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Talking to practice manager Tanya Kunzel, this year’s winner of the Lincoln Institute’s Australasian Best Team Leader Award, it’s no surprise her work at Ripley Veterinary Hospital in Ipswich, QLD, has been acknowledged and rewarded. By Kathy Graham
There’s so much talk about veterinarians deserting the industry in droves, due to everything from toxic and unsupportive workplaces to difficult relationships with clients, it’s more important than ever to be reminded of those in the profession who are committed to creating positive change. One such individual is Tanya Kunzel, practice manager at the AVA accredited Ripley Veterinary Hospital (RVH) in Ipswich, QLD. The 34-year-old South African born mother of one daughter, two dogs and a cat recently beat 600 other nominees to win the Australasian Best Team Leader Award, one of two Leadership Awards established by the Lincoln Institute of Veterinary Business to recognise veterinary practices and individuals creating positive change through effective leadership.
Kunzel, who knew practice owner Dr Andrew Hemming had nominated her, only learned of her victory in June when Australian and New Zealand veterinary leaders came together in Noosa Heads for the awards presentation ceremony.
“It was just an incredible experience. I think that feeling of being acknowledged for what you’ve brought to the table, just absolutely feeling valued, it was a big thing for me. It’s been a goal I’ve worked towards for the past five years,” says Kunzel.
Kunzel has been employed with RVH since it opened in 2018. Having begun her career working as a sports coach for children with disabilities before qualifying as a vet nurse—she completed her work experience then Certificates III and IV while at RVH—Kunzel says she “has always had an interest in the business side of things,” and right from the start, would put her hand up whenever her boss or the former practice manager Sarah (his wife) needed help. “I like to learn and grow and get out of my comfort zone a bit,” she says. “So, I think they saw that in me and kept feeding it, which was amazing, and that’s led me to where I am now.”
Kunzel adds that what especially fuelled her enthusiasm was “seeing the business grow, helping the team grow and become better as well. Since we opened in 2018, I’ve seen the business expand from a small operation to one employing 17 staff—and we’re still growing.”
This is in stark contrast to a problem facing many vet practices of finding and retaining staff. “While the approach to tackling the veterinary shortage is definitely going to be multifactorial,” says Dr Michael Powell, Lincoln’s co-director, “leadership has definitely been identified as one amazing opportunity that’s sitting right at our fingertips, in terms of having an immediate impact. So these awards were designed to create a positive focus. There’s been a lot of lamenting the challenging situation we find ourselves in as an industry globally, and that’s completely understandable, but what we want to do is shift the focus onto something that individuals and organisations can be focusing on to play a part in creating a change for the better that the industry needs.”
Dr Powell says Kunzel won based on 12 key selection criteria evaluating leadership, teamwork, and professional excellence. More specifically, according to a citation published before the awards presentation, Kunzel “has demonstrated exceptional leadership in all aspects of practice life. She has managed the competing demands of clients and the clinical team through extraordinarily difficult times.
“[She] combines an exceptional talent for managing face-to-face client contact with a willingness to embrace new initiatives and to improve workflow across the practice. Her hands-on approach has gained the respect of the entire team as well as clients.
“[She has] been instrumental in the development of processes and systems to enable the practice to continue to thrive in extraordinary times.”
So what special quality does Kunzel think she brings to the role of practice manager? “I went from doing work experience in the clinic to the position I’m in now, so I know where my team is, being out on the floor in the nursing role when it’s a busy day, or being a receptionist, to dealing with a difficult client. I’ve been there, I’ve done that so I can completely relate.”
Special or not, Kunzel says she is simply doing the job she loves, one that involves helping to create a non-toxic workplace everyone enjoys—“I love being involved in such a positive, welcoming environment”—and feels supported in. “Being present as a team leader is so important. I’m not stuck in the office all day; I’m out there on the floor supporting the team.”
One of the initiatives at RVH designed to foster collegiality that Kunzel is especially proud of is that they have created an environment where team members’ suggestions and input is valued and can be incorporated either through tools they have learnt from their Lincoln Crysalis course, such as ‘energy check-ins’ at morning rounds on a scale of one to 1-10—”10 being amazing and one being you want to curl up and cry—to gauge how team members are feeling in order to support anyone having a down day”. Or fun and quirky things such as a random question being asked of everyone as part of the afternoon rounds to “get the whole team engaging in a few minutes of light-hearted chitchat before getting on with the afternoon’s work”.
Kunzel adds that professional development is also strongly encouraged and that staff “are welcome to come and let us know if they have a particular interest and then we can try and source external training courses or something that suits. Otherwise, we do a lot of internal training as well.” Her own experience of further training, having completed a number of Lincoln’s virtual and live courses in leadership, management and business development, has been invaluable. “I never had those tools in place prior to all the Lincoln training—and the incredible mentorship and coaching I’ve had from Andrew and Sarah. Now that I do, they help me be the best version of me and perform at the best level for the team.”