Expanding Your Reach: A Guide to Hiring Your First Employee

Written by Andre Yeu, KPA CTP, CPDT-KA

Finally, you feel like all the investments you’ve made in pursuing certifications, completing courses, attending conferences, reading books, and helping your early clients succeed with their animals is paying off! You are busier than ever and able to pick and choose the types of clients and cases you want to work with. Your phone rings regularly, and your inbox is full of inquiries. But, now you’re so busy that, your next available appointment is almost three months from now. Does this story sound familiar to you?

As your reputation grows and your appointment book fills, you face a critical juncture – the need to expand your capacity without compromising the quality of your services. Many consultants find themselves in this catch-22, where the demand for their expertise exceeds their individual capacity to deliver. This article aims to guide animal behavior consultants through the process of hiring their first employee, addressing common concerns and providing practical solutions to ensure a seamless transition and sustained growth.

Why Hire and Invest in Growth?

There’s nothing wrong with remaining an owner-operator, one-employee company. You might make things run more efficiently by ensuring you have an administrative assistant who handles all your invoicing, bookkeeping, client inquiries, and bookings, and who gate-keeps your email inbox and phone calls. You’ll make a great living doing what you enjoy. The one thing that might be the fly in the ointment is when it comes to new client inquiries: When you (or your administrative assistant) replies saying the next appointment is three months away, the truth is, most can’t wait that long, and they will go elsewhere for help.

And where will they go? While qualifications, certifications, experience, and methods are part of the buying decision, most consumers will just go with who is available first. This often means the newer, less qualified, less experienced trainers and behaviour consultants will get this business, and oftentimes this means people who give out ineffective or even harmful advice.

I started my dog training business with the mission of giving our community, and people who were like me, access to sound, effective, and humane training and behavior consulting services. That’s why whenever I hit a capacity wall, I felt compelled to increase our capacity so people wouldn’t have to wait too long, and to keep them from settling on someone who was available quickly but would employ harmful methods. The other benefit our community realizes is we increase the pool of people who follow a LIMA approach to behaviour change. When there’s just one of you in your community, it’s hard to make wholesale change. When there’s a dozen or more, community-wide shifts in how people view animals and behaviour are possible.

 Deciding to build a team of trainers and behavior consultants allows you to divert a percentage of your time into growth activities that might not be possible while you’re trying to serve the clients who are already struggling to get in your calendar. For example, because I have a team of over a dozen certified trainers at When Hounds Fly, I can deliver Karen Pryor Academy courses across the country, certify even more trainers, and speak at training and behaviour conferences without having to turn away pet dog guardians who need help (my team has it covered!).

But No One Is as Qualified as I Am!

A common fear that stops owner-operators from expanding is a deeply held belief that there’s no one they could hire who would do as good a job as they would. This might be true, but more often than not, it’s a case of things being done differently versus with lesser quality.

From a procedural perspective, you can standardize how things are done by creating standard operating procedures (SOPs) for all the functions in the role. If you want the client booking and onboarding process to go a certain way, document all the steps and make it clear to your new hire that this is the way it’s done. Your new hire can be evaluated based on adherence to this, or any SOP you write. Over time, they might bring in fresh ideas about how to improve some of your processes.

A related fear is that new employees might use or teach aversive methods to your clients, and because the work is often done outside of your view, you wouldn’t know. SOPs regarding methods to be used, which might explicitly dictate following LIMA, and what procedures require consulting with you first, reduce risk here significantly. Similarly, looking for candidates who have already signed professional codes of conduct that align with your values raise the stakes for them to comply.

But truthfully, it’s likely that at some point your new hire will make a mistake or give incorrect advice or information that sets the client and their animal back. The thought of this might cause a lot of distress, enough to dismiss the thought of hiring at all. I’d suggest that this is catastrophic thinking — what’s the worst that could happen here? In the early stages, have weekly case review meetings with your new hire and you’ll catch these things, and it’s a learning opportunity for your new hire to receive feedback, and for you to give it. And, the client’s protocols can be revised at their next meeting. Mistakes are simply learning opportunities that cost time and money, and are part of the operating expenses of a business.

No Brilliant Jerks

Ariana Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, once said, “No Brilliant Jerks allowed. The first 100 people you hire determine the culture of the company.” In this case, we’re talking about the very first hire.

How does this translate for an owner-operator looking to make their first hire? You’ll be spending a lot of time with this person, and it’s important that on many non-negotiable things, you see eye to eye. I recommend that knowing what your core values are, and defining what your non-negotiables are, is the first step, as it forms the guidelines you can use to assess candidates.

As an example, one of my non-negotiables is attention to detail. It’s important to me that things are accurate and line up well — close enough is not good enough. So, when screening resumes, I automatically exclude any that have alignment or spacing issues, or inconsistencies with fonts. Obviously, spelling mistakes would be an immediate strike out. A related example is punctuality — I pay close attention to when someone logs into a Zoom meeting for an interview. I’m looking for candidates who arrive three to five minutes before the scheduled start time. Showing up right at the start time is a red flag, and showing up even one minute late is an immediate pass.

Other examples of tests that you can use to assess character and core values include intentionally leaving a piece of trash or rubbish in the middle of the floor of the facility/office you’re meeting at — does the candidate stop and pick it up? That speaks volumes about how they feel about both attention to detail and whether they’re a team player, or some things are just beneath them.

Another example is to see how candidates interact with “the help” — for example, many companies will arrange for interviews at cafes or restaurants where they in-advance arrange for the cafe to get the candidate’s order wrong. How they react to an inconvenience like this, how they speak to the staff to get it resolved, and what they say about it afterward reveals far more than a resume or reference call could.

I’ve been in interviews where highly qualified candidates, with many certifications and years of experience, who looked excellent on paper, lectured me for 98% of the interview and even interrupted me when I was speaking the 2% of the time. Even though we really needed more help and they could have been fully booked with clients right away, we did not proceed with them as we knew it was a core value mismatch. Instead, it’s far better to hire people who are less qualified but will be awesome to work with and will help create a positive culture in your team. You can teach behaviour consulting and training skills, but it is nearly impossible to influence and change someone’s core values.

Be Aware of Unconscious Biases and Embrace Diversity

Did you know that organizations with gender and ethnic diversity are up to 35% more likely to outperform those that lack it?1 This is according to research conducted by McKinsey and Company, and there are many other studies that point to the business case for having a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion strategy in all organizations.

Prior to beginning the search for your first hire, it’s essential that you become conscious of any biases you may have that could affect your decision making. There are many free or low-cost Unconscious bias, and DEI in the workplace e-learning courses you could take, to set yourself up for success here.

For example, years ago, we interviewed a candidate whose first language was not English. I remembered being concerned that their accent might affect our client experience. I had to really look deep and decide whether the accent was affecting their ability to convey and teach, or whether they were able to comprehend our interview questions. It didn’t- their accent had no impact on their effectiveness as a trainer. We proceeded with an offer and many years later, they’re thriving in our organization, and we can now offer lessons in an additional language to our diverse clientele.

This is just one example, and there are many primary and secondary characteristics of diversity to learn about. In all cases, simply being aware and looking for opportunities to build a diverse team is not just good for society, but also for the bottom line.

Craft Clear Job Descriptions and Job Scorecards

As behavior consultants, we’re experts at creating behavior modification plans that would specify exactly what behavior we want our animals to do, under what conditions, and how they’d be reinforced for it. The behavior would be clearly defined and include enough detail that we could make determinations as to whether an attempt met criteria or did not, and we’d also keep data on the frequency of the behavior occurring over time, and what the reinforcement rates looked like. So, we are uniquely qualified to craft excellent job descriptions and job scorecards!

Taking the time to craft detailed job descriptions helps candidates have a clear picture of what’s expected of them prior to even applying. It also forces you to clearly define what you’re looking for. In the end, both parties have a much greater chance of success because a lot of the ambiguity is eliminated.

To help develop this job description, simply document everything you do in the role currently, making sure it’s as explicit as possible. Then, take the totality of the tasks you do and distill it into one or two sentences that summarize what the point of the role is.

A role summary might read: “To help pet dog owners in downtown Toronto with their dog s’ behaviour-related concerns by providing in-person and Zoom consultations.”

For a task description, if your current process is to reply to inquiries via email, you might want to include this as a bullet point under responsibilities:

“Email booking instructions to prospects within 24 hours of receipt, and respond to any questions they ask within the same timeframe.”

On the other hand, if your process currently is to follow up via phone call, this would be appropriate:

“Call new prospects within 24 hours of receipt of their contact details, and follow up every 24 hours until reached.”

Next, you must include a job scorecard to take the subjectivity out of performance evaluations. Everyone wants to know where they stand, and the more objective you can make things,the better. Examples might include a sales-closing metric, such as:

“75% conversion ratio from new prospect inquiries into first bookings”

And how might effectiveness be measured? Include a step in your process where after every lesson or consultation, clients are sent an automated email with a survey link. The job scorecard should include the expected customer satisfaction rating your new behavior consultant must achieve.

Compensation and Financial Considerations

If possible, it’s always a safer bet to hire someone on a part-time basis and have the hours worked fluctuate based on the number of prospects and clients you can send their way. This ensures that if you hit a quiet period, your payroll costs scale down accordingly. It is a leap to hire someone on a full-time basis, at which point you bear the burden of maintaining their salary whether there’s enough client demand to support it, not to mention the added pressure of being that person’s primary source of income, which is a lot for a newer entrepreneur to handle. As employment law varies greatly from place to place, consulting an expert who knows your local laws and regulations is helpful to ensure what you’re planning is legally sound.

Most newer entrepreneurs underestimate the time, effort, and financial costs that go into the business. All the work in creating these SOPs, time and effort to coach and manage your new hire, and all back-office work, such as bookkeeping, marketing, IT management, human resources and payroll, operations — between what you charge the client, and what you pay your new hire, there has to be enough of a margin to cover all these operating expenses and also produce a healthy net profit that goes into retained earnings at the end of the year.

I heard of a behaviour consultant who was giving an 80/20 split between their contractors and the company, which as an example, is a recipe for burnout and disaster. To the inexperienced, it may seem fair since the consultant is the one doing all the consulting work while the business owner is doing “nothing,”, but that’s untrue — far from doing nothing, they’re doing a ton in the back office, but most importantly, the owner worked hard for years, including operating at a loss in the early days, and produced the asset of a recognizable brand. That brand is worth a lot. It’s not tangible, but it’s an asset, no different than a piece of equipment or property. Accordingly, it should produce a return for you and your company.

Speaking to your accountant can be helpful here. Also, your previous financial statements, your own estimates (how much time do you spend on back-office activities NOT client-facing?), and benchmarks against similar industries should determine what you can actually afford to pay.

Go Beyond Trading Time for Money

Once you decide to take the leap and hire your first employee, and continue after that, you’ve increased the number of people in your community who follow LIMA approaches, more families and their animals train humanely, and fewer are likely to end up in the hands of inexperienced or even harmful animal trainers.

But what happens to you is equally profound. When you’re an owner-operator, you’re still simply trading time for money — that is, for every hour you bill a client, you make more, every hour you don’t, you make less. You’re not much different than an employee at a company, except the boss is also you.

But, as you hire employees, and manage a team and a company in the ways I’ve described here, you can create a self-managing company that does not depend on your time or energy to be successful. It’s at this point where what you earn becomes less tied to how many hours you work and instead what kind of value or impact you can make on your team, your business, your community, or even the entire industry. This is sometimes referred to being able to work on the business, versus just in it.

It’s not easy by any means but, if you ask any successful entrepreneur, they’ll tell you the hard work and heartache in the end is totally worth it. And it always starts with the first step, by hiring the first person who delivers the same thing you do, and growing from there.

References

  1. Hunt, V, Layton, D. and Price, S. (2015) Why diversity matters. McKinsey & Company [online]. Last accessed 2/9/2024.

Andre Yeu, the founder of When Hounds Fly Dog Training, has successfully expanded his business to encompass more than five locations throughout Canada and a team of 20 skilled dog trainers and behavior consultants. One of just two Canadians selected to join the esteemed Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) faculty, Andre plays a pivotal role in delivering the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Professional program and certifying other talented trainers. 

Known for his extensive knowledge and expertise in dog training, Andre is frequently approached by the media. He has appeared on popular television programs such as CTV Your Morning, eTalk Daily, Global TV News, and CBC News. Andre is often interviewed by notable publications, including Canadian Living and the Toronto Star. Residing in Toronto, Canada, Andre earned a bachelor’s degree in Commerce with Honours from the University of British Columbia.

TO CITE: Yeu, A. (2024). Expanding your reach: a guide to hiring your first employee. The IAABC Foundation Journal 29, doi: 10.55736/iaabcfj29.4

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