Discharge Notes columnist Dr. Andy Roark is a practicing veterinarian, international speaker and author. He founded the Uncharted Veterinary Conference. His Facebook page, podcast, website and YouTube show reach millions of people every month. Dr. Roark is a three-time winner of the NAVC Practice Management Speaker of the Year Award. Learn more at drandyroark.comRead Articles Written by Andy Roark
The Big Quit. The Great Resignation. Whatever you call it, you can’t deny that the COVID-era exodus of workers across all industries and walks of life is real. Here in veterinary medicine, clinic managers, medical directors and practice owners everywhere are scrambling to figure out how to keep staff members and how to go on after losing them.
Let me say the painful thing upfront: It’s going to happen. Either now or later, because of the pandemic-inspired career reckoning happening worldwide or for some other reason, any practice in business for more than a few years has or will experience staff turnover. That’s life.
Yes, the employees you mentored and invested in will depart one day. The front desk attendant whom all the clients love and who lights up the room? He’s going to give notice at some point. The associate veterinarian you hoped might be your next medical director? She has other plans. Like the passage of time, change in your practice is inevitable.
“But wait!” you say. “My team culture is excellent. My employees know they are appreciated. I simply won’t let them leave. I will lie in front of their cars until they agree to stay forever!”
When Breakups Happen
It’s hard, I know. No one who built a great workplace culture full of competent and compassionate people wants to believe that it’s all temporary, but it is. People change, spouses get new jobs, can’t-pass-up opportunities arise, and some of us even get older and want to try new things (like retirement, say, or not lifting big dogs onto radiograph tables).
The biggest pain point I see in veterinary practices after people leave isn’t managing the workload. Nor is it managing the change in social dynamics among those left at the clinic. Instead, the greatest difficulty for most practice leaders stems from the feelings of failure, hopelessness and betrayal. They might believe that the practice is somehow irreparably broken now or that the departing person violated an unspoken commitment. From that viewpoint, the ties that bind a team are now visibly fractured, the culture is no longer “right,” and the team will never be the same.
That might sound like catastrophic thinking, but I understand it. After all, how many of us see staff retention as proof of success? How many of us secretly hope to inspire such unending loyalty that our staff could never imagine working anywhere else?
The Illusion of Permanence
It’s easy to slip into a fundamental misunderstanding of success as it relates to developing employees and a strong workplace culture. While staff happiness is always a worthwhile goal, we might believe it’s a finish line we can cross or a permanent state we can achieve and then maintain in stasis. That perspective, however, presents a false dichotomy. By such reasoning, we can either have a successful practice where everyone’s happy and no one leaves, or a practice where people eventually leave and, therefore, the practice must be a failure.
That kind of binary thinking leads to a snowball of worries:
- How did things get so bad that someone would want to quit?
- Why would fantastic new people ever be attracted to our team now that something is so clearly wrong with us?
- Is this the beginning of the end for our practice?
The fact is that nurturing a happy, healthy professional team can happen at the same time people and jobs grow apart. A workplace might be a strong one and people might leave.
The Delusion of Control
I once heard life described as a cycle of self-deception. We all work frantically to build a sense of stability and convince ourselves that our lives are largely under our control. We diligently maintain this sense of security and stability for some period until the randomness of life again tears our illusion to shreds right before our eyes, sending us into a period of existential panic. Then we struggle to regain control, thus starting the process all over.
I’ve lived that cycle several times and found it manifests in our personal lives and businesses. Like everything else in this world, teams are innately impermanent, and the lives and life choices of our employees are not ours to control.
Change is the nature of the human experience. People get older. They grow. Their circumstances, goals and desires change. When that happens, they might leave our orbit. True, their departures sometimes are due to dissatisfaction at work or a mismatch with the employer. But often, they leave for reasons that have nothing to do with us, and in our spiraling dismay, we wildly overimagine our importance in their decision.
If People Are Going to Leave, What’s the Point?
If workplace culture is a constantly evolving, fluid dynamic that can’t be pinned down in an eternal state of perfection, then it is destined to go through cycles of damage, repair and modification. Does that make you feel hopeless? Do you think, “If I can’t ever check it off my to-do list or write it down as a SMART goal, what’s the point?” I hear you. But I want to shift your thinking. Workplace culture is not an attainable, one-time goal. It’s a process. And the process is the point.
The belief that we will be safe from chaos and surprises once we’ve perfected everything about our practice and made all our staffers happy is very comforting. It is also false. The truth of workplace culture is that it’s an ongoing project that deserves attention every day for as long as a practice is in business, regardless of how good a leader anyone is. Challenges come in waves. Sometimes a great culture will come together with ease, and sometimes it will be a daily struggle, but the work is never done. And it never ceases to be important.
Resentment Is Easy and Misguided
I have a friend who had two veterinary technicians give their notice within a few weeks of each other. My friend runs a good veterinary practice, and both technicians left with valid reasons having nothing to do with job satisfaction. When we spoke privately, my friend told me how she wrestled with feelings of resentment since learning of the departures. She knows she should be happy for these people to move on to things that excite them, but it’s still an emotional struggle for her.
It turns out that when we do the day in, day out work of trying to develop and support the people who work for us, we have a natural tendency to feel let down or betrayed when those wonderful people move on. Perhaps it’s not right, but it’s a natural human response.
Putting aside those feelings isn’t easy. But to be a happy and healthy leader and person, it’s necessary. No one can force someone to stay, and no amount of hard feelings will make the road ahead any easier.
The Path to Acceptance
Accepting that teams will break apart (possibly at the most inopportune times) is the first step in living peacefully with the reality. One of my favorite stories is the parable about the Buddha and his teacup. The Buddha was lecturing on impermanence when he lifted his teacup and described how much he liked it. He liked the memory of how the teacup was gifted to him, how the sun glinted off its rim, and how beautifully and capably it held his tea. Then he said, “But I know this teacup is already broken.”
Nothing in life lasts, the Buddha said. Because the teacup was certain to chip or crack at some point, he had already accepted its brokenness. Every day the teacup remained intact would be a gift, and when the teacup eventually did break, he would have already long accepted it.
The same is true with our teams and our workplace culture. The cup is already broken. People who make wonderful contributions to our practice and culture will leave or change or grow to be different people than they are today. We will have periods of hardship in our business and our relationships. To pretend otherwise is to build false security that can be broken as easily as a teacup. Our wisest and calmest path forward is to accept that impermanence — to enjoy our strong, functioning culture while we have it and work every day to maintain and improve it, all the while knowing that at some point, we will need to rebuild it because it is already broken.
If you fall prey to the cynical outlook that investing in someone isn’t worth it because everyone eventually leaves, just imagine what kind of business you’ll be left with. I’m reminded of this cartoon I saw a few years ago: Two veterinarians are talking to each other, and the first one asks, “What if we train these people and they just leave?” The other responds, “What if we DON’T train them and they stay?”
As leaders in our practices and the profession, we must ask ourselves a similar question. Even knowing that our staff will turn over, are we willing to invest in everyone as individuals? Will we train them? Will we coach and mentor them and the people who come after them? If we are to build healthy practices that survive into the future, the answer must be a resounding “Yes!”
Our job as leaders is to grow people, knowing full well that they will eventually leave. If they’re going to go anyway, we might as well do what we can to make them stronger, more competent, more mature human beings while they are with us. Let us feel good about that, and let that opportunity motivate us.
To those who have lost members of a great team and are struggling to rebuild the magic you once had, hang in there. Know that you are not failing and that your clinic is not abnormal or incurably flawed. You are simply traveling along the life cycle of a long and healthy business. You are going through the process.
When a staff member retires, starts a new career in another city, goes back to school or even joins the practice across town — and when your attempts to block the door don’t prevent the exit — take a deep breath. Bring in a farewell cake if you like, have everyone sign a big card and write a glowing recommendation letter. Then turn your focus to the team members still with you and get to work building the next chapter of your story together.