Practice managers: How many times have you arrived at the veterinary hospital with a plan only to spend your day fighting fires instead?
Maybe the vet’s upset that Fluffy didn’t receive her insulin before closing yesterday. Or maybe you learn that the oxygen was left on overnight and you don’t have enough for the five surgeries scheduled that day.
How do these things happen? Before you give in to the knee-jerk response—“Somebody didn’t do their job!”—take a moment to consider the state of leadership in your hospital.
Here are six questions to ask yourself to uncover potential areas for improvement:
1. Am I upholding quality standards?
I saw red flags once during an interview for a technician job I was trying for, but I chose to ignore them. For example, the practice owner, a well-established and well-liked veterinarian, kicked off our meeting by offering me a frozen daiquiri. I declined, but the blender whizzed to life as he made himself a refreshing drink and I sat waiting for the interview. Not surprisingly, things went downhill from there.
Within the first hour of my first day on the job, appointments started arriving, and because the owner (and only doctor) was on vacation, these patients were for me! Most were simple things like suture removals and heartworm tests, but things eventually got more complicated.
A puppy with parvo came in, and although I received medical advice from the practice owner over the phone, I was unsettled that I’d been advised to keep the puppy overnight instead of sending it to another hospital. The next morning, my fears were confirmed when I learned that the puppy had died in our clinic. I’m still haunted by guilt.
Other standards of care were similarly (and appallingly) disregarded and after learning from an assistant that my experience was “par for the course,” I reached my limit. After speaking with the owner (and being threatened that I would be professionally blackballed), I filed a complaint with the state board.
As a leader, if you aren’t upholding patient standards, you are doing a disservice to your clients, your patients, your team and the profession as a whole. Once you start a cycle of taking shortcuts or allowing substandard care, you create a culture of mediocrity and perilous negligence that is passed from team member to team member.
2. Am I being mentored?
School may have taught me veterinary skills and principles, but Liz Grainger, currently the practice manager at South Point Pet Hospital in Belmont, North Carolina, taught me about real-world application at my first job as a technician (no, not the job above).
Liz was there for me from the beginning, showing me the ropes, passing on knowledge, providing encouragement, challenging me and helping me recognize my potential to learn, do and be more. She knew that the more effort she put into helping me succeed, the better off the patients and the rest of the team would be. Her influence made me a better version of myself and a better leader.
Everyone, regardless of how long or how little they’ve been in the profession, can benefit from a mentor’s encouragement and advice. If you don’t have a “Liz Grainger” in your life, do what you can to get one.
3. Am I a mentor?
On a related note, are you a “Liz Grainger” to someone else? If not, find someone you’d like to champion. It’s been 19 years since my first job, and I clearly still think about Liz’s impact on my life to this day. Maybe someday, your mentee will write about you.
4. Am I respectful?
I can vividly recall one hospital where I witnessed instruments thrown in surgery and an empty cat carrier chucked across the room. It was the kind of place where the practice owner’s mere presence brought palpable tension.
At another hospital, the hospital owner routinely cursed at and belittled the team in front of clients. Once, he even put his hands on me in a fit of anger.
In response to these disrespectful behaviors, I became paralyzed by fear and lost confidence in my medical skills and decision-making abilities. Patients, clients and team members were affected as a result, because I was too preoccupied with trying to figure out why these things were happening and how I could control or stop them for the sake of myself and others.
As a leader, it’s OK to be upset and discuss your frustrations, but you must keep it respectful. If you find yourself reaching a boiling point, take time to cool down before speaking. Patients deserve to be in an environment that encourages learning, growth and open dialogue.
5. Do I shut up and listen?
One veterinarian I worked with had a listening problem. All concerns and passionate new ideas brought to her by myself and others fell on deaf ears. Eventually, we grew tired of being ignored and stopped voicing them, simply going along with the status quo.
The doctor would have benefitted from the advice Ernesto Sirolli, a sustainable development expert, gave during a 2012 TED talk: “Shut up and listen.” According to Sirolli, “The passion a person has for their own growth is the most important thing. If you listen to that person who has passion, you can find a way to help that person.”
When you’re faced with a team member who is dealing with a work-related issue or who wants to voice concerns or ideas on how to improve something in the hospital, shut up and listen. Understand that because the team member is bringing something to your attention, he or she is passionate enough to care and make things better. Express empathy and open your mind to possible solutions. Get your ego out of the way and avoid taking things personally.
When you take the time to truly listen to others, you’ll be amazed how much more effectively you’ll function as leader. The end result is a team that feels valued and trusted to provide quality patient care.
6. Do I take ownership?
In the book Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win, authors Jocko Willink and Leif Babin relate lessons learned during tours in Ramadi, Iraq, to the business world. As the book explains, “All responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader.”
If there are communication gaps, you need to bridge them. If your team isn’t united behind a common goal, it’s up to you to unify them. If your team doesn’t have the resources it needs, it’s your job to provide them. If someone on the team isn’t doing what’s expected, it’s your duty to find out why and to devise a plan to turn that around. If a team member needs additional training to perform his or her job well, that’s your responsibility too. If that same underperformer doesn’t improve, you must remove that person from the team and hire someone else who can get the job done.
If you couldn’t answer affirmatively to all of the above questions, don’t beat yourself up. Take actions to turn things around for you and your team. However, a perfect score won’t guarantee smooth sailing. You may still spend your days fighting fires, but at least you’ll be less likely to be the cause.