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Building a veterinary practice culture

By MWI Animal Health

Create a workplace built on mutual respect

two veterinarians laughing

It's no secret that the veterinary industry has reached a breaking point. The American Animal Hospital Association's Compensation and Benefits reports an annual turnover of 23 percent.1 Those still working are low on staff and overwhelmed. According to research from the Cornell Center for Veterinary Business and Entrepreneurshipburnout costs the industry between $1 and $2 billion per year in lost revenue.

Clinics are asking themselves if there's a magic wand they can wave to attract and sustain the best talent. What makes a particular veterinary practice an attractive place to work? The answer: It's all about the culture.

"It's the little things in life that make a difference whether someone is willing to work for company A or company B," says Ross Barnes, CEO of Carrollton West Pet Hospital, Carrollton, Texas. "It's not the big things. It's not the compensation package. It's the little bitty things that make a difference."

Barnes brings firsthand experience to the culture conversation. He understands that culture and mission are intricately intertwined. Over the years, he's deliberately built a practice centered on the mission of respect, integrity, compassion, and excellence.

Culture is not window dressing

To create culture and a mission statement at a veterinary practice, staff buy-in from the start is essential. A strong mission, vision, and values are not just something to hang on the wall.

"We want the team to decide what the mission statement is and what the core values are. Because if you don't involve the team and make them part of something, it is nothing more than a canned response that they don't subscribe to," remarks Barnes. Recognizing that these terms can mean different things to different people, Carrollton West worked toward 100 percent agreement as to what respect meant, and so forth.

How many times has a veterinary practice staff heard a presentation or returned from a conference, brimming with new ideas about positive change? After the initial "rah, rah, rah," it dies quickly. Why? There is no buy-in to the building process. When people are living and breathing the mission and getting involved from the ground up, that's the roots of a new culture.

How a practice treats its staff matters. It's not just about how they treat customers. Veterinary leaders shouldn't save their best selves solely for the pet parents. Don't put on a show at the front of the house only to neglect the back of the house.

As Barnes explains, "The staff doesn't work for me; they work with me." This subtle distinction can play a huge role in how veterinary practice staff see themselves and whether they buy into the culture. Considering that poor management is the reason more than one-third of veterinarians gave for quitting their jobs, creating workplaces built on mutual respect is critical.

We seek belonging

Maslow's hierarchy of needs teaches us that people seek safety and belonging not just in their personal lives but in their work lives as well. Disgruntled employees are more open to seeing what's out there. And pay raises aren't always the answer. Even when a practice meets compensation needs, if that sense of belonging is not there, workers will still pursue different opportunities.

"The best investment that you will ever make in your life is in people," Barnes explains. Carrollton West Pet Hospital embraces this concept and that makes them stand out. On more than one occasion, the practice brought in the outside culture consultant Rick DeBowes and shut down operations for two days. "How many organizations are willing to accept virtually zero revenues for two days and spend an enormous sum of money to teach people?" he asks.

A strong veterinary practice creates a true team, not a group of employees. Leaders must keep teams engaged with each decision. Whenever someone is having a bad day, ask them about how you can make it better. "Sometimes when you just take a moment and listen, that's whenever you learn a lot, instead of trying to dictate what's going on," Barnes says.

"The best investment that you will ever make in your life is in people. Relationships are about looking out for each other."

Rick Barnes

Create an all-in mentality

When adding new people to a team, it's essential to educate recruits on the mission and hire for cultural fit.

Carrollton West asks staff for input on new hires. If anyone, even one person, speaks up with reservations about a job candidate, that person is not hired. The culture of respect, integrity, compassion, and excellence that has built up over the years empowers staff to speak up and make decisions for the ultimate good of the veterinary practice.

What if everyone had integrity and compassion? Carrollton West answers that question through its mission, which extends past staff to clients. Barnes shares the anecdote of driving 24 miles to hand-deliver a bag of food that was out of stock at the hospital at the time the pet parent purchased it. He admits, "It cost me more in time and fuel and expenses than the $2 I was going to make off the dog food, but the message it sent to the client is invaluable."

Barnes sees it as a matter of simple courtesy. If the pet parent is willing to drive to take their animal for checkups at the hospital, then staff should also prove willing to make the same trip in the owner's time of need. Going those extra miles is not a business loss, however. The effort will improve client loyalty and make them more likely to recommend the clinic to their friends and family.

When it comes to its distribution partner, Carrollton West has a similar people-first mindset. As Barnes puts it bluntly, "If you're all about a spreadsheet, I'm out. You need to focus on relationship." Knowing who is on your team extends past those in the clinic to the greater community of solutions providers.

It's not always about who is the cheapest; it's about who has the widest breadth of services — which partner puts a premium on the veterinary practice's success, not just their own success.

"Relationships are about looking out for each other," Barnes acknowledges. "That's what MWI has done for me."


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