Opening Shots columnist Dr. Ernie Ward is an award-winning veterinarian, impact entrepreneur, book author and media personality. When he’s not with family or pet patients, Dr. Ward can be found contemplating solutions during endurance athletics and meditation and on his weekly podcast, “Veterinary Viewfinder.” Learn more at drernieward.com
If you have a question about practice life, personal well-being, leadership or veterinary careers, email firstname.lastname@example.orgRead Articles Written by Ernie Ward
Q: I recently bought the veterinary practice where I’ve worked for five years. Part of the deal was that the previous owner could work part time for three years. Now, however, she’s started openly questioning many of my changes and encourages the team to work late, undermining my efforts to improve job satisfaction and control overtime costs. The staff is confused about who to listen to, and I’m doubting my ideas and ability to be the boss.
A: Sometimes, when the student becomes the teacher, the old teacher doesn’t know when to put down the chalk. If this were any other employee, I bet you wouldn’t hesitate to address the situation immediately. But because the issue here involves the old boss, I can understand your being hesitant to assert your legitimate authority. That’s normal.
Start by critically reviewing your changes. I’ve had plenty of “great ideas” that turned out to be duds during the journey from brain to building. The key to progress is to recognize your missteps early and trek a different path. And don’t underestimate the power of your personal example. For example, if you want to transition from a workaholic culture to a more efficient and healthy workplace, be the change you desire. Self-reflection and correction are the foundation of every great leader’s success.
Next, have a direct conversation with the old boss. Maybe she isn’t aware she’s still in boss mode. Perhaps she’s been in charge so long that she’s having difficulty shifting into “employee.”
This scenario usually plays out in one of two ways:
- The old boss “gets it” and adjusts to associate veterinarian status.
- The old boss resists the loss of power and control, at which point you must make a difficult decision about keeping her. You might have to circumnavigate (or at least negotiate) the contractual conditions by persuading the previous owner that a change will do her good.
Finally, you might need to ask your team members (directly and privately) to focus on their needs and future, not the drama. They need to understand your vision and commitment to improving their lives. Be sure the conversations don’t become “old boss bashes.” The lessons you learn now will prepare you for future dilemmas.
It’s time to pick up the chalk, teacher.
Q: I’m not sure whether my new associate veterinarian was insubordinate. She was assigned a low-cost shelter spay in which we don’t give pre-op blood tests or IV fluids. When she saw the surgery schedule, she loudly announced to the treatment team that she wouldn’t risk a pet’s life to save money. As you can imagine, that divided our team. I ignored the controversy and did the surgery, but I keep hearing the staff talk about it. Any advice?
A: Many clinics offer similar services to provide low-cost veterinary solutions for animal shelters, so I’m not going to question your medical protocols. As far as the new veterinarian’s actions, I agree they are worrying.
I’ve always told my staff members never to do what makes them uncomfortable or what they feel unprepared for. Over the years, I’ve acted on legitimate employee concerns and disagreements. I also learned to immediately and directly address any issue raised. Ignoring staff complaints only fuels confusion and contention.
First, take the veterinarian aside and emphasize that if she objects to a medical protocol, the practice owner or medical director deserves to hear it personally rather than after it’s broadcast to the entire team.
Then, after you explain why your new hire shouldn’t protest in the treatment area, schedule a meeting so she can present her case. Be respectful, reserved and receptive regardless of how much you might disagree. When she is finished, either offer your opinion or ask for time to reflect and process. I typically advise pausing deliberations and truly reviewing what the associate said. Take time to gather supporting evidence for your position, and avoid relying on personal attacks, anecdotes or legacy to form your remonstration.
Finally, be willing to make concessions when warranted. The top reason someone clings to disproven or outdated beliefs and systems is that changing them risks admitting they were wrong to some degree. That’s selfish and can be downright dangerous in some circumstances. The most successful folks are those quick to admit when they can do better.
Hopefully, your associate will recognize that the proven path to change is through open discourse, thoughtful planning and respectful negotiation. However, if the new hire is unwilling to discuss the issue civilly, refuses to participate in a private dialogue with leadership or continues to divide the team with outbursts, she might not be a good fit for your practice.
Q: Lately, I’ve seen my drugs and supplies increase in cost. We’re getting more client complaints about our fees. How can I deal with the price increases without raising my fees even more?
A: I hate to break it to you, but price jumps and inflation are essential elements of a healthy economy. For a little context, annual inflation averaged about 3% during the first five years I owned a clinic in the early 1990s. According to the World Bank, U.S. inflation averaged 1.89% from 2010 to 2020. That means nearly an entire generation of veterinarians entered practice during some of the lowest inflation rates of all time. Today’s rates are worrisome, but we need to understand that they’re part of the normal economic wheel of life. That means our business protocols, pricing strategies and financial coping mechanisms must be based on perpetual price increases rather than on time spent strolling Easy Street. Let me explain.
The most crucial action to take during these times is to tighten your systems. First, review your records to see if you’re missing charges. Numerous surveys over the past 20 years conclude that we miss 5% to 10% of all charges. That adds up to tens of thousands of dollars (or more) in lost revenue, yet our costs remain. To see where you stand, audit 10 to 20 random invoices each month and compare them to the medical records. While checking charges, look for opportunities to provide additional services or products. If you spot errors or omissions, decide how you can adjust your data entry processes, SKU assignments, staff training, or client education and marketing.
Second, control staff overtime. Payroll is your biggest expense, so be sure that “time-plus” isn’t silently sabotaging your profitability. Plus, working too much is bad for personal well-being and can increase staff burnout and turnover.
Next, evaluate your inventory. Too much stuff on your shelves is a drag on cash flow and profit and often leads to theft or loss. Nothing hurts more than counting inventory and discovering you’re thousands of dollars short. I advise conducting a monthly inventory of your top 20 items and counting everything in stock at least biannually.
Finally, frequent, small price increases tend to be better received by clients than sudden big hikes. Be sensitive to exposed fees, especially on widely available drugs and preventives, and focus on revenue generation on services.
Although I don’t believe economics ever gets easier, I know we’ll get through this time as we’ve done in the past.