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Five ways veterinary staff can lead by example

By MWI Animal Health

How to recognize and support emerging leaders in your practice
Diverse young coworkers at business meeting

The trends toward greater diversity and inclusion throughout the veterinary profession pose fresh challenges to old top-down styles of leadership and management. Forward-looking veterinary practice owners and managers can establish practice cultures that allow others' leadership to shine.

1. Create a culture of veterinary leadership

Keynote speaker and consultant Steve Wunch recommends taking your business model, services, and job title out of the equation. Instead, think about what you would want from yourself as a leader and ask these questions:

  • What would I want people to say about me when I'm not in the room?
  • What would I want my legacy to be if I left this company?
  • How did I help to support people?
  • How did I remove obstacles from people's success?

When leaders demonstrate their values and support performance expectations for teams by how they do their own work, Wunch calls it “leadership by walking around." Values drive behavior and behavior breeds behavior, inspiring staff to follow your example in their own veterinary leadership efforts.

However, creating a culture of growth and bottom-up veterinary leadership does not mean only hiring people exactly like you or that all forms of leadership look the same. Instead, Wunch says, “you need to hire people who will respond and resonate and work well with you."

2. Teach and praise emerging veterinary leaders

Veterinary leadership also touches consistency, quality control, and continuity in ways that best serve clients and patients. Wunch went through the Disney Institute for Leadership Development earlier in his career. There, he learned that leaders must be teachers and should train their replacements “so that if you left, the ship could continue to sail without a hitch."

Terri Norvell, a business adviser and leadership trainer and coach, also explains that leadership comes from praise and recognition. “Whatever you acknowledge and praise, you're going to get more of that," she says. “What I have found in this society, across industries, is that we typically focus on the problems. When, in reality, more is always going right than wrong."

While immediate thanks and enthusiasm amid the bustle of daily practice work well, it helps to systematize gratitude and praise with 10-15-minute individual meetings with every direct report, weekly or every other week. Ask key questions:

  • What are you proud of?
  • What do you plan to learn or how do you want to grow next?
  • How can I help you be more effective and clear obstacles?

Norvell says, “People want managers to clear the obstacles, so they can show up, shine, and serve."

One last question, she says, is not for the faint of heart: “What can I do better?" It demonstrates that your style of veterinary leadership includes your own improvement and growth.

Creating a culture of growth and bottom-up veterinary leadership does not mean only hiring people exactly like you or that all forms of leadership look the same.

3. Establish protocols that encourage independence

Encouraging veterinary leadership across the entire practice team need not jeopardize quality-care protocols. Consider encouraging creativity and innovation by establishing a team phrase that indicates someone wants to break from the norm or float a new idea, without everyone rolling their eyes and thinking, there she goes again breaking the rules.

Try brainstorming a funny word to replace “Eureka!" for such situations, where anyone could say something like: “Unicorn Thought! Maybe instead of ABC, we could try XYZ."

Wunch also recommends setting up protocols to develop greater emotional intelligence, social awareness, and relationship management:

  • Break down staff silos so that people in different roles understand and value everyone's work
  • Listen to understand, not just to respond
  • Listen for both expressed needs and implied needs

“You need to be aware of both because sometimes the needs that are implied are more important to an employee's development or a customer's situation than the stuff they're able to actually put into words," Wunch notes. “I say that listening is a full-body sport for a leader."

4. Use external resources to build veterinary leadership skills

Ideally, veterinary practices can provide opportunities for staff in all roles to build their veterinary leadership skills, such as hosting a practice-wide book club.

Individual veterinary professionals can create their own leadership development curriculum, using these ideas from Wunch and Norvell on where to find good content:

  1. Professional associations or online groups. Joining a Facebook or a LinkedIn group within the profession gives you a low-investment way to start. Wunch says, “I think, especially now, with the fact that we can't meet in person that any opportunity you can have to connect with others in your field is going to be helpful, even if it's just from a social perspective."
  2. Books. A Forbes article featured 11 new leadership books as a possible starting point.
  3. Podcasts. Search for podcasters that best match your mindset and diversity goals.
  4. Volunteering. “Younger generations are so philanthropically oriented," Norvell says. “They could volunteer in an area and step up in that capacity."
  5. Ask. If you're interested in taking on a greater role or developing a new skill set or program within your practice, ask your boss to support your goals.

5. Strive for eudaimonia

Eudaimonia is a Greek word that means “your highest state," often translated as love. Norvell talks about it as people coming to work “with joy in their hearts," including having a passion for helping patients and clients, genuinely liking their teammates, and working toward common goals.

Even on the busiest days, look for tiny flashes of joy or moments of success or leadership in action, to keep your flicker of eudaimonia lit.

“You don't need a title to be a leader," says Norvell. “I think each individual, if they are empowered to use their strengths, to use their genius work, they'll show up and want to embrace being more of a leader in their capacity.

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Investing in your veterinary practice equals investing in your people