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Culture 101: Creating a healthy practice environment

dvm360dvm360 December 2023
Volume 54
Issue 12
Pages: 46

A strong, positive culture is critical for recruitment, retention, teamwork, and patient care. We deal with extremely stressful situations, and having an aligned team makes all the difference

At its heart, your practice’s culture encapsulates its values, team behaviors, and work environment, and should be derived from the practice’s mission. Its culture is embodied in the 1001 actions each employee takes daily–positive and negative. Even though culture is manifested through every employee, a great culture must start from the top. As the practice owner, you play a pivotal role in defining the mission and culture, and modeling the behaviors you want to see in your team.

When you have a well-defined culture, every employee knows what to expect when they come to work. They see everyone is aligned as a team, that there is cohesiveness among the leadership that flows down to all levels of employees.

The attitude is palpable when you walk in the door of a practice that has a strong culture. Clients and employees can feel it is a positive place, and that all team members are unified by a common mission.

herraez / stock.adobe.com

herraez / stock.adobe.com

How do you define your culture?

I’ve sat through any number of culture speeches by consultants and gurus, but I’ve found most recommendations are complex, which can keep people from getting started on changing their practice’s culture. I believe the best solution is the simplest.

Take yourself out for coffee and bring a notepad. Think about why you became a practice owner:

• What type of practice did you want to create?

• How would people act there?
• How would they treat each other?
• How would they approach patient care?

Write these things down along with any other ideas that come to mind. Share this with your key leadership; let them help you fine-tune it and get their buy-in. Then bring your full team together and present what you’ve created. Ask for their agreement that this is the kind of place where they want to work. You’ll need their agreement because every team member is responsible for implementing and protecting your culture.

Hire—and fire— for your culture

We’ve all been there. Two potential new hires apply for a job at the clinic, the first with the certifications we’ve been told are vital (RVT, CVPM, and so on) and another with palpable passion, lots of energy, and a love of animals, but fewer credentials. I’ve found it best to hire for culture fit first, skills second. After all, while skills can be learned, it’s nearly impossible to change someone’s core values and attitudes. By prioritizing culture fit, you will not only have a harmonious team, but you’ll also find that over time you’ll build a bench of resumes from people who want to work in your practice due to your remarkable culture.

It’s not enough to hire and train for your culture, you need to be willing to let go of team members who are not aligned. While I’m proud to say my hospital has an amazing culture, and my team of 55 employees are almost all excellent, we hired over 20 staff during the pandemic, and not every new hire has worked out.

Recently a new employee yelled a inappropriate word at a coworker in front of other employees and clients. That was a major violation of our culture, so while I wasn’t in the building, other team members immediately let me know what happened. I terminated that person the next day. This sent a powerful message to my team that disrespectful and unprofessional behavior will not be tolerated—and it makes the other team members feel safe knowing management has their back. Deal with toxic employees right away, before they poison the culture. In doing so, avoid getting sucked into the drama. Deal with it swiftly and move on.

Celebrate wins together

Achievements, big and small, deserve recognition. Whether your team has navigated a particularly grueling day or gone above and beyond for a patient, it’s crucial to celebrate the win. Simple gestures like a high five or acknowledging individual efforts can go a long way. This reinforces the culture and its shared mission, and it reminds everyone that their hard work and dedication are being noticed.

Strong culture is your path to freedom

Many practice owners dream of the day when they can step away and trust that their practice will run smoothly in their absence. This dream is achievable, but it’s rooted in the strength of the practice’s culture. When you have nurtured and established a robust culture, the team upholds the culture even when the owner is not there. The lifestyle benefit to the practice owner cannot be overstated. This is the difference between you owning your business—and your business owning you.

Creating an environment of excellence

Establishing a thriving culture in your veterinary practice is about creating a space where both team members and patients can flourish. As a practice owner, you’re in a unique position to guide this culture’s growth, from hiring decisions to setting expectations. Start from the top, prioritize culture fit, deal swiftly with toxicity, and celebrate every win, and soon, you’ll have a practice where the culture remains strong and intact even when you’re not in the building. By prioritizing these principles, you are setting up your practice—and everyone involved— for long-term success and well-being.

Michele Drake, DVM, CVA, is the owner of The Drake Center for Veterinary Care in Encinitas, California, a 10-doctor, 55-employee hospital that consistently outperforms competitors and industry averages because of Drake’s passion for embracing change and new technologies. She has served on committees and advisory boards for the University of California, American Animal Hospital Association, Novartis, and more. Drake completed her DVM at the University of Missouri and founded The Drake Center in 1992. She also serves as the chief veterinary officer for GeniusVets. Michele can be reached via email at michele@geniusvets.com.

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