
“I think this could go either way,” Berlund explained. “Could you be born into an environment that encourages you to succeed and in turn become a leader? Yes, absolutely. But not everyone is so lucky. When you are born into an environment that tests you and rather than letting it break you down, you choose to let it build you up, to achieve when the circumstances are against you, you give yourself the opportunity to make yourself into a leader or whatever it is you choose to be. You get what you give. I’m a firm believer in that.”
Can Having a Mentor Help You?
There are many benefits of having a mentor in any business, but in a business that’s highly competitive, the ability to find someone who can help you avoid mistakes they’ve made and to give you honest feedback can be a real asset.
“If you are fortunate enough to have a mentor, your mentor can be someone you can always rely on for their advice and for your questions,” MacPete noted.
In Berland’s experience, a mentor can help you learn the basics and get started on your path.
“This doesn’t mean you have to be a carbon copy of them though,” she said. “And you shouldn’t be. Having a mentor should give you the building blocks to begin your business journey and then it’s up to you to strive to be more innovative, more efficient, and hopefully even more successful. I think that’s what a good mentor would want for you.”
Donatello said having a mentor is very important in leadership success.
“I have three, as well as a business coach that helps me define where I want to go each quarter. My mentors help me flush out ideas, hear my struggles, my wins and make suggestions to how I can be a more focused leader.”
The Characteristics of a Great Leader
A great leader possesses a good balance of personal characteristics combined with key skills they’ve developed that make others want to follow. Donatello ranked commitment, compassion, and persistence as her top three personal characteristics for leadership success. Communication is a skill that most business owners consider being important for leadership.
“Pair that with influence and the ability to delegate and you are on your way to leading a team that is responsive, looks up to you, and shares common goals,” said Berlund, adding that passion and hard work are also part of the leadership success equation. “When you show others you are passionate about something, it will inspire them to follow. If you exhibit a strong work ethic, hopefully they will too.”
Great leaders also light the path for their team to follow. MacPete said great leaders will lead by example, have a vision for the future and inspire their teams.
“Leaders promote the attitudes and behavior they expect from everyone else by setting a good example themselves,” she said. “They have a vision, know what they want, and set their team’s goals. Good leaders also inspire their team to excel. Leaders motivate the team to follow their vision and reach those goals.”
Leaders in Pet Care Industry
Although there are many universally accepted skills and attributes that make a great leader, there are some specific things pet business leaders should focus on to reach their goals. Berlund stressed the importance of really getting to know the needs of your team to better understand them and their goals. She recommends finding out what inspires them to work hard; is it goals, incentives or competition?
“You can ask someone to complete a task or you can inspire someone to excel and in return find pride in their work,” Berlund advised. “Which one seems more rewarding?”
Donatello believes that honesty and transparency are key in being successful in the pet business.
“Leading by example is so important; walk the walk and talk the talk,” she explained. “During COVID we’ve had to pivot as a company and nurturing relationships, understanding how affected people were, and making exceptions to normal policy and procedures will earn you a customer for life.”
Being a leader doesn’t mean you’re not human. You’re going to make mistakes, especially when trying new things, and you’ll face ups and downs in your business.
“Don’t be afraid to fail, but fail fast, get up and try again,” Donatello recommended.
“Becoming a good leader is a process,” noted MacPete, while adding it’s advisable to set realistic expectations. “Leadership skills improve with time and practice. Be receptive to learning and evolving.”
Donatello offered this final advice for leadership success: “Make sure you understand your why. No one got into the pet business to make billions of dollars, but we did come into this journey to help others and their pets have happier, healthier and calmer lives. Your employees should have a similar set of values and beliefs and be able to create a sense of community that extends beyond the four walls of the building.”
Amy P. Castro, MA, is a business, leadership, and communication expert, author, and speaker who helps organizations develop leaders and build amazing teams one person at a time. She works with pet industry professionals who want to grow their loyal customer base by building a “Best in Show” team that can deliver a 5-Star Customer Experience. Amy is also the president of Starlight Outreach and Rescue, a nonprofit rescue in the Houston, Texas area, and she has personally fostered more than 1,000 shelter pets.