In the book The E-Myth Manager (Collins Business, 1999), Michael Gerber says we can only manage the system of work, and not the people who work the system. Anyone who has taken on management duties knows how true this is. It’s impossible to get people to do “what you want” in the management of a veterinary practice. In Gerber’s books, he explains how to develop systems in your organization so that regardless of the people doing the work, the same work gets accomplished. Simple enough, but the human component is still the most challenging element. That’s where employee development meetings come in. Once a system is created and can be reproduced by the staff to efficiently operate the business, the manager can focus on the human element and support the individuals who operate the well-functioning system.
A human touch
A veterinary practice, like other businesses, is built around a vision. Managers must learn to inspire the team with that vision. This starts with getting to know the people on the team and talking to them about what motivates them. As Gerber explains, a manager “begins a relationship with everyone who wishes to join the organization with a great deal of respect and care for them as individuals.” An employee development meeting helps team members reach their full potential at the practice.
It’s the human touch that makes the team willing to perform the system in place at the practice. Without the system—explained in your employee handbook, operations manuals of protocols, and other occupational resources outlines—there's chaos. On the flip side, you can have the best-documented steps about running the practice, but without the personal touch, you end up with “robots” who can't deliver the care and compassion that your patients and clients deserve.
First, you’ll need time to meet individually with every member of your team. If a mid-level supervisor below you is the closest to the people “on the floor” you’ll be teaching that manager how to conduct employee development meetings. The length of the meetings can vary. If you or your supervisor is managing a staff of 10 to 12 people, set aside 30 minutes to an hour every month with each team member.
You’re demonstrating to the team that you’ll devote time to sit and listen to them. Schedule the meetings when they best fits team members’ busy schedules, and don’t cancel unless it’s absolutely necessary. You want them to know these meetings will happen consistently.
Look at the numbers
A good employee development meeting is equal parts objective information and subjective conversation: the chart and the chit-chat. Demonstrating interest in people’s achievements starts with recognizing their progress.
The employee development chart is based first on the performance plan for that individual from the most recent performance evaluation. It includes organizational and personal goals. Each goal that you and the employee discussed and agreed on at the evaluation is touched on during the monthly employee development meeting, and the status is documented on the chart. These are usually quick updates, where a project is marked as completed, a deadline is reconfirmed or renegotiated, and the manager asks whether the employee needs further assistance. See Related Links below for a sample chart.
New projects or goals can be added during these meetings, too. Use the chart to bridge the gap between infrequent annual or semiannual performance evaluations.
With the quick update on the chart completed, you move on to chit-chat. I don’t use this friendly term lightly. This is the heart of the meeting. This is when your employee has a chance to get things off his or her chest and vent about problems they didn’t want to bother you with earlier. They may share new personal goals in their lives or a challenge that has nothing to do with work but could be affecting their performance. This is where you can demonstrate concern and compassion for them as human beings, not as just employees. The same sensitivity that bonds clients to your practice can help bond team members to you.
When the team members open up to you, you should be able to mention concerns of your own. For example, if they tell you about a health issue that’s affecting their family and causing them to be absent more than usual, you can sympathetically mention that you have noticed the increased absence, and they might be creeping dangerously close to breaking the hospital’s attendance policy. Or if they comment that they’re experiencing financial issues that are causing tension at home, you can mention that you have noticed them being less patient with clients and coworkers as well, and you’re concerned.
Most of the time, you're not telling them anything they didn’t already know; they may have just thought you hadn’t noticed. While you shouldn’t try to solve personal problems for the team members, you’ll be better able to help them improve their work performance. Most important, you’ve shown your concern, and they appreciate being able to open up.
Chit-chat isn’t always successful. Some people don’t want to open up about personal issues to their employers. But if you make time for these meetings on a regular basis and follow up between meetings by exhibiting genuine concern with supportive comments, then you’re at least offering team members the opportunity to improve in your organization and in their own lives.
Michael Gerber promotes employee development meetings this way: “If you can show your genuine commitment and interest in people, then something very significant changes. It’s no longer an us-versus-them mentality. It’s about a shared goal, it’s about personal investment. You’re expressing an interest in them as human beings. You’re expressing an interest in their development, their satisfaction, and their success.” The goal is simple: if you display a genuine interest in the personal growth of good employees, then for however long they remain at your practice you’ll both succeed.
Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, is president of InterFACE Veterinary HR Systems and founder of the Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Practice Association.