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These 8 lessons are crucial in leadership
An experienced practice manager and consultant suggests practical steps to consider on assuming a leadership role.
Your practice owner comes in one day and tells you that instead of continuing in your current position at the veterinary hospital, you are now the manager—or office manager, practice manager, or technician manager. Maybe after this decision is made, it is never announced to the rest of the staff. Maybe it was assumed you were already in that position because you are the longest-serving employee, who knows how to do it all. You know who you are. You are the person who knows where the keys are to the faucet outside, you know the password to log on to the computer that is rarely used, and you know where to get the best price on that drug, which one of your doctors once used. But starting today, it is official. Although you appreciate the faith they have placed in you, what are you supposed to do now?
Step 1: Decide what you want
Take a deep breath because all will be well. I did not say it would be easy; I said all will be well. The first thing that you have to decide in becoming a manager is whether you even want to. You may feel you deserve this position because you have served the practice the longest. That does not necessarily mean you should be the leader.
But in veterinary medicine, isn’t that how it works? A staff member is thrown into a position of leadership without any skills or resources or, sometimes, even the desire to be the boss. You need to decide whether this is what you want to do. As the new leader in your hospital, you are now responsible for much more than you were 5 minutes ago. It is a different kind of work. If you decide that this is not what you want, that is OK. You should be proud that you know yourself well enough to realize this is not the right direction for you. But you have to say these words to your boss: “I do not want to be a leader or hold a leadership position in this hospital. Thank you for the opportunity, but I respectfully decline.”
I know this is an article about becoming a leader in veterinary medicine, but so many of us are in this position and should not be. If you do not want to be a leader, that is OK.
Step 2: Know your responsibilities
However, if you have made the decision to become a leader in your hospital, and you have spoken to your boss, what do you do first? This starts with something as simple as a job title and description. You need to know what you are responsible for. How are you supposed to lead if you do not know what you are supposed to lead?
You need to be given or create a list of duties and responsibilities that are now yours. This needs to be something that is agreed upon and supported by your boss or owner. They trust you enough to put you in a leadership position within their hospital, so they should trust you enough to complete the duties assigned to you. But you need to know what those are.
Step 3: Establish boundaries
You will need to understand that if you have been promoted to a leadership position and have previously just been another of the staff, your work life will change. I am not saying it is going to be worse. I am not saying it is going to be better. I am saying that it is going to be different. It will take some time, some mistakes, and some growth to maintain those working relationships.
People say that you cannot be friends with people you work with. To an extent, that is true. If you have a best friend who works at the same hospital and you have now become their boss, are you willing and able to set your friendship aside for the best of the business? Are you willing to fire your best friend, if that is what needs to happen at your hospital?
Suppose everyone goes to a bar one night after work and your behavior in the presence of coworkers becomes inappropriate. The next day at work, their opinion of you (and your qualifications to lead them) might differ from those they held the previous day. This is another factor to keep in mind when assuming a leadership position. Your work friendships will change.
Step 4: Put on your coaching hat
You are now in charge of people. You are responsible for teaching them, nurturing them, helping them grow in their positions, and sometimes babysitting them. Because a group of employees working together can occasionally seem like a group of children.
Now comes the coaching and creation of a new team. Depending on the size of your hospital and the number of people for whom you are responsible, it is now your job to provide your staff with the skills to do their jobs. If you have a small team, you might be able to do 1-on-1 training more often than if you have 25 employees or more.
Perhaps you need to train a person and they become responsible for training the rest of the staff in a certain task. Sometimes being a leader also means learning to delegate. Decide who is capable and willing to teach others and let them teach. Training or coaching people to do things the way your hospital agrees they should be done is an important aspect of leadership, especially if they have never had someone in charge before.
There is going to be a lot more work on your shoulders at the start of your new role. You will need to create protocols and standards that everyone uses if such things are not already in place. In the long term it will make your job, and your life, considerably easier.
Step 5: Ask for help
When you do not know what to do, ask for help. There is no chance that you are going to know how to do everything brilliantly, perfectly, and correctly in the first week, the first month, or sometimes even the first year.
Go to conferences, read articles, find a supportive group of peers who are in the same position as you. Join a hospital managers association or a practice management Facebook page. The options are endless.
Ask other leaders questions. Those who have been leaders longer than you may have different perspectives and different answers, and sometimes that is what you need. You need to see something from the outside and it can completely change your perspective. Or they are going to give you an answer that was right in front of you but you were so busy dealing with a problem that you did not see it. Guess what? That is OK.
Step 6: Own your mistakes
You are going to make mistakes. So will your staff and the people who lead you. Be willing to own your mistakes. Be willing to tell a staff member or team member what you did and how you have fixed it or intend to fix it. Be willing to share that. If you are willing to talk about the mistakes you have made, it shows that you are human and humble enough to know you are not perfect.
I have made many mistakes along the way but have also learned much from them. Once upon a time, I was asked to take over the accounting software and accounts payable position at a practice. I had 1 session with the person who had done that task previously. I became overwhelmed. I messed up some numbers in that program and could not seem to ask for help or admit I had a weakness. When that error came to light, I admitted it and did my best to fix it. However, the damage was done. My owner did not feel they could trust me, and I ended up leaving that hospital. I learned from that experience. I learned that it is OK to say I do not know, and it is OK to ask for help, and I am a better manager because of that.
Step 7: Do not play favorites
The worst thing that you can do to your staff is play favorites. Everyone in your hospital, regardless of how well a person is liked or how long they have been at the hospital, should be held to the same standard. Rules are in place for a reason. If you create a policy that staff members can be no more than 5 minutes late for their shift each day, then everyone in the hospital needs to be held to that same standard. There should be a repercussion for the employee who comes into work 15 minutes after their shift starts every day. If something like that is not fixed, what kind of example are you setting for the rest of the staff? You are showing them that some rules only apply to some people, and that is not OK.
If you create a standard or rule in your practice, your job as a leader is to uphold that rule. That also means you cannot come in 15 to 20 minutes late for your shift. Lead by example—because, I promise, your staff is watching.
Step 8: Promote the positive
Celebrate victories. Often, a leadership position becomes all about correctives, or handling all the negative aspects of a job. It is a never-ending job coaching staff who need to relearn a task or be shown a different protocol. You need to look for the victories.
There needs to be a shift in thinking. Be the person who celebrates the accomplishments of others. When your technician draws blood on the first try for the 10th time in a row, celebrate that. When your kennel staff sets up a fecal correctly, celebrate that. When your reception staff handles another angry client without losing their temper, and keeps a smile on their face, celebrate that. Please be sincere. People can see through fake all day long. If you give a compliment, mean it. Do not say thank you to the employee only at the Christmas party.
Get into the habit and the mindset of promoting positivity. There is a saying, “throw kindness like confetti,” and that is a powerful statement. Be the kind of boss you want to have. Treat people how you want to be treated. Be kind. Be humble. Know that in the end, all will be well.
Jenny Matthews, CVT, CVPM, is a veterinary consultant with Matthews Veterinary Solutions in Mustang, Oklahoma.