Monday, March 17, 2014

Dog Pack Operating Model

It was starting to get seasonably warm in Maryland last week, so we decided to escape to St. Paul, Minnesota, on Saturday to enjoy one last blast of winter and take in Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion show at the historic Fitzgerald Theater. Unfortunately, winter followed us back home, setting up a white St. Patrick’s day with about six inches of snow on Sunday night.

The round trip journey between Baltimore and St. Paul is rather complicated and time consuming, so I brought plenty of reading materials, but I still had time to take a look at the Southwest Airlines Spirit magazine on the plane. I opened it to a one page article by author and dog trainer Cesar Millan, a TV celebrity who is known to many people as the Dog Whisperer.  I have enjoyed Cesar’s show, I like dogs, and I will usually read almost anything about them.  But what really grabbed my attention was the article’s opening line, where in response to the question:  “What is the key to a functional workplace?”, Cesar replied:  “This is one particular area where we can learn a lot from animals.”

I have worked in functional workplaces, and in dysfunctional workplaces, and with lots of people who behaved like animals, so I knew this article was for me. Essentially, Cesar argued that a dog pack is a model of a cohesive and effective workplace, and he described how dogs, in a pack, naturally form into three groups:

1.  Dogs at the front (the alpha dogs), the leaders who set direction.
2.  Dogs in the middle, who keep things orderly and on track.
3.  Dogs at the back (the cautious dogs) who alert the others to threats.

According to Cesar, no group in the pack is superior to any other group, and the groups complement and balance one another, and that’s why a dog pack functions well.

So I started imagining property casualty insurance companies as dog packs. Projecting Cesar’s model, the insurer alpha dogs would be the senior executives who protect the company’s capital and reputation and share price, identify market opportunities, and develop strategic plans to make the most of those opportunities.  The middle dogs would be the operations folks—Claims, Underwriting, Policy Administration, IT, Loss Control, Marketing, Distribution Management, Accounting, Payroll—who execute the strategy and interact with stakeholders and deliver products and provide services.  The dogs at the back, always nervous and on the lookout for threats and danger, would be wearing collars with tags such as Human Resources, Risk, Compliance, Legal, Actuarial, Internal Audit, Communications, Product Development, and Finance. The dog pack model seemed like a good fit.

Thinking about all of the insurance companies I have worked with and for, I concluded that the functional, successful companies were indeed organized like Cesar’s dog pack.  The different departments were clear on what they were supposed to be doing, they did it well, they complemented and supported one another, and pulled together as a team to produce the best outcomes.

But what about the dysfunctional companies, the insurance companies I have known that are now long gone or floundering? Did their workplace model contribute to their decline? I think so. I have lived through enough workplace drama in 40 years to recognize the signs of an insurance company starting to unravel. In a dog pack, trouble seems to start when dogs, for whatever reason, don’t stay within their natural groups, and get distracted from what they are supposed to be doing. In an insurance company, the straying might be fueled by personal ambition, or hubris, or a leadership vacuum, or lack of clarity about roles and decision rights, or an acquisition or merger, or even just an arbitrary or ill-advised reorganization or transformation. Whatever the reason, the wandering and interfering dogs disrupt operations and negatively impact processes and outcomes, so the company’s ability to achieve critical objectives degenerates rapidly. As the structure of the pack deteriorates,  one group often emerges as more highly regarded than the others, and it gets treated and compensated as if it is superior to the others.  At that point, any latent pack cohesiveness rapidly dissolves.  Then, one of the most reliable indicators that the end game is near occurs: the alpha dogs aggressively move into the pack and try to directly manage or redesign operations or, even worse, attempt to dictate to and control the critical financial functions that are managed at the back of the pack (particularly Finance and Actuarial).

What about those people I have worked with who behaved like animals? Unfortunately, Cesar isn’t very encouraging on that score: “I have never met a dog I couldn’t help; however, I have met humans who weren’t willing to change.”  I think I have met some of those humans, too!

I am always pleased but rarely surprised when I find inspiration in unexpected places. Thank you, Cesar Millan, for sharing your dog pack model and for unwittingly encouraging me to squint at the property casualty insurance business from a new and intriguing perspective.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, CIC is a retired Chief Claims Officer and an expert and advisor on Property Casualty insurance claims and operations. He can be reached at or through

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