Want To Be A Better Boss?

Start by acting like one.
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Credit: Photos.com

Credit: Photos.com

Until a few years ago, Dr. Mike Pownall simply saw himself as an equine veterinarian. As a founder of McKee-Pownall Equine Services near Toronto, Canada, he was passionate about veterinary medicine and happy to operate a full-service equine practice. Pownall saw himself as a vet, not as a business owner with a staff to supervise, even though his company employs 10 vets and more than two dozen other employees. And he didn’t clearly understand the importance of that role until he attended an equine business management conference five years ago. That conference changed how he saw himself, and, consequently, how he ran his business. Quite simply, he came to understand his role as a business owner.

“You need to operate your veterinary practice as a business in order to offer the best care, to have financial stability and to hire the best vets,” he says. “We are not special just because we are horse vets.”

By reorienting himself as the leader of his business, Pownall was able to make decisive changes in the way he managed his staff, which ultimately affected his entire clinic for the better.

The result, says Pownall, is reduced stress, a happier staff, less turnover and an atmosphere of trust within the company. The hard numbers speak volumes: Since Pownall instituted management changes four years ago, the company has quadrupled its sales revenues, started one new practice and purchased three others.

The Devil is in the Details

According to Charlotte Lacroix, DVM, JD, consultant and owner of Veterinary Business Advisors Inc., Pownall’s problems are typical of equine practice owners. Veterinarians often fail to see themselves as business leaders, but instead view themselves as vets who happen to have some people working for them. “If you are a mom-and-pop, you can just wing it,” she says. But the ultimate price is a lack of stability. “You begin to feel the pain when you become a larger company because you have more problems when you have more people working for you,” she says.

Pownall discovered that his greatest weakness as a boss concerned staff evaluations. Specifically, his clinic had no formal job descriptions, no pay ranges and no comprehensive annual reviews. It was difficult to evaluate an employee’s performance in an objective manner, and even harder to sort out what kind of raise someone deserved. Some of his employees simply expected an annual bump in pay just for being there another year. Others had worked especially hard, but there was no way to reward that. Now Pownall has clear job descriptions and an established pay range that are used to hire and evaluate staff members. The clinic uses a 360-degree review policy, which means that each staff member contributes to the annual evaluation of the others, anonymously.

Raises are now based on these reviews. As a result, he says, there is a great deal of trust and transparency among staff. People know what to expect and are accountable to each other. “It’s just a lot more honest,” he says.

Many equine practices operate without comprehensive employee evaluations or job descriptions. Lacroix says it is important to recognize that the job description is more than words on paper; it is a tool for staff management. The job description helps the clinician determine who to hire. It gives an employee a clear sense of what is expected. The document can be used in the employee annual review and can be tied to raises.

Without those boundaries, “Staff are unhappy because they don’t know what their job is,” Lacroix says. “They don’t know how they are supposed to grow. They don’t know how they are supposed to progress.” Similarly, they lack a specific sense of how their annual raise is calculated.

Employees aren’t the only ones who become frustrated in this situation, according to Leslie Mamalis, senior consultant with Summit Veterinary Advisors LLC near Denver, Colorado. She points out that it is hard to run a business if you don’t have the right people in place. Without a clearly defined job description, “You don’t understand what your office manager should be doing for you,” she says. Staff turnover is expensive and time consuming, and, worse, can lead to client turnover if you constantly have a different person answering the phone.

Another key element of the job description is that it should be tied to a specific person and should evolve with time. Lacroix calls it “a dynamic document.” Mamalis says that as people grow in their jobs, they contribute to the evolution of the business. “Don’t pigeonhole people,” she says. “Don’t think, ‘I just hired this person to answer the phone and that is all they are ever going to do.’”

Stephanie Keeble, operations manager for McKee-Pownall Equine Services, can speak to the importance of being allowed to grow within the company. Keeble started out at the front desk and now manages five clinics for McKee-Pownall. She says a good boss, like hers, will allow people to pursue their strengths.

Getting to the Big Picture

Managing staff is an imperative element of good leadership, but it won’t get you anywhere unless you learn to delegate, says Lacroix, and many veterinarians struggle with that. “Veterinarians have difficulty letting go. They are micromanagers,” she says.

One clear example is staff in mid-level management. A vet might hire the right office manager to handle day-to-day tasks, but then cripple him by continuing to stay involved in small decisions and undermining that person’s authority by letting staff and customers continue to come to him with issues.

Mamalis agreed that micromanagement can be a temptation for someone who started a business from the ground up. She noted that it is important to let people do the jobs you hired them to do, recognizing that they might accomplish something differently than you would. “It is important, delegating and feeling confident that the work will get done,” she says.

Building a solid staff and learning to delegate to them is a means to an end. The end point is for clinic owners to free up enough time to maintain a sense of the big picture—knowing where you are, where you want to be and how you are going to get there.

Lacroix says many vets don’t identify what they want their businesses to do for them or how to accomplish their goals. They simply look at their practice as a job, which is a mistake. She advises practice owners to set aside time every week to look at their businesses, understand what is going well and identify what needs attention. And this is something they can’t do if they don’t delegate other detailed tasks to a qualified staff.

Ultimately, self-knowledge, sound staff management and delegation allow veterinarians to become leaders. “What we really want them to become is a leader in their practice,” Mamalis says. A leader knows what he wants to get out of being a veterinarian, where he wants the business to go, and ways to measure success. Then, just as importantly, a good leader communicates the vision clearly to staff members and shows them how they fit in with that success. “What does your billing clerk have to do with that vision? Everybody sees how their part fits into the whole,” Mamalis says.

Rolling with the Punches

Dr. Brad Jackman, owner of Pioneer Equine Hospital in Oakdale, California, understands firsthand the importance of good leadership, especially in tough times. His company, which specializes in equine surgery and lameness, opened a $4 million state-of-the-art equine hospital in January of 2009, right at the beginning of the global economic meltdown.

“It was not good timing,” he admits. Jackman was forced to cut back on staffing, which not only meant reducing people’s hours, but asking some to do tasks that were not in their job description and might be beneath their skills set.

This situation could have produced a disgruntled work environment, but Jackman says the opposite has happened. “It has improved our efficiency,” he says. “It has improved our (sense) that we are all in this together.”

How did he manage that? Good leadership, he feels. Jackman says he made sure the staff understood the dollars and cents of staffing changes. From there he made a point to lead by example, jumping in wherever help was needed, even assisting with X-rays and other tech duties when necessary. “You have to be willing to do whatever you ask your staff to do,” he says. With nine veterinarians and 16 office staff members and techs, the company is holding its own, and Jackman is optimistic about the future.

Pownall, too, now understands the importance of leadership. He says the changes he’s made have improved him as a boss. “I’ve become, personally, a better manager,” he notes. He’s also come to understand the importance of communication and is more comfortable with conflict resolution, more approachable and not afraid to have difficult conversations. Most importantly, Pownall no longer struggles with the dual nature of his role. “Am I a veterinarian or a business owner? I’m both,” he says.

1. Communicate expectations: Establish and maintain clear expectations with your staff, starting with job descriptions, to measure success and cope with problems.

2. Delegate: Let your staff handle day-to-day management, freeing you up to practice medicine and to see the big picture.

3. Don’t micromanage: Trust people to do the jobs you hired them to do, even if they don’t do things exactly the way you would.

4. Be approachable: Create an environment in which your staff can come talk to you about challenges, even when you might be part of the problem. Cultivate your listening skills.

5. Be a mediator: Don’t take sides when a problem arises. Don’t judge, but be fair and help your staff members resolve conflicts.

6. Help staff grow: Let your employees develop their talents and evolve into new positions. Use the annual review to modify their job descriptions to reflect their strengths and goals.

7. Identify a vision: Know what you want your business to accomplish and identify concrete ways to measure your success.

8. Find help: Do you need an office manager, a business appraisal, technology training? Know what you need, find the right people to help you and be willing to pay for it.

9. See the big picture: Take time each week to step back and look at your company to determine what is working, what isn’t and what changes you need to make.

10. Be a leader: Maker sure each member of your staff understands how he fits into your vision of success. Be excited about it and getyour staff members excited, too.

SIDEBAR

Eight Tips For Being A Good Boss

1. Communicate expectations: Establish and maintain clear expectations with your staff, starting with job descriptions, to measure success and cope with problems.

2. Delegate: Let your staff handle day-to-day management, freeing you up to practice medicine and to see the big picture.

3. Be approachable: Cultivate your listening skills.

4. Be a mediator: Don’t take sides when a problem arises. Don’t judge, but be fair and help your staff members resolve conflicts.

5. Help staff grow: Let your employees develop their talents and evolve into new positions. Use the annual review to modify their job descriptions to reflect their strengths and goals.

6. Identify a vision: Know what you want your business to accomplish and identify concrete ways to measure your success.

7. See the big picture: Take time each week to step back and look at your company to determine what is working, what isn’t and what changes you need to make.

8. Be a leader: Make sure each member of your staff understands how he fits into your vision of success. Be excited about it and get your staff members excited, too.