If you have trouble with constant veterinary team turnover and filling open positions, take stock of your communication
John Sanders, DVM, looked at his wall. He was proud of it. On his wall was a litany of accomplishments over a lifetime: A neatly framed veterinary diploma from a prestigious veterinary school. Next to it was a picture of himself along with the dean of his alma mater mixing it up at an alumni bash.
Further down the wall were various community recognition awards and another picture from a long ago golf scramble. John looked at his wall each morning when he arrived at work and sat at his desk.
"Nothing wrong with a little pride in your accomplishments," he beamed.
But John's other thoughts that morning were on something else. His associate, who had been with him for two years, moved on six months ago. The one previous to that lasted only one year. So he immediately put a job posting up on the Internet and also in a few journals. Out of all that money he only got two interviews. He just finished interviewing both of them last week and they both accepted jobs elsewhere.
Searching for advice, he picked up the phone and called his old friend and classmate, the dean of the state veterinary school. After a few minutes of chitchat, the dean made a comment that made John's ears perk up: "Maybe your approach to hiring is a little too masculine."
John was stunned. "Masculine is who I am," he retorted.
What the dean meant is that John's situation is like most male practice owners. The staff and the veterinarians around him are mostly female. "They communicate differently," the dean said.
"Of course they do," John sniffed. "All that 'Men are from Mars and women are from Venus' hogwash. My wife thinks I'm from Pluto."
"It is not hogwash, John. And paying attention to all this will be helpful," the dean said. He noted that when John talked he was very direct and somewhat loud. He hadn't changed an iota since vet school. The dean went on to explain that in this economy, John should be able to retain and hire veterinarians if all other things are equal. First, he told John he needs to have a progressive and attractive building for people to work in. Next, he needs to have a work environment that is pleasant and supportive. "I am pretty sure you have the former but maybe we need to shape up the work environment," the dean said.
He gave John the contact information for a management specialist named Sharon Billings who works with veterinarians from the main campus. "Tell her I referred you to her," the dean said. "She's great."
John sighed and thought to himself: "She'll have a bunch of cutie-tootsie ideas, I suppose."
"OK, Chuck, whatever you say," he said as he jotted the number down and hung up the phone.
He secretly hated talking to what he perceived as a powerful woman. He thought this lady would be difficult and offer little help. But he needed an associate and he needed one right now. John looked at the number that he jotted down and nervously punched the numbers. A bead of sweat formed on his left brow.
"Hello, this is Sharon." The voice was bright and firm. There was no air of authority; she sounded supportive and kind. He relaxed a bit.
"Hello, miss. I mean, Miss Sharon. I hope you're Ms. Billings. If you aren't the Sharon I'm calling, please tell me. M-my name is John Sanders." John stammered along. He was blathering like a teenager calling someone about a first date. His good old boy bluster disappeared.
Sharon could have laughed, but she didn't. She explained who she was and asked if she could help. John regained his composure and explained his situation. Sharon took the lead. "I can tell from the tenor of your conversation that your style may be a bit intimidating to prospective female colleagues. They often have a different style—sometimes they don't. You will need to have some idea how to relate to others of the opposite sex."
She continued, "Would you agree that women communicate differently than men?"
John paused and thought about the dust-up he had with his wife that morning. "They seem to, but I just let 'em go at it. Sometimes I just don't understand all this touchy-feely stuff."
"Dr. Sanders, I am afraid you are not understanding relationship building," Sharon said. "It starts with listening and trying to understand. It's not about pigeon-holing people or using smart remarks that create walls between people."
John pulled in his horns a bit. "What does all this have to do with hiring new vets?"
There was a dramatic pause on the other end. "Everything," she said. "Let me ask you a few questions on your approach. First, do you tout the salary prominently somewhere at the beginning of your interviews?"
"Yes. In today's economy and with all the debt—our practice stands out with regard to salary," John said. "It's of prime importance to a candidate."
"Not necessarily," Sharon said. "While salary is important, you're just pitching money and not at all fulfillment. People do have to pay bills and debts, but women don't necessarily dwell on this. Certainly this is not the paramount concern for a professional position in the eyes of most women."
"Fulfillment. Do you mean being successful?" John asked.
"Success is defined by individuals. Many do not see money as success. Most women want to make a positive difference in the profession and develop meaningful relationships with people. Most want to be focused on the animals and the people themselves."
Sharon continued, "Let me ask you this—do you engage your candidates directly into their eyes?"
"Don't know for sure," John said. "I mostly walk around the building and show 'em the toys in the practice. I like to lead them around the hospital. The ladies seem to follow me around a lot."
"You need to face your candidates and engage them warmly. Look into their eyes, but don't stare. They want to connect with you and find about you. They want to know what kind of boss you are going to be and how they'll fit into the staff environment.
"They need emotional support. This is not a sign of weakness—they simply need that connection with their co-workers to function well. You'd be better off introducing them to your staff. Have some of them tell stories about past cases that have made a difference in the lives of clients and their pets. Just make sure they don't reveal specific names."
Sharon continued, "When you're interviewing, do you encourage the candidate to give examples of how he or she handled certain situations in previous practices?"
"Sometimes. Well I don't really know. I remember some of them telling me something along those lines. But I jumped in and told them my stories instead."
"Don't—you will appear to be 'topping' their stories. That's not what you're trying to do in an interview," she said. "You need to find out about the candidate and how he or she can feel welcome and flourish in your environment."
"I am finally getting it, Ms. Billings," John said. "It is less about developing position and power and more about seeking relational development—especially considering the dynamic between the sexes."
"Bingo. And now here's some final questions. How much time do you spend mentoring, sitting down with and discussing professional topics? How much time did you spend building relationships with past veterinarians? Do you have meetings that allow full input by all staff members?"
John explained how he has meetings occasionally but he runs them from the top down. "I give my spiel and the troops carry on from there," John said.
"I also hardly ever talk to my vets one-on-one—unless they are screwing up. Veterinary practices are busy places." John paused. He knew he had just said the wrong thing. He continued. "I think I can see where all this is going and it looks like my past is haunting me. I have always thought that it would be less than professional to create a relationship with my veterinarians. I was taught years ago that a professional distance must be kept."
Sharon responded, "Well, it's important to have a business climate and pay attention to expenses. And you still need to have contracts for clarity. But true professionals also have a close working and professional personal relationship based on trust. Because women look at things more relationally, discussion and meetings should be held often and a little longer. A little longer also goes for interviews."
John was stunned. He had it wrong all along. "Ms. Billings, I admit this is the longest conversation I've ever had with a woman. I usually just stop the conversation if I have to—even with my wife. She wants to talk and all I want to do is fix it for her. She tells me to quit trying to fix all of her problems—she says she just wants me to listen so she can talk it out. It is just so un-natural for me."
"Well, for a lot of men like yourself, short, blunt discussions are more natural. But it's just not helpful in a lot cases—even with other men. You need to adapt your relationship style for the situation. In most cases with women, listening and being more relational will be most helpful—not only during the interview but during the time your veterinarians work for you—which will hopefully be for a long time."
There was long pause. "Have I been of some help to you, Dr. Sanders?"
"You may have just changed my whole life—thank you very much. I hope we can talk again."
"Not a problem. Keep me posted." And the long conversation ended.
John looked and studied his wall. "I think I'll take the golf picture down first!"
There are many things to consider when interviewing. Mountains of articles have been written about the process. However, if the interviewer does not pay attention to the communication style of the person across the table, everything else goes out the window. Remember that this is less about gender and more about behavioral tendencies. Consider these points when interviewing candidates:
> Salary is important, but that discussion should be toward the end of the interview.
> Being cute is not always well received and usually misunderstood.
> Meaningful dialogue is only genuine if both parties engage each other with their eyes.
> Allow candidates to relate situations from previous employment.
> If you talk more than the candidate, you will learn very little.
> Integrate interviews with conversations with your staff when possible.
> Allow hospital employees to help you interview to gain perspective.
> Finally, when you hire that next veterinarian be sure to mentor the candidate and allow him or her to interact with you in meaningful discussions.
This article is not autobiographical, but I see a little bit of John Sanders in myself and many men that I know. Working with people—especially women—in the workplace requires a purposeful attempt to think about the other person's feelings and expectations. This goes the other way as well.
I've noticed that men like to talk about the weather and sports. This is because a lot of men are terrible when it comes to meaningful conversations. And thus men have trouble interacting with long and purposeful discussion. Men want to fix things quickly and go on to the next problem.
I find myself trying to end most phone conversations after the purpose of the conversation has ended. This is not necessarily a masculine thing—it's often a learned behavioral expectation. But these things are changing quickly and for the better.
Dr. Lane is a graduate of the University of Illinois. He owns and manages two practices in southern Illinois. Dr. Lane completed a master's degree in agricultural economics in 1996. He is a speaker and author of numerous practice-management articles. He also offers a broad range of consulting services. Dr. Lane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.