“Don’t pound a round peg in a square hole,” is the first piece of advice from Mike Tomlinson, DVM, MBA, in talking about building and leveraging your veterinary team. He is the owner of Tomlinson Equine, which is a referral practice limited to Olympic and pre-Olympic horses with emphasis on longevity and performance in the jumping, dressage, eventing, vaulting and endurance disciplines. Tomlinson is a past president of Horses & Humans Research Foundation, past president of American Endurance Ride Conference and past vice president of US Equestrian Federation. He served as the president of Veterinary Commission I for the 2018 World Equestrian Games. He also is a Course Director for the Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI), and he teaches both endurance and veterinary courses, which FEI Official Veterinarians must attend to keep their status.
“Almost always you have people who don’t fit the holes [the needs you have in your practice]; fit the holes to the people not the people to the holes,” said Tomlinson. “Create a job they can be passionate about.”
Tomlinson said leaders in veterinary practices need to start with communication in earnest. He noted this is true in whatever situation you find yourself where you are responsible for a team of people—horse show vet teams, businesses, organizations or your own veterinary practice.
Your Job As Leader
“The first task with a team is to let them know what they are responsible for and what they have authority for,” noted Tomlinson. “Authority and responsibility must match, and everyone on the team needs to know what everyone else is doing with no holes unfilled.
“Your job is to make sure everything is covered and keep people impassioned toward the goal,” he added. “Figure out who is ‘straying’ from the goal.”
In order to avoid fighting on teams, Tomlinson again stated that everyone needs to know what everyone else is responsible for and has the authority to do. “No secrets,” he stressed.
With leadership, Tomlinson said if everything is going well with an employee and a job, “I won’t bother them…I tell them ‘call me if you need me.’ ” But he said other employees on the team, “they need calls every day. Your goal is to have people feel good about what they do and know how they fit in the picture. Everyone needs to feel important.”
Tomlinson said a big point is to know and appreciate all your staff, “from the one who cleans the kennels and mops the floor, appreciate them! Everyone on the team is important.”
Tomlinson reminded veterinary leaders that everyone needs to be communicated with differently. “Start by talking to everyone the way you want to be talked to,” he said. “But the best way to figure it out [how they want to be communicated with] is to ask them. If you are doing what they ask, then they can’t complain.”
He said at one company, the leadership and the company was almost divided in half and were at odds with each other. Each side didn’t think the other side knew what they were doing and were not carrying their weight. Tomlinson said the distrust was high. “They took things they saw and blew them out of proportion,” he said.
The solution was to work with each person so that individual understood his or her own and each other person’s responsibility and authority. “And we made them match,” noted Tomlinson. “We figured out that some individuals didn’t like their jobs any more because they liked the authority but not the responsibility. People at the top left and people at the bottom loved it because they could accomplish their goals.”
Tomlinson said a team starts with hiring, which he called “one of the most challenging jobs in business.”
He noted that, “Who you have to hire almost never fits the hole you have,” he said. “Make the hole fit the person!”
He reminded veterinary leaders that “none of us is a perfect communicator. We need to work on that every day. Remember, a good leader works on themselves first.”