Home » Library » Enjoy » Ken's Letters

The Good-to-Great Trainer Transformation

Filed in - Ken's Letters

How to get there

Trainers never set out to be merely adequate. We want to be good trainers. Many of the trainers I meet go to ClickerExpo and attend seminars with the hope of improving their training. Their goals are to become the best trainers they can be. It’s not unusual to hear someone ask “How can I transition from being a good trainer to a great trainer?”

For more than 25 years I was on the leadership team at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Our CEO, Ted, asked us to read the book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don’t by Jim Collins. It is a business book that examines the progress of 1435 good companies over the course of 40 years. The author then looks at the 11 companies that transformed from good to great companies. What did these high-performance companies have in common?

The connection between the corporate world and an education- and conservation-based organization was not immediately clear to me and my colleagues. Quietly and patiently, Ted allowed us to discover the connection, and helped us realize that the pathways to success and greatness were similar no matter what the venture.

We learned that none of the “great” companies had followed a specific program or prescription for success, but they did have qualities in common. Recently I revisited the success factors that Collins discovered in his research to see if there was any application to the training world. Could the areas of focus that propelled companies from good to great be helpful to trainers?

The egg 

Jim Collins wrote about many companies whose accomplishments are perceived by the outside world as overnight successes or miraculous transformations. But Collins found that, for truly great companies, that is never the case. He described the process as like an egg that lies dormant. To the uninformed, the egg may appear unimpressive and not particularly notable—until the chick pops out and, suddenly, there is a living bird! It may be a miracle of nature, but it is hardly an overnight or unpredictable success. The bird did not suddenly appear. There was an incubation and formative period that, while not observable to the outsider, was taking place long before the actual hatching. Similarly, great companies don’t just become great suddenly; they work hard to get there.

Improving your skills requires a lifelong dedication to learning, practicing, and adjusting your actions until you get better.

The same holds true for becoming a great trainer—there are no shortcuts. It takes hard work and practice. Attending a conference or a seminar gives trainers new information, and can help expand their thinking about training. However, improving your skills requires a lifelong dedication to learning, practicing, and adjusting your actions until you get better. When you do get better, you will be the first to acknowledge that it was neither quick nor miraculous, and that you worked your tail off to reach that goal!

The flywheel effect  

A flywheel is a giant, heavy, metal wheel on an axis that spins when it gathers enough momentum. Collins’ analysis looks at the company as a flywheel; for a company to succeed it must get the flywheel spinning. If the flywheel is not in motion, it takes a great deal of effort to push on the wheel and get it moving. As the wheel begins to turn, it gains momentum and becomes easier and easier to push and keep going.

Many companies stagnate and don’t keep up with trends or changing business situations. A business must “get the wheel turning” by accepting change and implementing needed adjustments. At first that takes effort, and it requires a culture of change and an awareness of the world outside the walls of the company.

Trainers also need to be open to change.

Trainers also need to be open to change. We must keep up with scientific advances, new literature and thoughts on welfare, and improved techniques for using tools and practicing our skills. It is so easy to get into a routine and not adapt or grow. As I look at my own training flywheel, I find that I have to work hard to accept and implement change.

The Flywheel Training Cycle:


  • Learn a new skill or concept 
  • Apply and practice the skill or concept 
  • Evaluate its effectiveness (rely on colleagues or coworkers to help when possible) 
  • Adjust based on feedback 
  • Repeat

Disciplined thought: fox or hedgehog? 

Collins bases the idea of disciplined thought on a Greek parable that “distinguishes between foxes, which know many small things, and hedgehogs, which know one big thing.” His research revealed that every great company had leaders who were hedgehogs, people who were able to simplify complex concepts and ideas into a single unifying vision. Hedgehog-led companies did not try to be good at all things; instead, they paid attention to their core values, which guided all decision-making.

To be great trainers, we each have to discover our personal “hedgehog.”

To be great trainers, we each have to discover our personal “hedgehog.” What is our niche? Which skills are our best skills? Where should we focus attention? My “hedgehog” can be articulated as “I am a positive-reinforcement trainer who puts the animal’s needs first and teaches others how to be the best trainers they can be through education and skill-development.” I may do more things than that, but it is the essence of what I believe in and it guides my decision-making about all projects. If a project does not fit into my area of focus, I will likely recommend a different consultant or trainer.

Your hedgehog may be very different; it should be uniquely your own. Some examples of different types of personal or organizational hedgehogs may be:


  • I specialize in puppy training and assisting clients get their relationships off to the best start possible, focusing on positive reinforcement and thorough client education.
  • We deal with all things agility, providing instruction and classes for all agility enthusiasts from the beginner to the advanced, serious competitor.
  • We are problem-solving consultants specializing in reactivity and aggression issues. We help find the root cause of behavioral problems and look for lasting positive solutions for clients and their dogs.

Everyone’s hedgehog is very personal. It is where you want to focus all of your primary effort and energy. It is ultimately what you do best and what you want to do better; it is where you want to dedicate the maximum resources.

The bus 

One of the last important principles discovered in the good-to-great research is that leaders of great companies are the drivers of a philosophical bus, driving their organizations toward success. They let everyone know where they are headed, and they are careful of whom they let on the bus. Great leaders will also move people to the appropriate seats on the bus; they do not allow employees to stay in positions they are not well-suited for.

The best trainers develop a program and a plan that matches the animal’s skill set and interest level.

Trainers should not take on projects or training tasks that they are not suited for or skilled enough to train. In determining what we want to train, we should make sure the skill or task is suited to our animal. Ensure that the learner is “in the right seat on the bus.” Too often I see trainers determined to teach a dog to be an agility competitor, but the dog does not enjoy it and does not have a temperament suited to this high-energy sport. The great trainer will recognize the mismatch, decide to find other things for that dog to do, and not force the dog into an ill-fitting activity. The best trainers develop a program and a plan that matches the animal’s skill set and interest level.

The path to excellence 

No matter what we do, pathways to excellence are similar. There is no substitute for the tried-and-true methods of hard work, education, practice, evaluation, and adjustment. We must know our own strengths and those of our learners, and focus our energies on the things that matter most to us.

The quest for improvement is never-ending. It is a journey that we share with the people and pets in our lives.

I may never achieve greatness as a trainer, but that has never been my goal. The day that I stop learning, growing, and improving is the day I should retire. The pursuit of excellence in training should be focused on improving the lives of the animals we care about, and the pursuit must start with improving our own knowledge and skills. The quest for improvement is never-ending. It is a journey that we share with the people and pets in our lives. It is a collaboration that will not occur just because we wish it or want it so. To achieve lasting and impactful excellence, we must dedicate the resources, mind-power, and effort in a conscious and deliberate way.

Happy Training,


About the author
User picture

Post new comment

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <embed> <object> <div>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Glossary terms will be automatically marked with links to their descriptions. If there are certain phrases or sections of text that should be excluded from glossary marking and linking, use the special markup, [no-glossary] ... [/no-glossary]. Additionally, these HTML elements will not be scanned: a, abbr, acronym, code, pre.
  • Each email address will be obfuscated in a human readable fashion or (if JavaScript is enabled) replaced with a spamproof clickable link.

More information about formatting options

To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.