Make the promise. Keep your team


His motto? No team member will leave his practice feeling unchallenged, concede to a lack of direction, or have professional growth hindered.

When I speak at conferences, the biggest complaint I hear from practice owners is that it's hard to keep good team members and train the ones they have. "The youth of today just aren't what they used to be," one practice owner said to me recently. Of course, these owners never consider that it could be their own fault or that of the manager or practice culture. But it's not just owners complaining. Team members are, too. For every time someone says, "I can't find good employees," I also hear, "The management at my practice stinks."

Hold on: Annual staff turnover has decreased by more than 15 percent after Brian Conrad became more team-oriented. (PHOTOS BY JACKIE JOHNSTON)

I sympathize with both the owners and the employees. As a practice manager, I've been through the agony of high employee turnover—and come out on the other side. In a few short years, we took our turnover at Meadow Hills Veterinary Center in Kennewick, Wash., from 25 percent to less than 10 percent. We improved staff retention by taking responsibility for training, hiring, and challenging our team. We did it with a promise.

The turning point

Several years ago, my practice owners and I were feeling the strain of employee turnover. Finally, we decided enough was enough. I'd been setting a theme for our management team each year, so we made that year—2004—the "Year of the Staff." We'd always said we treated our staff well, but did we really? It was time to find out. In the process, we learned that our exit interviews weren't telling the whole story. Most people weren't leaving because they wanted more money or were tired of the veterinary field. They were leaving because they didn't see any more opportunities or challenges at Meadow Hills.

That was the year I wrote My Promise: "No team member will leave the practice feeling unchallenged, concede to a lack of direction, or have professional growth hindered."

No more finger-pointing

My Promise marked a turning point for our practice because it indicated a new philosophy—one in which management accepted ultimate responsibility. The owners and I made a concerted effort to focus inward. Failure on the part of any team member directly reflected on us, the practice leadership, not on the employee.

For example, let's say a new employee was having trouble figuring out how to create a puppy vaccination schedule. Before My Promise, our reaction would've been, "We've already told her how to determine the vaccination schedule. She's obviously not bright enough for the job." With My Promise, our new reaction was to look at our own management decisions. Had we spent enough time on training, practicing, and role-playing? Did we prepare adequate reference materials? Maybe training wasn't the problem; maybe it was our hiring techniques. Did we hire too quickly, choosing somebody who never belonged at our clinic to begin with? Either way, management had to take responsibility. The team member didn't fail; we failed the team member. The management team focused on being more humble, learning from mistakes, and moving on.

The other side of the fence (PHOTOS BY JACKIE JOHNSTON)

That mantle of ultimate responsibility funneled down from management to senior staff. An employee survey revealed that some new team members were finding it hard to fit in at our practice because senior team members were quick to point the finger when the newer employees made mistakes. That was a warning sign for us. We have since worked to create a culture in which senior staff understand that new team members' mistakes mean those employees need further training and guidance. Instead of casting blame and complaining, senior team members now look for solutions.

Golden opportunities

Chances are good that your employees are capable of, and ready for, further challenges and growth. Sometimes we as owners and managers are too busy to notice, and it's not until a key employee leaves that we're forced to ask other team members to give more and compensate for the loss. Not surprisingly, they usually step up to the plate. The sad part is, they had it in them the entire time. We just didn't realize it and use their talent sooner.

I was reminded of this lesson a couple of weeks ago. I needed to create and print gift certificates, but because I was busy, I kept putting off the project. Finally, a team member took the initiative and asked if she could create the gift certificates for me. I reluctantly agreed. The next day I arrived in my office to find the certificates printed in beautiful color complete with our logo and a creative theme for each month. (The July certificate had a Fourth of July theme, October a Halloween theme, and so on). I was stunned by the thought and creativity that went into the project, but I shouldn't have been. We're often told to take advantage of our team's strengths, but do we? My Promise is a constant reminder to focus more and more on identifying staff talents and putting those talents to work in a positive, rewarding way.

Vision for the future

We start the process of identifying employee talent by soliciting feedback from the team members themselves. It's not uncommon for me to invite employees into my office and ask how they're doing and how they feel about their job. I take team members on errands, to community events, or simply out for coffee. This one-on-one time helps me determine whether they're being challenged and are enjoying working with us. It's a chance to talk about personal and professional goals. I'm often surprised by what team members want to do and that so many of them are unaware of the possibilities that exist at Meadow Hills.

Take Kari, for instance, a seven-year veteran of our clinic. For six years she worked part time in administration while she started her family. With the kids ready to enter preschool, she was ready for a full-time schedule. I took her to lunch. We talked about her options and drew up four unique ways she could advance at Meadow Hills. Over the last year, she has trained in our treatment area as a coordinator for surgeries and dentistry. I'll never forget her satisfied face and her boasting after she placed her first intravenous catheter. She's attending CE these days—on our dime—and bringing her newfound education back to our practice. An hourlong lunch was an easy way to retain a valuable, ambitious employee.

Celebration time

Along with training and challenging our team members, we also promise to express sincere appreciation and gratitude for a job well done. For our "Year of the Staff," we threw a heck of a party, making a point to show employees' families how important each team member was to our hospital and the clients and pets they served. And we took a group photo that evening. I see the framed picture in my office every day. While some of the faces have changed, the defining message remains: My Promise. "No team member will leave the practice feeling unchallenged, concede to a lack of direction, or have professional growth hindered." Nothing is more rewarding than turning out my office light at night, walking to my car, and thinking, "I saw a team member grow today."

The bottom line

My promise

Inspire your team by helping them grow. Ask them what they want to learn and do on the job. Give them new opportunities. Here's what's on my office wall:

"No team member will leave the practice feeling unchallenged, concede to a lack of direction, or have professional growth hindered."

Brian Conrad, CVPM, is practice manager of Meadow Hills Veterinary Center in Kennewick, Wash. Send questions or comments to

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