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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

The Wonderful Burden of Veterinary Leadership

Relationships at work not only drive business outcomes, they may actually hold the power to make the world a better place.

Leadership is a wonderful burden.

Leadership is difficult and the responsibility can be quite heavy. This can make it feel like a burden.

It is also wonderful. Because as leaders we have an incredible opportunity to instill a positive impact on the lives of those we intend to lead.

Put another way, leaders can’t make people happy, but they absolutely can and do influence the environment that either contributes to or depletes happiness.

And this matters in big ways.

Happy teams do better in so many ways. They are more productive, provide better customer service, are more resilient to challenges and changes, display more innovation and creativity, stay with their organization longer, and tend to contribute to higher business profitability.

For veterinary teams, feeling satisfied and happy in our work can pay massive dividends – for us as individuals, the performance of our teams, patient outcomes, and the success of our practices.

So, what helps veterinary professionals achieve job satisfaction and find professional happiness?

Compensation? The ideal schedule? A perfect balance between work and personal life?

All these factors are important in the overall picture of professional satisfaction. Recent research suggests they all pale in comparison to something you may find a bit unexpected.

All Business is Relational

I say this all the time – “all business is relational”.

Veterinary medicine is a professional practice, a business endeavor. And all business really is relational in its nature.

And of course it is. After all, all business endeavors are human endeavors and people are highly social creatures.

There are literally no business efforts that do not involve at least two human beings. Even a solo-preneur doesn’t really go about their business wholly alone. They work with vendors and suppliers. And they inevitably serve the needs of a customer or client.

That is a relationship.

And the relationships we have in our worklife cast wide influence over our entire life. At least according to research.

In their quarterly report published September of 2020, McKinsey researchers and consultants, Tera Allas and Bill Schaninger, used compelling data to make the case that relationships at work not only drive business outcomes, they might actually be critical to, “making the world a better place.”

Relationships Make the World Go ‘Round

Compensation is important.

After all, wages are a measure of value and few things set us off on a tirade against our employer more than the belief we are underpaid.

And believe you me, many, many, MANY veterinary professionals are disturbingly underpaid.

Work/life balance is another topic commonly discussed in our profession. Being overworked and under-resourced is the pavement on which the path to burnout is built.

And believe you me, many, many, MANY veterinary practices seem to have an unwritten norm driving folks to work unacceptably long hours, often without a break of any kind, only to “bring work home” with them after leaving the hospital.

And yet, the absence of these problems does not seem to guarantee a satisfied, happy, and fulfilled workforce.

A garden absent of weeds does not necessarily grow nourishing fruits. We must cultivate the garden to produce the good things we strive for.

In their article, Allas and Schaninger make an evidence-based case for what I’ve been trying to convey in my years as a leadership development consultant and coach. To steal a quote from the inspiring, lost-too-soon, Dr. Chris Peterson, “other people matter.”

For some reason, our intuition leads us to believe things like money, status, even workload are what drive our sense of job satisfaction. If we are only paid enough, respected enough, and could work less, we’d be happy professionals.

The data shows those things are important – just not nearly as important as we think.

If we piled all those typical variable (money, work/life balance, etc.) into a bucket and called it, “The Standards”, together they would only account for about 26% of what drives job satisfaction.

Just 26%.

Put another way, we can be paid generously, work an easy, predictable schedule, and still find our job wholly unsatisfying.

What most predicts job satisfaction then?

Interpersonal relationships.

In fact, almost 40% of job satisfaction is driven by the relationships we have at work. And 86% of how we rate our work relationships comes from the relationship we have with management.

86% of the quality of work relationships is driven by the quality of the relationship with our manager.

Leaders have a ton of influence over how enjoyable and fulfilling the work experience is for their team members.

But here’s the biggie – it extends beyond the walls of the hospital.

Research suggests fully 1/4 of our overall sense of life satisfaction is driven by our job satisfaction.

How many times have we complained to our friends and family about our “horrible” boss? How many times have we listened to that complaint from others?

Let’s pack it all together.

The quality of the relationship with our boss directly impact our overall sense of job satisfaction which directly impacts how satisfied we are with our entire life, overall.

Informed by research, what I'm saying here is nearly as big as it feels - when we move into a leadership role, we are empowered with a great deal of influence over the trajectory of the human beings we intend to lead. Quite literally, a portion of their life happiness is in our hands.

That is a real responsibility worth taking seriously. It can also be a gift.

Leadership is a wonderful burden.

The Veterinary Leader’s Guide to More "Wonderful", Less "Burden"

The gap between ability and skill is filled with intention.

As a leader, you already have all the ability you need to nurture meaningful connections with the people you lead.

Even if you are an introvert or a “baby manager” or younger than your team or awkward, somewhere in your life you have a high-quality relationship. You already know what it feels and looks like to connect well with another person.

Now it’s time to do more of that with your veterinary team.

I think leaders who do this well embody the role of Caring Challenger, partnering with team members to support them toward their best potential.

That requires a bit of unpacking. What is a Caring Challenge and what does a leader who develops partnerships mean?

A Caring Challenger is someone who sees and believes in our potential, and, with kindness, challenges us to achieve it.

Leaders find the role of Partner by navigating that interesting space between, “I’ll solve all your problems for you” (e.g., the kind of coddling that contributes to learned helplessness), and “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” (e.g., the kind of dismissive approach that disenfranchises people).

People who work for a Caring Challenger – someone who Partners with them to help them achieve the best version of themselves - they just do better. In almost all senses.

Notice, none of these things include putting up barriers, walls, or isolating yourself from the "staff" under the false pretense of "professionalism".

The most effective leaders learn about the human beings around them, take sincere interest in who they are and what matters to them, care for their personal wellbeing and professional success, notice them at their best and help them grow from their struggles, and connect with them in meaningful ways.

That is something absolutely any leader can do. Because all leaders are humans and all business is relational.

So go fill the gap with intention and make relationships your leadership superpower.

You might literally make the veterinary profession a better place for us all.

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