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Columns, COVID-19, Leadership

We will bounce back

COVID-19 tested the ability of practice leaders to adapt to change. The profession will emerge better equipped to tackle the next challenge with optimism and grace.

We will bounce back
Crises present the opportunity to discover natural leaders, bring light to a team’s ability to change and reinforce the camaraderie that carries us through.

What a dynamic time this is. As I write this article in mid-April, I wonder how my veterinary practice will be operating when you read this in early June or afterward. Will stay-at-home orders still be in place? Will the veterinary team at Daniel Island Veterinary Hospital be healthy and able to work? Will pet owner demand be sufficient to generate enough revenue to keep us afloat? Will our government small business loans be funded?

These are questions I can’t answer, not can I influence the outcomes. However, I do have significant control and influence over how I manage my feelings throughout the process, how I show support and leadership toward my team, and how I prepare the business for nimble responses to a range of possible scenarios. The situation is overwhelming at times, but I choose to view the global crisis through the lens that provides me with incredible opportunities to learn, grow and positively contribute as a leader of my practice.

I continue to circle back to the overarching theme of change and adaptability and watch in awe at how quickly and thoroughly our industry, nation and world pivoted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We often frame change through the context of the aversion our employees or clients show toward it. While I can readily find examples of change aversion and decision fatigue in our current situation, I more abundantly see problem-solving, creative thinking and cooperation. We have an opportunity to use this situation to discover natural leaders, bring light to our team’s ability to change and reinforce the camaraderie that carries us through.

Continuous Improvement

In mid-March, the quick change to curbside service and telemedicine played out in practices nationwide. In many cases, long-established and well-oiled appointment flow was upended and put through the test of accelerated continuous improvement.

I believe our ability to respond was enabled by the early stages of change management — determining the need for change and creating a sense of urgency. This was readily adopted by individual team members and moved forward without substantial dissension. When looking at future change proposals, try to recognize that spending time and energy ensuring team buy-in on the need for change can pay dividends during the implementation and sustainability stages.

While I spend most of my time working through the logistics of new hospital processes, what I find most fascinating is the emotional response from my teammates and the workgroup as a whole.

I used an anonymous survey to check in on my team’s well-being and the feeling of support from company leadership during the pandemic. Overall, the responses were as expected and largely positive. The sprinkling of negative responses or constructive feedback reiterated the need for overcommunication and frequent praise during times of change and crisis. Team members want to know first-hand about changes happening throughout the hospital. They need to hear details of how they are being supported by leadership and be shown that they are valued, appreciated and cared for. What I learned is that if I think I am communicating and praising enough, I’m not; I should do more.

Gritty, Proven and Proud

I enjoyed a webinar by Josh Vaisman of Flourish Veterinary Consulting on the topic of resiliency. He framed it as an acquired skill set rather than an innate personality trait. Resiliency, or the ability to bounce back, can be the resulting personal attribute of successful post-traumatic growth.

When our teams are emotionally ready, we can lead discussions on the positive opportunities presented during the crisis, the parts of the situation we control and the strengthening bonds we create with those around us. Our teams can emerge from this crisis gritty, proven, proud and better equipped to tackle the next challenge with optimism and grace.

Similar to resiliency, the concepts of growth mindset center on defining and focusing on factors that are within our control and our ability to influence. One particular growth mindset tool I was introduced to during a presentation by Laura Camacho was the practice of precapping, or recapping in advance. This exercise encourages you to take a future goal and write about how you achieved it and, assuming it was wildly successful, how you feel.

‘Our Essential Work’

Here is my precap for how I envision our resilient teams feeling on the other side of this crisis and my hope for practice managers everywhere:

“I have never felt more bonded with my co-workers than I do now. Together, we successfully weathered the storm of a global pandemic. What an extraordinary practice we have built!

“We have learned to support each other in times of stress, dig deep within ourselves to find the energy and resolve, and take time to recharge and appreciate our many blessings.

“Social distancing accelerated our adoption and creative uses of technology, which we came to love and plan to continue utilizing instead of resorting to our old ways.

“Because of thoughtful planning and openness to change, we remain fiscally sound and have quickly regained our ability to fully contribute to our community and economy. Clients continue to praise our comprehensive and safe handling of the situation and regularly share their appreciation for our commitment to the health of their pets.

“Our essential work of veterinary medicine and the role I play in my practice gives me purpose and pride. I feel equipped to handle whatever comes my way next and look forward to finding new ways to grow and contribute.

“I love my job!”

Take Charge columnist Abby Suiter is practice manager at Daniel Island Animal Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina.