Today it takes a winning team to run a successful practice.

Today it takes a winning team to run a successful practice.

No one person can know it all or do it all alone. Today is the age of teamwork and getting it right has never been more important.

When it works, teamwork is magic! Work becomes more rewarding and fun. People enjoy and respect one another more. Staff morale, patient care and practice finances all benefit.

True magic

Karyn Gavzer, MBA, CVPM

Yet, teamwork often breaks down or fails to develop in even the most well-intentioned practices. To get it right takes concrete skills, structure, patience and practice.

Experts say seven critical elements must be in place for successful teamwork to occur. Do you have them in your practice?

1. An inspiring, unifying mission

People in your practice may be of different ages, sexes, dispositions and abilities. No matter how different they are, however, chances are that they all long to be part of something that matters, to feel that what they do counts and that their work is important.

This is the common ground upon which teamwork is built. It is the glue that holds disparate people together and inspires them to work as a team to achieve common goals. Without an inspiring mission at work, people might still show up, but they will spend their best efforts elsewhere, where they feel they can make a difference.

An inspiring, unifying mission statement might look something like this:

Our mission is to foster better pet health care by celebrating the human animal bond, educating clients and providing cutting edge veterinary care in an attractive, inviting practice.

A mission statement is a living document. It needs to be reviewed, discussed, interpreted and applied to each new decision to maintain alignment and focus with practice values. This is how a mission statement is brought to life and how it becomes an inspirational and guiding force for teams to use as they pursue their goals.

The test of a mission statement is not how nice the words look on a sheet of paper, but rather, how well you use it to give meaning and direction to the work of the practice.

Your mission statement should be a "touchstone" for making decisions. It should be used to evaluate major undertakings and purchases. For instance, how well would purchasing a new, wireless computer system fit with the above mission? Alternatively, how would you weigh the computer purchase against the purchase of a digitized X-ray unit, or needed, extensive remodeling, if you could only afford one of the three?

Used properly, the mission statement can help you have thoughtful discussions with your team to rank order needs and establish priorities in a way that makes sense for the practice. Using it this way creates team support: How much more accepting would your team be if they were included in a decision-making process that was based on a mission statement that everyone believed in and lived by?

2. Concrete, specific goals

Once the mission statement is in place, goals give the team members a target for their work. Goals bring clarity! They let team members know exactly what success looks like and what they need to do to achieve it.

A mission statement might be forever, but goals are short-term and urgent. Goals let the team know where to focus its attention, right now, this year, to bring the mission statement to life.

Goals should always grow out of the mission statement. They need to be in writing and shared with the entire practice team.

To say, "We need to do better," is not a clear goal. Goals need to spell out what "better" looks like.

An example of a good goal statement for a practice with the above mission might look like this:

Goal: To consistently screen no less than 25 senior pets a week, every week, for common health problems associated with older pets.

It is easy to see the difference in clarity between this goal and "do better." This is a goal that people can understand and measure. The goal is also clearly aligned with the mission statement. It celebrates the human animal bond, fosters better pet health care and uses new preventive medicine. It will be the team's job to decide how to best educate clients about the new service. The owner's and practice manager's job will be to set a fee that makes economic sense, and supports the growth and continuation of the practice.

3. Individual and team accountability

No team can win if the players don't know their roles or if they are not held accountable for doing them.

Think of a winning volleyball team and how clear the goals and roles are. Everyone has a position to play. Each member of the team is responsible for playing his or her position well and trust his/her teammates to do the same. Players do not cross over into their team members' areas, unless they need help, and they support and encourage one another throughout the game. Winning hospital teams are equally well organized and clear about their team members' roles and responsibilities. Each team member knows exactly who does what and how his or her role contributes to the team's success.

In winning teams, members are held accountable for team goals and for individual performance. Performance reviews need to reflect the expectation of how well employees performed and how well they supported the team.

To reinforce the importance of teamwork, ask each team member to prepare a list of his or her personal accomplishments for the next performance review. Also, ask the team member to show how he/she has contributed to team goals over the last period. Each team member needs to be able to provide specific examples. A generic statement such as, "I always check to see if I can help somebody else," is not acceptable. "I helped Jannie clean cages and feed pets in between appointments when we were swamped with boarders over the holiday," is a concrete example that shows true teamwork.

If teamwork is important, team self-assessments are important. Periodically as the team meets on a project, hold members accountable for asking themselves how well they think they are working together as a team, and how they might improve the process. Without this kind of self-evaluation, even though the team may be accomplishing its goals, relationships may become damaged or inefficient processes may crop up that impair future success.

Holding whole team responsible

A team process check forces team members to consider not only how well they are doing at meeting goals, but how well they are doing working together as a team. It also encourages continuous improvement by holding them accountable for finding better ways to do things.

Finally, team leaders, practice managers and owners need performance feedback, too. How else can they improve?

Performance feedback for leaders

Job number one for a leader is to lead his/her team. The leader's job is to set a clear course and take good care of the team. A helpful assessment tool for leaders is the 360°-Feedback. It is a form that employees complete on their managers. It is anonymous. Its purpose is to encourage honest feedback to help leaders improve.

When asked to critique their leaders and managers, it is not unusual for employees to rate them highly and only say good things. It could be because they are enthusiastic, loyal team members, or they may feel it is the only safe thing to do. Conversely, disgruntled employees may "dump" on their leadership team. In either case, the feedback is not helpful. To encourage useful feedback, ask team members to provide specific examples and recommendations for actions that leaders can take to improve, rather than vague statements. This will help to encourage constructive feedback that a leader can act on and use. Useful feedback might look like the following example:

"It would be helpful if you would let us know in advance when you send out a client mailing. For instance, when the senior pet care mailing went out, we would have been better able to respond to callers if we had known what it said and when it went out."

Even though it is sometimes painful to hear that you have let your team down, collecting performance feedback like this is a good way to give leaders ideas for how they can improve and grow. How else will they know how they are doing and what their team needs from them?

Leaders need to be role models for the practice and "walk the talk." If they do not solicit feedback on their own performance, they risk alienating their teams. Team members may feel devalued (nobody cares what we think). Holding team members accountable for that which you don't do yourself, encourages cynicism. Over time, a negative "them" versus "us" mindset usually develops that erodes trust and makes true teamwork almost impossible.

4. A supportive team environment

One of the most rewarding aspects of successful teamwork is that good teams have the opportunity to earn their leaders' trust. Teams that do should be rewarded with increased freedom and the power to make and implement their own decisions. Practice owners and managers, in turn, discover that they finally let go and can confidently delegate important tasks, knowing that their experienced team members will carry the ball on their own. It takes time to get to this level of teamwork.

A supportive environment means that teams are given new challenges to tackle, and that they are allowed enough room to grow and earn increasingly higher levels of trust and responsibility. These three things are necessary to build a supportive team environment:

*Timely, accurate information has to be shared with the team members on key performance indicators. To meet the senior pet goal mentioned earlier, the team needs to know how many senior pets have been tested each week. If the team is hitting or exceeding its goal of 25 pets per week, team members will be reinforced that their plan is working and encouraged to continue-they're winning! If they are not making goal, they will know early on and can fix it. In the absence of timely information, however, the team can only stall. Team members will lose their enthusiasm and motivation to keep on trying.

Providing performance information is like sharing the game score. It is vital information that lets the team know how they are doing and encourages them to take action to win.

*A supportive environment means team members are allowed to make mistakes. When team members come up with new plays (plans), they should be allowed to try them. This is a frightening proposition to most leaders, but it is the best way to encourage reasonable risk-taking and build the team's (and your) confidence that they have the ability to get things done. Sometimes things will not turn out as well as planned, or there may be unexpected, unintended outcomes, such as a cost overrun. A supportive environment encourages calculated risk-taking (so long as no patients are endangered). Team members and management alike understand that the occasional mistake simply means that people are trying new things and that they are on a learning curve. The important thing is not to cast blame, but rather, to help the team learn from a mistake, correct the course, and do better the next time. In a supportive environment, the only real mistake people can make is to keep on making the same mistake over and over again.

A supportive environment usually reflects a culture that values teamwork over individual performance. It doesn't matter that one team member is a veterinarian, another a manager, an assistant, technician, receptionist or kennel attendant. The team knows that everyone's role is important. They respect and value each position and their interdependence because they know that this is what powers success uncommon in more fragmented practices.

5. Trained team members

There is an old joke about how to tell the difference between whether something is a training issue or a motivational issue. The test is: If you hold a gun to someone's head and ask him to do something and he cannot, then you can be sure it is a training issue!

The truth is that training and motivation go hand-in-hand. Most people want to do well and be successful, but without proper training it is hard to be successful. Over time, frustration destroys motivation and performance declines. At that point the practice usually loses what could have been a valuable team member, had they invested time and effort in training.

The typical veterinary practice provides little formal training. The standard method seems to be "hang around and you'll get it." Can you imagine how well a sports team would do with a similar philosophy? Employees need training and they need coaching, just as a winning sports team would. Winning practice teams know this and they set up formal training programs and provide coaching from senior team members to help everyone move ahead.

Training, at minimum, should include a tour of the hospital and spending time with key people in each department to learn what they do and how they interact and support other areas of the hospital. This gives the new employee a chance to see the big picture and get to know his/her team members. The employee also needs training to learn new job skill sets.

Finally, coaching sessions with an immediate supervisor needs to be scheduled at least weekly, even if someone else is training the employee. At this time formal performance feedback is provided and the individual is given areas to improve and recommendations for new things to tackle to build his or her skills and better fit into the team.

6. Reward and goal alignment

Rewards, even in the best-intentioned practices, can easily be misused. It is almost impossible, for instance, to attain team success when incentives are set up to reward the opposite. Many production-based salary systems are set up this way. In other instances, contests are set up that only one person can win.

In successful team practices, there are rewards for both individual and team goal attainment. Each individual's pay raises and bonuses are contingent on how well the team member supported his/her teammates as well as his or her individual contributions to the practice.

In addition to financial incentives, positive reinforcement and public celebration of team accomplishments reward and build a solid teamwork culture.

7. Good team communication

It is impossible to have good teamwork without good communication.

A prime team-building opportunity in most practices is the staff meeting. Without everyone's participation, however, a staff meeting quickly degenerates into an expensive waste of time. Staff meetings need to have an agenda and everyone, especially the owners and veterinarians, must participate.

It is not uncommon that veterinarians find themselves impatient with team meetings. They often feel that meetings interfere with the "real work" of taking care of patients. What they don't realize is that they are perceived as team leaders and that taking time to build their teams is the best way to take care of their patients. If they, or other team members, are allowed to skip meetings or work on other things during the meetings, meetings will not be productive and teamwork cannot occur. If people fail to show up, or fail to fully engage in a staff meeting, the leadership message is that meetings are a waste of time and very soon they will be.

Badly run staff meetings are a waste of time. Each meeting needs to have a clear agenda and the leadership team needs to set a good example by listening and contributing to the meeting.

Everyone who attends a staff meeting deserves to have their time respected. There should be a reason for the meeting and firm start and stop times. If decisions are made, they need to be assigned to someone on the team for implementation, and the decisions need to be formally recorded in the minutes of the meeting.

Staff meetings are for team communication: updates, changes, news, brainstorming, problem-solving and training. Meetings provide the opportunity to obtain the receptionists', technicians' and veterinarians' perspectives and ideas so that everyone on the team can benefit from one another's thinking. Discussing and resolving differences is part of the work of meetings. It is how team values are created and reinforced. It is the way to align the team and focus its attention on the things that matter.

It is no secret that teamwork is hard work! It is a different way of working for most practices. Teamwork takes a different mindset and different skills to do well. Hopefully, these "seven secrets" will help you improve teamwork and enjoy greater success!

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