Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Managing staff remains one of the biggest headaches for many practice owners, but as some key training professionals advise, it doesn’t have to be. By John Burfitt
Ask two of the leading training and management consultants working within the Australian veterinary profession to name the major issue facing their clients, and both, independently, say exactly the same thing.
“Managing staff is the number one issue practice owners want to talk about as it causes the most headaches,” Dr Diederik Gelderman of Turbo Charge Your Practice consultancy says.
“And one of the main reasons behind this being such a big issue is 80 to 90 per cent of practice owners have no idea how to be a manager.”
It’s a similar response from Vanessa Vershaw, CEO of Perth’s Reinvention Consulting, and also the author of a new book, Unreasonable Ambition. “There’s an embarrassment among practice owners who don’t know how to get on top of staffing issues,” she says. “It’s almost an occupational hazard, as vets have been trained to deal with absolutes in terms of being on the tools, but when it comes to managing people, there are so many human factors at play they have had no training for. And that’s confronting.”
In 2022, pet food company Royal Canin presented the results of an international survey that explored current issues within the veterinary profession. More than 40 per cent of veterinarians surveyed said that administration was their number one problem, while almost 20 per cent cited relationships with other stakeholders like co-workers as major concerns.
But as many practice owners have discovered, management issues often don’t emerge until the business has been set up and is running at full steam. From what she has witnessed in the veterinary clients she trains, Vershaw says often so much energy goes into creating the business that issues like staff management are excused as growing pains.
“The mistake becomes that as the business evolves and matures, the owner’s leadership skills don’t necessarily evolve with it and are not at the level they need to be to actually match the maturity of the practice,” she says.
“If the boss is leading the team in the same way as when the doors first opened, which is usually by command-and-control micromanaging, then it is clear they have not learned to drive results through their people.”
The approach to management needs to shift, she says, from being purely operational to astutely focused and strategic. One way to guide such a modification in management style is to pay close attention to team motivation as well as the practice culture.
“Managing effectively is working out whether your team has bought into what your business is offering and why they are there,” she says. “People want to be part of an organisation that is purpose-led and feel like they are uniquely contributing value to the bigger purpose. Often that comes about by outlining what needs to be done, leading from a distance, and trusting the team to do their job well.”
To achieve such a workplace dynamic means paying close attention to the culture of the business, so that clearly outlined values, beliefs and behaviours determine how management and employees interact and perform.
“When your house is in order, and when your culture is strong and your team know why they are there and what is expected in their performance, then you often don’t have to performance manage. Things have a way of moving in the right direction,” she says.
Leading by setting a clear example and through clear communication with the team is an essential, says Janet Murray, chair of the Australian Veterinary Association Veterinary Business Group. Murray is also a former veterinary nurse.
“A good manager does not put their head in the sand and hope issues among the team will just go away—we have all seen that too many times,” she says.
“A good boss needs to be across what is going on and if any issues arise, then address them early before they become big issues. Taking action when niggles arise can avoid any deep set issues being compounded and becoming something they never needed to be.”
At the heart of such an approach, Murray adds, is good communication. “If you want harmony, then communicate regularly with the team, talk things through and practise what you preach. You need to be across what is going on within the practice and keep an open line about what the standards are and what’s expected.”
Which is fine if being a manager and implementing smart management processes comes naturally. Too often, Dr Gelderman says, they do not, so other options need to be considered. “When practice owners admit this is not their top skill set, I advise them to get someone else to do it, as there are a number of options,” he advises.
Some practice owners invest in management training to bring their skills up to date, or make team management part of the practice manager’s duties and include additional training. Others appoint an external management consultant to handle such duties.
“Some of this can be done remotely, with an external management consultant across everything going on within the practice and also working with the owner for the best way to address any issues,” Dr Gelderman says. “It’s a case of hiring the right person and then getting out of their way to let them do the job they are trained for.”
Doing so can change not only the way a practice functions, but even the way an owner feels about their business.
“I was working with a vet client in Queensland who a year ago handed the human resources responsibilities over to the practice manager and invested in extensive training to prepare her for the role,” he says.
This client reported a dramatic overall improvement in the business, with the practice manager proving to be superb in her expanded role, and a far more harmonious atmosphere prevailing among the team. “He said he just wished he had done this five years ago, as the business is now in the best shape it’s been in years.”