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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

The 4 Most Important Behaviors for All Veterinary Leaders

“Make the bleeding stop.”

No, this was not a client pleading with a vet to help their injured dog. This was what a practice manager once said to me while she pleaded with me to turn her practice culture around. Team members were “leaving in droves” and she was worried the hospital would soon be unable to meet client needs. Worse, patient care might suffer as fewer people filled the same number of daily roles.

Turnover has always been a challenge in veterinary workplaces. In the past couple of years, it’s become a hot-button issue. Combined with what feels like a desert of veterinarians, technicians, and support team members, it’s why I find myself often saying, “retention is the new recruitment.” If we wait for the cavalry of newly minted doctors and credentialed technicians to arrive we might not have practices in which to employ them.

It’s time we invest in crafting veterinary workplaces people want to stay in. Vet med needs a leadership reset.

In 2015, McKinsey published data from some research they conducted. Combining their consultant’s vast experience with leadership literature, they identified 20 key (and measurable) leadership behaviors. They then asked over 180,000 people from 81 organizations diverse in industry, size, demographic, and location around the world to rate their leaders on these 20 behaviors.

McKinsey found that 4 leadership behaviors account for nearly 90%(!) of leadership effectiveness. That’s important because leadership effectiveness can predict things like team member motivation and turnover intention. Specifically, team members who rated leaders high in the following 4 areas also rated overall leadership as highly effective in their organization:

  1. Supportive

  2. Strong results orientation

  3. Seek different perspectives

  4. Solve problems effectively

In 2022, Flourish Veterinary Consulting sought to answer the following question: “Does positive leadership make a positive difference in veterinary workplaces?” We asked nearly 600 veterinarians, technicians, CSRs, managers, and more from small, mixed, and large-animal practices in general, emergency, and specialty care to rate their leaders on 16 positive leadership behaviors. These behaviors match up to the “4 Ps of Positive Leadership”, an evidence-based framework we’ve developed over the past 5 years.

The answer to our question is a resounding, “Yes!” Positive leadership in veterinary workplaces predicts higher job satisfaction, better workplace wellbeing, stronger job commitment and engagement, and, you guessed it…team member retention. The 4 Ps also align quite well with the 4 leadership behaviors McKinsey found predict leadership effectiveness:

The 4 Ps of Positive Veterinary Leadership are:

  • Psychological Safety: a work environment in which diverse, unique voices are encouraged and celebrated.

  • Purpose: a work environment in which team members feel as if they, and the work they do, make a meaningful contribution.

  • Path: a work environment in which people are empowered to grow, develop, and effectively solve problems.

  • Partnership: a work environment in which team members feel cared for and supported.

Want to leverage this science and improve team member retention in your workplace? Amplify your positive leadership skills. As leaders, our consistent behaviors become the expectations and norms for our team. If we decide to act with intention and effort, over time we can shift the culture.

Here are a few ways to get started:

  1. Invite Perspective: Effective leadership is not accomplished alone. You want the collective genius of your team. But they won’t share it just because you want it. You have to create an environment that encourages and celebrates perspective-sharing. So invite them! Find ways to get curious and encourage voice. Ask lots of questions like, “What do you think?” Then actively listen.

  2. Point out Impact: Every day your team members are doing things that have a meaningful impact on patients, clients, the hospital, each other, and even you! Get in the habit of noticing impact, big and small, and pointing it out. Appreciation for impactful work is good. Appreciation tied to how it impacted something or someone in a positive way is even better. “Thank you for that. It made a difference because…”

  3. Establish Shared, Meaningful Goals: Effective leadership leads to meaningful accomplishment. Well-led teams and organizations get things done! High-quality leaders tie goals to things that matter to the team. Set aside time to share your goals with the team and explore how their unique strengths can contribute to the goals in ways that are meaningful to them. Be consistent in checking in on, supporting, and celebrating progress.

  4. Connect With Each Team Member: Over and over the literature shows that team members do better (and stay) when they believe leaders care about them as people. Positive leaders find ways to balance the needs of the business with the needs of the people who make it run. They don’t choose one over the other. Take the time to learn about the unique qualities, aspirations, and strengths of each member of your team.

A veterinary practice is a business trying to deliver veterinary care to paying customers. Of course, every business endeavor is first and foremost a human endeavor. As the people go, so goes the business. Our ability to provide high-quality patient care and client service is contingent on the people who deliver it. Their workplace experience matters and the people who most influence that experience are leaders. Embrace the practices of positive leadership and watch the people of vet med soar.

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