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Shelter from the economic storm

Article

You can't control the bad economic news, but you can lift your employees' spirits with a heartfelt focus on team morale.

While the nation felt an economic chill, the veterinary community in California recently found itself under a particularly ominous cloud. A proposed veterinary service tax in the state budget threatened to add pressure on veterinarians already struggling to charge fair prices. Everyone's first reaction was pretty unanimous—eyes widened and nostrils flared. Then, a knee-jerk reaction followed: "My clients can't absorb that. I'll have to lower prices!"

Fortunately, as the consequences of the proposed tax became clearer, the impulse to duck and cover was replaced by a groundswell of determination. Drs. Amy Nagy, MRCVS, and Laura Werner, DACVS, saw the opportunity to reach out to their community. Armed with information provided by the California Veterinary Medical Association, they encouraged their team to learn about the proposed tax. Together, they e-mailed clients a Web link where they could voice their opposition. The veterinarians visited farms and stables and passed out flyers they printed at the clinic.

Their voices, and the voices of so many people like them, were heard. The proposed tax was withdrawn and the position of the local veterinarian as a reference point for horse- and pet-owning communities was further confirmed. Drs. Nagy and Werner and the entire staff of The Equine Center in San Luis Obispo, Calif., took a potential morale-killer and used it to create a powerful team-building experience.

Here's the beauty of this story: In most instances, the larger the problem, the more paralyzed or helpless we feel. But rather than freeze up, California veterinarians took an impending crisis and responded by doing what they do best: educating people about options and opportunities and helping to make a difference.

When wicked economic weather whips your practice, it's time for the leader within you to rise up. If you manage, own, or oversee any part of an equine practice, now is not the time to sit on the bench. News of the recession, layoffs, and plummeting financial numbers is bumming out your team members. Take heart, veterinarians and practice managers: You may not be able to control the country's collective anxiety, but you can start shoring up team member morale right now. Here are some tips to maintain a positive atmosphere inside even when it's a rainy day outside.

REMEMBER THAT PRACTICE HAS ALWAYS BEEN STORMY

Even during good times, you work long hours, juggle multiple responsibilities, deal with unexpected circumstances, and face the challenge of leading free-willed individuals toward a common goal. The same holds true for bad times. All practices go through tough times and growing pains.

A few years ago, The Equine Center underwent a transition from a general practice to a surgical and critical care facility. The staff was committed, but change brings turbulence. The ICU schedule combined with a new level of training was daunting.

On a day when confidence was faltering, a client called to say he was bringing in a "dummy foal." The client didn't have much hope. Most of the center's staff had never treated an NMS (neonatal maladjustment syndrome) foal, while others had never seen one survive. As they unloaded the filly from the van, the team's discouragement was hard to ignore.

Dr. Olivia Inoue, DACVS, on the other hand, was in full swing. She quickly got the team so involved in treatment that they were too busy to form conclusions about their patient's fate. To an observer, the scene looked like a high-speed blur. Medications and catheter in, fluids started, seizures controlled, extra bedding added, mare milked out, more medications, eyes taped, and so on.

Later, as the filly lay quietly and the team stood by catching its breath, Dr. Inoue called the farm with an update. The manager was surprised to hear that the foal was alive and he was curious. "So what drugs did you give her?" he asked. Caught off guard by the question, the doctor said, "What drugs did I give her?" She looked around at the windblown staff and the aftermath of the last two hours and hesitated for a moment before saying, "Well ... all of them." The staff and the client cracked up.

The real wonder unfolded over the next couple of weeks as the foal slowly woke up to the world. One of the technicians took photos of the foal's progress and created a PowerPoint presentation for the hospital's library. Toward the end of the slide show, a perfectly normal, mischievous foal musses up a technician's hair. Then there's a final picture of her following the doctor up a trailer ramp. The entire staff is there to see her off.

This patient had a unifying effect on the whole team. The team was proud of each other, proud of themselves, and more confident that regardless of what came their way, they could pull together and give it their best.

JUST DO SOMETHING

These stories have a common denominator and it might be the most important thought for you and your staff to hold on to right now: In both instances, the leaders took action. The outcome wasn't assured, but the response was to do something rather than nothing. Now write this on a sticky note—you can't do everything at once, but you can do something at once.

Even if efforts to kill the veterinary tax or save the foal had been defeated, The Equine Center's staff would've gained ground because they found a way to take action. Getting caught up in the gloom is paralyzing. Constant talk about the horrible economic climate is simply distracting. And while you're taking on the government and educating the masses, don't forget to nurture the small pleasures. They're part of a practice's ballast.

I once worked with a veterinarian who had a habit of eating Good 'N Plenty candy when he went on farm calls. No problem, except that the doctors often switched trucks. It drove the practice owner nuts when he'd find stray candies on the truck floor or in the crack of the seat. He'd grumble about it and the associate would sort of twist his toe in the dirt. Then, by way of apology, he'd pull out a box and offer to share. Over time, the little white and pink candies appeared in other areas of the clinic, and the complaint, the apology, and the offer to share became a funny routine between the two of them.

Long after the associate moved on, Good 'N Plentys remained a symbol of goodwill at the practice; they were a subtle gesture of thanks, apology, or encouragement. Occasionally, at the end of a rough day or in the silence following a sad patient outcome, someone—often the practice owner—would say, "You know what we need ... ?" Then someone else would grin and nod.

You can't control big things like the economy. And because every day presents you with surprises, you can't control much of the little stuff either. Your area of influence stands in between the two. In good times or in bad, team members function best when you respect them, assign challenging tasks to them, and reward them for their achievements. That's how you create and maintain team morale regardless of negative outside forces. That's how you dispel employees' cloudy skies.

KNOW WHAT YOUR TEAM NEEDS

Respect, recognition, and responsibility: From generation to generation and business to business, employees list these items as parts of a satisfying job. Team members need to:

Belong. This comes when team members know where they fit in a team, understand the important roles they play, and realize how their jobs intersect with others' jobs.

Feel competent. Everyone wants to feel capable and confident that they can meet their boss's expectations.

Contribute. Employees need to know that what they do is important and that others appreciate it.

Trust. Team members should feel that their leader understands them, communicates with them, and is fair.

Be trusted. Employees want to be given responsibility and some control over their daily work.

Respect, responsibility, and recognition start from the first day. If you want someone to contribute to a positive workplace, you need to emphasize the most important stuff early. Hire carefully, train well, supervise and support, train some more, address problems quickly, recognize accomplishments, continue training, then turn employees loose and let them work. Be available to them and be involved, but make sure your people have the tools they need and that they know you're behind them.

You've just read a condensed version of the most critical actions, behaviors, and habits that influence the success of your team. Squeezed into a paragraph, the formula is overwhelming and easy to miss. Take a moment and go back over each item while thinking about your own practice. See some gaps or room for improvement? Don't be discouraged; you're not alone. More importantly, it's never too late (read your sticky note again).

BRIGHTEN THE WORKPLACE WHEN IT'S CLOUDY OUTSIDE

It's not what we say or how we treat each other that makes or breaks our workday. Our surroundings affect us, too. The building or environment we work in has an impact on how we feel about our jobs.

It's time to look at your work areas with fresh eyes. When something is under your nose for a while you simply stop seeing it. This is how many clinics slowly fall into disrepair. Put some time and effort into sprucing up your workplace—it's a good investment. Pay attention to more than just the areas your clients see.

Start with yourself and your team. Are the scrubs in good order? Look up in the barn rafters—how's the cobweb situation? A new coat of paint in the reception area can have a big impact. Photos of clients and employees with their horses add both an artistic and a personal touch. Liven up the walls with portraits, performance shots, and collages of candid moments, and you'll strengthen the client bond. Move the clutter off the reception desk and straighten the shelves.

Is your truck clean? Are door dings and dents attended to immediately? A bit of personal and environmental pride goes a long way. Our posture often straightens up a little when we straighten up our surroundings.

TAKE THE WEATHER WITH YOU

Equine practice isn't for the faint of heart and it's no accident that you and your team are together—you're not the fainthearted. Hard times, like long winters, affect everyone. But the type of people who come together to do the work you do are equipped to pull together in tough times. Give credit where it's due and then live up to it.

Don't let negative influences distract you. If your practice is going through hard times, you don't have to hide it—honesty is the foundation of trust—but be careful not to let it soak into your daily interactions. As a leader, you set the tone and maintain it. Focus on nurturing the microclimate in your clinic daily and uphold the principles and vision that underlie your organization.

Tracey O'Driscoll-Packer is an equine management consultant in Pismo Beach, Calif. Send comments to ve@advanstar.com

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