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Team building


15 tools and tips to take your team from good to great.

Filling an open spot on your team isn't easy. In fact, the majority of respondents to Benchmarks 2006: A Study of Well-Managed Practices say it takes up to four weeks to fill a receptionist or veterinary assistant position. And for licensed veterinary technicians the search commonly takes more than 12 weeks.

What's more, once you find someone to fill the spot, you never know how long that person will stay. Twenty-five percent to 30 percent of receptionists, licensed veterinary technicians, and veterinary assistants have been with the practice for a year or less. (See Figure 1 for more about why employees leave.)

Given these numbers, it's no surprise that participants of Benchmarks 2006 report that attracting well-qualified, motivated employees; finding the time and financial resources to train them; and keeping them long-term are the biggest employee development challenges facing practitioners in the next two to five years.

How can you improve your chances of finding and keeping the best employees? Use these 15 tools and strategies to build a team that's more than the sum of its parts.

Define and communicate your expectations

Hiring and developing the right employees is an investment in your practice's future. Staff members represent your practice and are vital to your ability to provide high-quality patient care and top-notch client service. So set aside time to think about your practice goals and what you need in an employee to help meet them. 1 Too often I encounter owners who aren't satisfied with their employees' performance. Yet when prompted, they can't describe their vision for or their expectations of their employees.

Figure 1

Put your thoughts about your expectations in writing before you start interviewing. 2 Otherwise, how will you know when you find the right person for the job?

Also create job descriptions for each position. 3 And list the skills necessary for each position by level of competency. Levels help define the responsibilities associated with growth and allow you to evaluate candidates' previous experience. (See the sample Receptionist Position Description at vetecon.com under "Web Exclusives.")

Create an orientation and training program

Sure, training is time-consuming and comes with a cost. But the cost of turnover is even higher. So don't try to take shortcuts when training employees. When you make this investment, you develop happier, more confident employees who'll stay with the practice long-term.

Each position in your practice requires unique skill sets at different levels of competencies. Develop written training guidelines for each position that clearly outline the training path the employee can expect. 4 (See Receptionist Training Guidelines under Web Exclusives at vetecon.com.)

Then designate a trainer for each position—someone who understands the position, your practice, and the necessary core competencies and who is patient, responsible, organized, and an excellent communicator. 5 The trainer ensures all new employees in his or her division receive proper training. Be sure to schedule time out of the regular workflow for the trainer and trainee to focus on the training process.

During an employee's first few weeks, assign him or her specific tasks or projects to complete in addition to the training. 6 This approach provides a break from training and lets team members start using their new skills—an important step in the learning process. Be sure the new employee understands the practice philosophy from the get-go, so when new situations arise, he or she responds appropriately.

Of course, you need to set a reasonable pace. 7 Don't give a new employee too much work too quickly. If you do, the employee will become overwhelmed, and his or her focus will change from learning to do jobs the correct way to just getting the work done.

Everyone learns at different rates, so build flexibility into the schedule. Ask the employee to provide feedback to the trainer regarding the pace. And give the trainer enough autonomy to modify the training timeline. Lastly, request feedback from the trainer and trainee each week so you can fine-tune the training process going forward. 8

Remember, training pays off. Well-trained employees let you delegate more and spend more time practicing medicine—which improves patient care and profitability. Drs. Alexander Byron and Michael Hood of Greenfield Animal Hospital in Southfield, Mich., see the proof in their practice. "Staff training results in more efficient workflow and consistency in client and patient care," they say.

Continue your team's education

Drs. Byron and Hood are also fans of continuing education (CE). After all, it's really just training that doesn't stop. To jump-start your CE program:

Figure 2

  • Design a written, annual CE schedule for all positions 9

  • Hold regular in-house CE meetings. 10 Assign one topic for each meeting and pick a discussion leader—a veterinarian, other team member, or outside expert—with extensive knowledge or a special interest in the subject to head up the session. Provide the necessary equipment and adequate space for the CE topic and encourage active participation. Request feedback from staff members about the session and future topics they want to explore. "The staff members like that they get to choose the topic," says Heather Blount, office manager at College Road Animal Hospital in Wilmington, N.C.

  • Provide external CE opportunities. 11 Meeting new people and hearing other perspectives provides new insights and can reaffirm the employees' commitment to your patients and clients. (See Figure 2 on.)

Commit to regular communication

Well-organized meetings pull everyone's focus to the vision of the practice and encourage open communication. Twenty-eight percent of study respondents report holding weekly operational staff meetings with receptionists, technicians, and assistants. Another 57 percent hold these meetings every other week or monthly.

Of course, meetings require a time commitment, and Well-Managed Practices have proven this strategy worthwhile, reaping the benefits of enhanced teamwork and efficiency. In fact, none of the participants that adopted regularly scheduled meetings and continued them for at least three months would ever go back to the old pass-it-along system. "We are a more cohesive team and are committed to the same principles because of training and communication," says Dr. Lyndon Conrad of Noah's Landing Pet Care Clinic in Elkhart, Ind.

The commitment to open communication and ongoing training starts with the owner. So owners, if you frequently reschedule staff meetings and training sessions, team members won't buy into the concept of improved communication. Or worse, they could start to feel that you don't appreciate them or aren't committed to their development.

Kat Walkup, hospital administrator at Doylestown Animal Medical Clinic in Doylestown, Pa., introduces consistency in her team meetings by holding two meetings every other week—one in the morning and one in the afternoon on the same day. This approach helps address the variability of team members' schedules. "Each session covers the same information," she says. "Because the meetings have an agenda, start on time, and last 45 minutes or less, the attendance and attention have been stellar. I also post notes following the meetings for team members who can't attend. Staff members find the meetings informative and appreciate being kept in the loop.

"At first, planning the staff meetings, typing the agendas, holding the meetings, and then typing the notes was very time-consuming. However, I developed a template for the agendas and notes and established a rhythm, so it's less cumbersome now."

Meetings also help management and medical teams improve. 12 Seventy-three percent of Well-Managed Practices report holding doctor meetings at least monthly to talk about business and medical issues. And 65 percent of these practices say they hold business meetings between owners and managers at least monthly.

"We saw dramatic changes in the hospital after we implemented weekly doctor and management meetings," says Jan Hansen, business administrator of Doylestown Animal Medical Clinic. "We've researched new equipment, fine-tuned our medical protocols, and become more consistent in charging for services, to name a few of the positive changes. And it's really helpful to know we have a scheduled time each week to address management issues; it reduces day-to-day interruptions of the owners."

Keep employees motivated and productive

Showing appreciation for your staff members maintains forward movement. So, sincerely thank employees when you catch them doing things right, or take the time to leave a written note of praise when they earn it. 13

Drs. Sheldon Rubin and Robert Dann of Blum Animal Hospital in Chicago hold Appreciation Weeks for each department. "We create posters to publicly thank our staff members and give incentives and gift cards to show how much we appreciate them."

When you give frequent feedback, the employee's formal review will not include any surprises. Plus, when you discreetly recommend improvements, you give employees the opportunity to improve any performance problems sooner rather than later.

Of course, you don't want to skip more structured evaluations. They're a valuable tool to help team members realize their potential. Hold a meeting to give new hires feedback on their performance after 30 days of employment and provide a written evaluation at 90 and 180 days.Conduct semi-annual performance reviews and planning discussions thereafter. 14 The meeting itself is a rare chance for scheduled, direct, and open communication with one individual. It's an opportunity for you to show how much you value the employee and how excited you are about his or her learning and growth.

To prepare for the review, follow these steps:

  • Think about the employee's performance within the framework of his or her job description, as well as the practice goals and vision.

  • Seek objective input beforehand from others involved in the employee's management.

  • Give the employee a copy of his or her position description and a blank copy of the evaluation form two weeks before the scheduled evaluation. Explain that you'll use these forms as the basis for the evaluation.

  • Ask the employee to complete a self-development plan and return it to you within five days.

  • Meet with the employee to discuss the plan prior to finalizing the evaluation.

During the evaluation, identify areas where the employee excels and where he or she could improve, and identify any new challenges and responsibilities the employee will assume in the coming year. Then establish a timeline for making the improvements and obtaining additional training. "Be concrete," says Dr. Ravary, "so the employee understands clearly what he or she needs to do to improve his or her performance and salary."

We're better off…

"Because of our staff meetings, I have a better feel for each employee's contributions," says Blount. "My reviews are more timely and productive, which staff members appreciate."

Make any necessary cuts

No one likes this part of management, but you must terminate your relationship with an employee who doesn't fit the practice. 15 Think about it this way: You wouldn't hesitate to recommend surgery to remove a malignancy before it metastasizes. An employee who's a poor fit can have a similar effect, spreading negativity and damaging your practice's environment. Eventually, everyone in the practice, including your clients, will feel the effects of a problematic team member. And by letting the employee go, you give the individual the freedom to find a position that really lets his or her talents shine.

The tools to succeed

What's clear from Benchmarks 2006 is that we must appreciate people for who they are, not the roles they play. We must consider our co-workers and understand that our actions impact them.

Employees need to know what it's like to be first in someone's eyes before they can shine. Without this experience, how will your team members know what it takes to make your clients feel special when they walk through the door or call your practice? You're the key to helping employees achieve their potential. Be a strong leader, a mentor, and an employer who has earned their respect.

Denise L. Tumblin is president and owner of Wutchiett Tumblin and Associates in Columbus, Ohio. She led a team of management analysts to develop Benchmarks 2006: A Study of Well-Managed Practices. She'll share more insights from the study at CVC West, Oct. 27 to Oct. 30, in San Diego:

  • Why do practice managers fail?

  • New rules for staff compensation

  • Should I stay or should I grow?

Denise L. Tumblin

Make plans today to join her for these sessions. Visit thecvc.com for more details or to register.

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