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Critical maintenance for chain of command


Data shows team members are in search of stronger leadership. So prevent kinks in teamwork and breaks in communication by taking these six critical steps—and set a positive tone for the practice.

Does your team ever work inefficiently? Have you ever shot yourselves in the foot by giving a client the wrong information—or by failing to pass on an important piece of information to a co-worker? These little slip-ups could indicate a weak link in your practice's chain of command. And tough as it may be to hear, that likely means you need to brush up on your leadership skills and clarify your team's hierarchy.

Figure 1: The dirty on job descriptions

Tellingly, less than 50 percent of respondents to an April 2004 survey from VetMedTeam.com an online community and team-training center, feel that the hierarchy currently in place at their practice is effective. And fewer still believe that the leadership team in place is effective.

What should you do? Dr. Ernest Ward Jr., a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member and owner of Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N.C., outlines six key ways to keep your team working efficiently and effectively:

1. Clarify your expectations

It could be that staff members simply don't know what's expected of them. And when you don't know what the boss wants, it's tough to deliver.

Figure 2 : Meetings breakdown

Some evidence: Less than 30 percent of respondents to the VetMedTeam.com survey have a staff manual that includes helpful, well-written job descriptions. And only 31 percent say they have a manual that defines the management hierarchy. If you don't have these tools, team members may not be sure what they need to do to succeed in the job or who to go to if they have questions or problems.

Dr. Ward recommends developing specific job descriptions and detailed operation protocols. For example, you could start by taking notes about how you do things, then create a step-by-step outline that someone new could follow. "You don't need a book that's two-feet thick," he says. "You just need a guide that covers the basics."

Dr. Ward doesn't hold his team members accountable for anything that isn't in writing. "When it's in writing, everyone knows what's expected," he says.

2. Provide critical training

Are your receptionists prepared to greet the next three clients that walk through the door by name? Do they know they need to stop what they're doing and welcome those clients, regardless of how busy they may be?

These are basics, but you need to come back to these kinds of topics regularly if you want your team to provide consistent service. Regular training is key. And you definitely can't afford to leave your front-office team members out. "They simply influence clients' perceptions of the practice too much," Dr. Ward says.

For instance, if someone calls in and says their dog has been vomiting for 24 hours, the receptionist should know to tell the client to come in, and that the dog is at risk for dehydration, among other things. And when your receptionist is prepared to ask the right questions and respond to basic problems, you save time. After all, it takes longer to put the client on hold and hunt down a technician.

Of course, your receptionist will never have all the answers. But he or she can field common queries confidently. Solve clients' problems as quickly as possible, and they'll leave satisfied, Dr. Ward says.

3. Watch for disconnects

Dr. Ward says he sees the biggest communication breakdowns between front- and back-office staff members. "When messages get lost or clients don't get timely updates, it makes you look bad and damages your team's credibility," says Dr. Ward. "For example, if it takes you four hours to call someone back who needed you immediately, the condition may have escalated—or the owner may have decided to go somewhere else."

The solution is to refine the flow of information, and keep the lines of communication open. Two key steps:

  • Look at your systems for internal communication. How do messages travel from the front to the back of the practice? How long does it take to get a message to technicians and doctors on a busy day? If you're surprised at the amount of time messages are in route, you may need voice mail or a paging system.

  • Think about how you share information. Does the doctor or technician know what information the receptionist already collected from the client? Some teams input appointment information into a computer program; whoever schedules the appointment can include additional information that co-workers can access.

"You never want to enter the exam room and have to ask 'who are you?' or 'why are you here?'" says Dr. Ward. "You can't afford to send the message that you're indifferent; you need to communicate that you care."

4. Develop a sense of shared responsibility

Your entire team needs to take responsibility for every case and appointment— for the success of the practice, says Dr. Ward. Practices that achieve this goal can charge appropriate fees and pay a premium to attract the best staff members. But doctors must lead—and not manage every detail. Freedom to do the job leads to a sense of responsibility.

"Ask yourself, 'Am I doing the highest priority task that I can?'" recommends Dr. Ward. "It's easy to get so close to the problem that you forget to focus on the best use of your time. Can other staff members do the tasks you're doing?" (See "Delegating Helps You Keep a Great Team".)

5. Make time for your team to talk

Holding regular meetings is one way to make sure your team shares a clear set of goals and understands your expectations. Being on the same page is vital to practice success. "Everyone must see the big picture," says Dr. Ward.

Yet only 40 percent of respondents to the VetMedTeam.com survey say their practices hold meetings that are effective and worth the time. The first step towards making the most of meetings: Invite the right crowd—and that means everyone.

"Getting the whole team together helps foster harmony and teamwork," he says. "When you sit team members side by side, you can more easily open up issues and discuss them candidly." Dr. Ward believes this helps to break down barriers that develop between people who're fooled into thinking they're limited to a skill set.

The next step: Challenge yourself and your team to see things differently. "Most owners aren't honest or critical of their systems, and they get numb to the problem," Dr. Ward says. "They're in a comfortable zone and don't realize they could do a few simple things to enhance workflow and efficiency."

So use meetings as an opportunity to solve problems and tap your team members' creativity. Bring up issues for discussion, and then really listen to the ideas and recommendations that surface. Finally, try to cultivate an open perspective. You want to recognize an opportunity when it arises—even if the timing's not as convenient as you'd like.

Dr. Ward says the simplest thing he does to stay alert is park in a different place and walk into the clinic through a different door at least once a month. "This small step changes my perspective, and I see my clinic differently," he says.

6. Live and learn

Of course, no leader is perfect. So expect mistakes. And when something slips through the cracks, ask yourself, "How could I have kept this from happening?" Often our mistakes make better teachers than our successes. You'll learn to avoid similar problems, if you stay alert.

"Try never to blame someone else," Dr. Ward says. "When you shoulder the responsibility for mistakes—and pass on credit for successes—you free up your team to really take initiative and shine. You're grabbing your chance to lead."

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