Make the promise. Keep your team


Make the promise. Keep your team

This practice manager vows to help his employees improve their skills—and they stay at his hospital to do it.
May 01, 2008

Hold on: Annual staff turnover has decreased by more than 15 percent after Brian Conrad became more team-oriented. (PHOTOS BY JACKIE JOHNSTON)
When I speak at conferences, the biggest complaint I hear from practice owners is that it's hard to keep good team members and train the ones they have. "The youth of today just aren't what they used to be," one practice owner said to me recently. Of course, these owners never consider that it could be their own fault or that of the manager or practice culture. But it's not just owners complaining. Team members are, too. For every time someone says, "I can't find good employees," I also hear, "The management at my practice stinks."

I sympathize with both the owners and the employees. As a practice manager, I've been through the agony of high employee turnover—and come out on the other side. In a few short years, we took our turnover at Meadow Hills Veterinary Center in Kennewick, Wash., from 25 percent to less than 10 percent. We improved staff retention by taking responsibility for training, hiring, and challenging our team. We did it with a promise.

The turning point

Several years ago, my practice owners and I were feeling the strain of employee turnover. Finally, we decided enough was enough. I'd been setting a theme for our management team each year, so we made that year—2004—the "Year of the Staff." We'd always said we treated our staff well, but did we really? It was time to find out. In the process, we learned that our exit interviews weren't telling the whole story. Most people weren't leaving because they wanted more money or were tired of the veterinary field. They were leaving because they didn't see any more opportunities or challenges at Meadow Hills.

That was the year I wrote My Promise: "No team member will leave the practice feeling unchallenged, concede to a lack of direction, or have professional growth hindered."

No more finger-pointing

My Promise marked a turning point for our practice because it indicated a new philosophy—one in which management accepted ultimate responsibility. The owners and I made a concerted effort to focus inward. Failure on the part of any team member directly reflected on us, the practice leadership, not on the employee.

The other side of the fence (PHOTOS BY JACKIE JOHNSTON)
For example, let's say a new employee was having trouble figuring out how to create a puppy vaccination schedule. Before My Promise, our reaction would've been, "We've already told her how to determine the vaccination schedule. She's obviously not bright enough for the job." With My Promise, our new reaction was to look at our own management decisions. Had we spent enough time on training, practicing, and role-playing? Did we prepare adequate reference materials? Maybe training wasn't the problem; maybe it was our hiring techniques. Did we hire too quickly, choosing somebody who never belonged at our clinic to begin with? Either way, management had to take responsibility. The team member didn't fail; we failed the team member. The management team focused on being more humble, learning from mistakes, and moving on.

That mantle of ultimate responsibility funneled down from management to senior staff. An employee survey revealed that some new team members were finding it hard to fit in at our practice because senior team members were quick to point the finger when the newer employees made mistakes. That was a warning sign for us. We have since worked to create a culture in which senior staff understand that new team members' mistakes mean those employees need further training and guidance. Instead of casting blame and complaining, senior team members now look for solutions.