Dr. Lauren Catenacci is the head of people and culture at Galaxy Vets, an organizational psychologist and a leadership coach passionate about creating workplace cultures that enable all veterinary professionals to thrive. Previously, she worked with leadership teams ranging from the military and governments to the private sector to develop solutions for transformational change.Read Articles Written by Lauren Catenacci
Faced with the ongoing talent shortage within the veterinary workforce, corporate acquisitions in animal health care are in fact “acqui-hires,” where the real target is not the business but its veterinary team. Retaining talent, however, is one of the key challenges that new owners face when they buy a veterinary practice. According to research by Daniel Kim, an MIT Sloan doctoral candidate, 33% of employees of acquired companies leave within the first year.
High employee turnover and the financial implications of hiring and training new staff can put a serious strain on a business. Assuming a full-time veterinarian generates $600,000 a year in revenue and 10 months are needed, on average, to fill a vacant position, about $500,000 in revenue might be lost. Beyond that, a poorly managed transition can have a lasting, detrimental impact on the well-being of the veterinary team.
It is critical to pay attention to the employee experience, and more so during times of change (i.e. integration and onboarding). According to the Human Capital Institute, practices that invest in improving the onboarding experience are most likely to experience benefits such as increased employee engagement, decreased training time and minimum turnover compared with their competitors.
Onboarding should not be treated as a one-time event but rather as a strategic and meticulous process of assimilating new team members into a new, meaningful environment and creating a sense of belonging and cultural alignment.
Here are some practical tips to design an effective onboarding strategy that helps eliminate the burnout triggers and gets people excited about joining a new organization and what lies ahead.
Do a Pre-Acquisition Cultural Assessment
Start with a pre-acquisition cultural assessment to better understand the team sentiment, review and confirm your synergies, and identify your short- and long-term staffing needs. Assess the following features of your current organizational culture to understand if you will work well together:
- Decision-making style.
- Leadership style.
- Ability to change (your willingness to take risks, compared with a focus on maintaining the status quo and meeting current goals).
- How people communicate and exchange feedback.
Make sure that people in the practice you are acquiring share your core values; only then will they truly engage with the new organization. Moreover, doing a pre-cultural assessment can help identify and prioritize key changes that need to be made.
Develop an Onboarding Roadmap
According to a study by the Aberdeen Group, an employee takes about six months to make a firm decision to stay with a new company. Therefore, your onboarding strategy should be tailored to that time frame at the very least. The plan should be carefully orchestrated by a cross-functional change-management team, which needs to start working closely with the seller long before the exit to properly communicate what is going on and what the team can expect. Ideally, the team should receive a notice of a forthcoming acquisition once the letter of intent is signed. This is the most sensitive time because the employees’ uncertainty about the future is at its peak.
In addition, developing a comprehensive communications plan that clearly explains the “why” behind the acquisition, what specifically will change (and what will stay the same), and why it matters to your team are essential if you want to avoid taking employees by surprise and inducing burnout across the practice. Some pre-boarding activities can include:
- A series of in-person meetings or welcome videos from the acquiring practice’s core leadership team.
- Q&A sessions explaining your purpose and what the road looks like ahead.
- Welcome packs.
Optimize Your Processes
The technical side of the deal is that employees are usually terminated and then rehired by the buyer, formally making them new hires with all the paperwork that comes with it. Nothing is worse than taking people, already overwhelmed with their full-time jobs, away from their work to fill out a pile of papers for HR. Work overload is a huge burnout trigger that should be eliminated during the transition.
Review your hiring processes and make sure they are as simple as possible, remove all inefficiencies and redundancies, and digitalize and integrate them into your systems. This will also save you time and money going forward. Consider this case study of a Veterinary Integration Solutions client, a multisite veterinary hospital. By replacing a traditional cumbersome paper form with a short digital application, the company gained these tremendous benefits:
- The number of interactions by the accounting department when onboarding new employees to the payroll system decreased from nine to three.
- New hire onboarding request lead time was reduced by 58.66%, from 11 business days to four.
- We calculated that the potential annual savings from this improvement would equal $13,100 for a group of 100 practices, $49,700 for a group of 300 and $177,500 for a 1,000-practice group.
New team members had more convenient and quick access to the payroll system, which eased the stress and frustration during the transition. At the same time, signing new paperwork can be used as an opportunity to outline important policies or procedures the new employee will need to know, verify the employee’s personal information, and simply provide a warm welcome.
Articulate Your Core Values
Socialization and cultural alignment are key to the long-term success of a deal. Recently acquired employees should not only understand your beliefs and organizational culture — in other words, the way you think, make decisions and do stuff — but also how you practice that daily. Posters on the wall or a chapter in the employee handbook are not enough; this should be demonstrated through interactive training with examples of people living the core values or situations where they were practiced. Better than articulating your core values is to weave them into people processes. For example, design interview questions that are aligned to core values to help assess a good fit early on.
Don’t Cut Salaries, Benefits and Freedom
Nothing drives veterinary professionals away more quickly than cutting their pay when they are asked to take on additional responsibilities. Maintain high salaries and generous benefits packages if you want your talented professionals to stick around for long. Refuse to invest in your new workforce and they might quickly desert your practice in search of greener pastures.
Make sure you provide autonomy to the right people, especially those who had autonomy before the acquisition. A former practice owner or senior manager can be trusted to work independently after the practice changes hands. Have trust in their knowledge and skillset, equip them with the tools they need and then get out of the way.
Set Long-Term Goals for Each Employee
Lack of development or being underchallenged, although not among the classic burnout triggers, can pose a serious threat to veterinary professionals due to their high-achieving nature. Our recent study with Veterinary Integration Solutions found that team members who have professional goals report significantly less burnout and felt happier and more valued. It’s important to continue setting goals beyond graduation, so help them plan for the future in your organization, be it additional training, a promotion or an equity stake in the entire business. Having a clear roadmap will fuel motivation, create a sense of safety and ultimately incentivize employees to stay.
Remember to Collect Feedback
Create a true listening environment where employees feel their voice is heard. Solicit feedback and provide tools to share it. Creating regular feedback loops helps eliminate the lack of social justice burnout trigger and facilitates transparency and continuous improvement.
Before the end of the first month, you should be gathering feedback from every team member. Ask about the obstacles they faced during the transition and their current job satisfaction. Ask what they like and don’t like about the transition.
Keep in mind that simply receiving the answers isn’t enough. You should devise solutions to the problems they bring up and implement changes.
Onboarding is a long and complex process that you can’t afford to rush. Change is hard; there is no way around it. However, don’t implement change until you understand that the team is ready for change. Make sure you don’t increase patient flow before you understand the clinic’s new capacity. Neglect any of the above steps and your workforce will soon be depleted. Stand with your new staff members from the onset of the process until they are fully integrated into your practice. That step will yield the best results when onboarding employees.
Here’s what to consider during the integration of a new veterinary practice:
- Develop an onboarding roadmap.
- Talk with your employees about all stages of the acquisition.
- Review and optimize your internal onboarding processes.
- Articulate your core values and practice them regularly.
- Don’t rush the changes until the team is ready.
- Provide autonomy while creating a shared responsibility environment.
- Solicit feedback and provide the tools to exchange it.
- Put your people first and the profits will follow.