Mastering the art of herding cats - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Mastering the art of herding cats

NED FLAXMAN discusses some of the leadership and management challenges facing the profession and reports on workshops designed to challenge and spur on the participants.

MANY of the leadership and management challenges facing veterinary practices, finding the time to future-proof the business, recruiting people of the right calibre and keeping staff motivated, are similar to those of any small or medium sized business.

However, the biggest challenge that veterinary principals seem to have is typical of those involved in the medical profession, be it human or animal: the need to manage a group of highly intellectual, strong-willed individuals. Some might liken it to herding cats!

It was with this specific challenge in mind that Pfizer Vet Support+ initiated an industry first, a series of Partner Management Workshops which bring experiences from human healthcare to the veterinary sector.

Facilitated by Medicology, a company that specialises in leadership and management training for the NHS and other human healthcare providers, the workshops demonstrate to attendees:

  • how to best maintain and grow a practice amidst the challenges of a changing veterinary industry;
  • how to organise themselves to manage the business, grow it and realise its future value.

A fresh angle

The decision to use a facilitator from outside the industry may seem surprising. However, after early conversations with Andrew Vincent, Medicology’s MD, it became apparent to our VetSupport+ team that the company’s input would be invaluable in helping us to deliver a fresh angle to the management challenges currently being faced by practices.

Andrew’s early observations resonated strongly, for as he commented: “Medicine is a great outlet for the intellectual brain and there are consequently massive similarities between doctors and vets. Both groups share certain attributes in that their members tend to be highly intellectual, thriving on mental stimulation and with a strong ‘service unto others’ mindset. Because of these very similar qualities, the challenges that have been faced in the leadership and management of the NHS are very similar to those facing the veterinary industry.”

Following the first of the workshops earlier this year, Andrew’s feedback about the industry’s business management felt challenging, but he was at pains to point out that a practice principal has to wear many different hats, not all of which sit comfortably.

“It was interesting to see that just as in the human medical profession, veterinary surgeons tend to be ‘analytical’ by nature with a very high attention to detail.

Perfectionist characteristic

“This perfectionist characteristic, while essential for clinical work, can manifest itself within the business setting as micro-management, leading to vets spending too much time in, rather than on, the business.

“They may also have a tendency simply to tell employees what to do rather than trusting them, nurturing them and allowing them to lead, resulting in the vet getting increasingly bogged down with the day-to-day tasks rather than stepping back and developing their team and the business.

“With the added element of competition from the corporates, which have resources dedicated to HR and management training, it is even more important that veterinary principals acquire the necessary skills to bring out the best in their teams.

Similar issues

“The issues faced by both the human medical profession and the veterinary profession are remarkably similar, with lack of time being seen as the biggest barrier to growth as well as the struggle to get agreement from other vets.

“Just as in the human medical profession, most practices don’t have a strategy beyond the premise that ‘people turn up and bring us animals’.”

Marketing and business development are fundamental to practices and yet most adopt relatively simple, traditional and increasingly ineffective methods.

With the current economic climate and the steady decline in the number of people going into practice demonstrated by the Performance Index (formerly the Fort Dodge Index), it is more important than ever that practices run continuous marketing initiatives to increase that declining footfall.

Lagging behind

Medicology was surprised at how little knowledge and engagement with social media there is among the veterinary practices attending the workshops which tend to still rely on traditional routes for getting a presence in the community. In this area especially, it seems vets are lagging behind their peers in human healthcare.

The Partner Management Workshops, which kick off for a second round in September, start by looking at the context of business today, focusing on the NHS, its evolution and the challenges it faces.

They then have a roundtable discussion where participants air their concerns for the business before going on to look at transformational leadership models.

The intention of the workshops is for each attendee to come away with a robust business model that clearly identifies the critical success factors for their business, such as reputation management or financial effectiveness. For each of these facets, attendees are encouraged to identify and assign a practice team champion, whose responsibility it then becomes to ensure that facet is driven forward.

Positive feedback

Feedback from attendees from the first two workshops was very positive with the “Islands Exercise” being highlighted as the most useful part of the training. Andrew comments: “Workshop participants found this unique exercise particularly useful in helping to make sense of the behaviour they saw in senior colleagues and throughout the team.

“The Islands Exercise requires people to separate into different psychological groups; each of these groups is then given an exercise that demonstrates very prominently how the ‘inner human’ affects the outward behaviour, decision-making, preferences and ideal working environment.”

Andrew continues: “By looking effectively at different psychological ‘cultures’, practice leaders can create environments for individuals that lead to higher performance, more commitment and a greater sense of ownership over practice results.

Common challenge

“Getting the practice team to do the right things was a challenge that everyone had in common, almost more so than knowing what the right things to do actually were. The simple but powerful ‘cultures’ exercise was almost universally lauded as facilitating a step change in leaders’ ability to influence the people they lead.”

Each of the workshops is being attended by one of Pfizer’s VetSupport+ business consultants to help partners put into practice what they take from their time with the Medicology team.

Pfizer business consultant, Simon Fowler, who attended the first two workshops in April comments: “As with any training day it is all too easy to come along on the day, get fired up, leave with good intentions, but then get caught up in the day-to-day running of the practice and forget all about it.

“By attending the workshop ourselves and helping practices to develop their seven champion attributes, we are then able to work with them to help them implement the learnings and turn the training into tangible results.”

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