The most effective leaders are young, green and right under your nose


Despite our leadership-obsessed culture, are you looking in the right places to find the next big thing in your veterinary practice? Here's how one practice manager coaxed leadership qualities out of his staff.

Veterinary Economics and Firstline will be publishing dozens of personal stories, in-the-trenches advice and bright practice management ideas in the coming months-all from the final nominees in the 2015 Veterinary Economics Practice Manager of the Year contest, sponsored by VPI-Nationwide. The final winner will be announced at a special reception CVC Kansas City Aug. 30. 

If your team meetings are filled with more of the "Frontline is 'Buy 6, Get 2' this month" kind of talk than thoughtful conversations about accountability, creative thinking and passion, you likely have a team that's not focused on being the best leaders they can be.

As the sole practice manager at the rapidly growing Mercy Animal Hospital in Gardendale, Alabama, I told our practice owners I wanted to implement a structure that provided upward mobility opportunities for each department. We needed departmental management teams.

I created five new positions:

Office manager

Head technicians (totaling 2)

Kennel manager

Assistant kennel manager

Even though each position came with extra benefits, including better pay and decision-making authority, this new strategy was a tough sell. The staff was used to one boss (me) and if the clinic hadn't needed this before, why now?

I forged ahead. The new positions were available for internal candidates for two weeks; after that, I opened them up to the general public. Some of the staff expressed concerns about "outsiders" coming in and "bossing them around." It took a monumental effort to make clear to everyone in every conversation that these new positions were not to put anyone down, but rather to empower the staff to work in conjunction with their new leaders and allow everyone to focus more on the ultimate job: serving clients.

Leadership ≠ management

Eventually, we filled the five available positions with one external candidate and four internal candidates. Great, right? Yep ... until I heard some of the employees I chose were not the ones the staff assumed would be chosen. They were young, new and didn't have the tenure or experience the rest of the staff thought a manager should have. I now had a staff morale problem on my hands.

I needed my entire staff to understand that sometimes the best leaders weren't the oldest or most experienced of the bunch. I implemented a series of team meetings that focused on the differences between leadership and management. My core theme was that everyone can show management capabilities, but being a leader requires developing a different skill set-one that is constantly changing.

One year after implementing Mercy's new management structure, the team has bought in on the concept. They understand why we needed these particular people in these positions, and our leadership team has done an amazing job of advancing our practice. We have the lowest turnover rate we've ever had. Our team is better-educated and empowered to make decisions. We now have controls in place to ensure that clients are taken care of from check-in to check-out. Things are certainly not perfect (are they ever in a veterinary practice?), but this was one leadership decision I'm confident went the right way.

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