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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

A Leadership Practice to Reduce Veterinary Turnover

I was the managing partner and hospital director at my last veterinary hospital. My office was attached to the lobby so I could be readily available to the team and our clients. At one point, in an effort to amplify our “open door policy” I quite literally removed the door from my office.

Proud of my leadership acumen, I spent plenty of time at that desk, confident my team would come to me with whatever needs they had. Obviously, I was a good leader, right? Wrong.

When I left that practice I sat down with a few team members who I knew would be candid with me. I asked them about my leadership there. Specifically, I was curious to hear what they felt my strengths were and where I could improve. The feedback was humbling, to say the least.

Nearly all of them said they felt – at least at first – that I really cared about them. But, over time, their belief in that sentiment waned as they saw a manager who “sat in his office all day, pouring over spreadsheets and tracking the numbers.” Worse, they grew to find me unapproachable and dismissive.

Eventually, they said, the majority of the team sought support, guidance, and coaching elsewhere in the practice. Despite my “open door policy” I had created a distinct separation between the team and myself.

That’s problematic for so many reasons, not least of which, data collected during the recent “Great Resignation” suggests modern employees who find the workplace environment “toxic” or stressful may be 10- times more likely to quit than employees who are upset with their compensation or work-life balance. Combined with studies suggesting upwards of 75% of employees identify their manager as the biggest source of workplace stress, you can see how I was failing my team and company.

This all led me to a critical leadership lesson. No matter how gifted we are in operations, management, or finance, if we cannot connect with team members in meaningful ways our ultimate potential as leaders will forever elude us. It may sound cheesy and “soft”, but the reality is that if team members do not genuinely trust us and believe we care about them and their success, they are 3 times more likely to rate us as bad bosses.

People simply do not do great work when they believe they have bad bosses.

People simply do not do great work when they believe they have bad bosses. In fact, data collected by Flourish Veterinary Consulting in 2022 from nearly 600 veterinarians, technicians, client care representatives, and other veterinary professionals shows that team members who believe their leaders care about them are over 2 times less likely to be thinking of quitting.

Veterinary professionals who believe their leaders care about them are more than 2 time less likely to be looking for a new job.

There’s being a boss, and then there’s being an effective, positive leader. I urge you to choose the latter. One way to get started is by developing a meaningful, success-focused connection with your direct reports.

What Makes for an Effective Vet Hospital 1:1 Program

Hospital leaders: instead of waiting on technicians or associate doctors to come to you, it’s best to implement a structured program in which private, one-on-one meetings are scheduled on a consistent and routine cadence. By my best estimation, maybe 10% of veterinary practices have a truly effective program like this in place. Goodness, though, when they do the benefits are huge.

One-on-one programs, when built and implemented in a structured team-member-focused way, contribute to significant improvements in productivity and performance across the hospital. They can also reduce the incidence of burnout in health-care organizations by as much as 34%!

A recent MITSloan Management Review article shares at least 5 key ways to make these meetings more effective for both you and your team members. I’ll review them here with my own spin:

  1. Meet Up Often: I recognize that veterinary hospitals are often busy places. For many of us, it’s common to feel the pull of survival-mode as we think, “I just need to get through the day.” Adding in a one-on-one program can feel like a burden. At first, it will likely appear that way. But the research is clear – when we meet with team members on an individual basis in a targeted way, everything in the workplace improves. In fact, in one study, managers reported that adding this program actually increased their discretionary time by as much as 8 hours a month. They literally had MORE time for their own work because they met with their direct reports consistently. I suggest starting with at least a monthly meeting, one-on-one, in private, for no less than 30 minutes.

  2. Make it Bi-Directional: For many managers, sit-downs with team members are about direction. “I tell you what to do and you do it.” That is absolutely a part of being a manager. But if that’s the mental model your team has of you, they will dread one-on-ones and get little to nothing out of them. The best one-on-ones are bi-directional – they benefit both the manager and the team member. Remember, team members who believe we are genuinely interested in their success are significantly more likely to rate us as high-quality managers. Those are the team members who excel.

  3. Set an Agenda, Make it a Mutual Effort: At Flourish, our team is spread around the US. We use Slack for almost all our internal communication. I have a private channel for each of my team members with their name and “one-on-one” in the title. Only that team member and I have access to it. In that channel we keep agendas for all one-on-one meetings and both of us can add or edit agenda items. Then, when we meet, we are both prepared for the predetermined topics. More importantly, we are aligned on what needs to be addressed. At first, you may set the tone for this new program. But from Day 1, do all you can to invite each team member to be a part of the process, topics, and evolution of the one-on-ones.

  4. Focus on Coaching: There’s a fine line between being a supportive leader and a micromanager. If you find you’re asking a lot of update questions like “What are you doing today?” or “How are you setting up the OR?” you run the risk of being perceived as a micromanager. The most effective one-on-one programs often look like mini-coaching sessions. One way to help you lean into your coaching self is to focus on outcomes in the questions you ask. For example, instead of, “what have you written so far in the ultrasound training manual?”, ask questions like, “how are you feeling about next week’s deadline for the final draft ultrasound training manual?”

  5. Complete the Cycle: In my experience, most one-on-one programs in veterinary hospitals fail because nothing comes of them. We meet, we chat, no real action or follow-up occurs. Next month it’s easy for me or my team member to have an excuse for postponing or skipping our one-on-one. One-on-ones shouldn’t just be about talking, connecting, and coaching. They should also be about growth, development, and achievement. Three things to help you complete the cycle are: (1) take notes during the meeting and record action items including dates/deadlines, (2) follow-up on action items and make sure the team member knows when and how you have, (3) re-visit the last meeting’s action items at the beginning of the current one-on-one.

What To Do Next

I think we can all agree, veterinarians and veterinary technicians aren’t exactly growing on trees these days. Fifteen years ago we could post a job ad and get 30 technician resumes in the first day or two. Now, for many of us, we’re lucky if we get 5 resumes in 6 months! It’s why I find myself saying things like, “retention is the new recruitment,” a lot lately.

Leadership is first and foremost a relationship. If you can develop a relationship with your team members that leaves them feeling their voice is heard, they are making a difference, they are developing and achieving meaningful goals, and you care about them as people, the data is clear – they will stay in your hospital. An effective one-on-one program is an excellent way to make such a relationship a reality of your practice’s culture.

Need help crafting such a program? Looking for leadership development and coaching-communication training? All of this fits squarely in Flourish’s expertise. With over 50 collective years of veterinary experience, including management and practice ownership, and a deep knowledge of how people and organizations thrive, our Positive Change Agents can help you build and implement a one-on-one program that will help your hospital attract and retain exceptional veterinary professionals. Schedule a complimentary Discovery call with us today.

Even if you don’t reach out to us, consider a one-on-program in your practice. For a little bit of time investment upfront, the long-term payoff in retention, wellbeing, and performance will be well worth the effort.

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