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The culture conundrum

Building an outstanding organization starts with devoted, empowered leaders who encourage employee camaraderie, team building and plain old fun.

The culture conundrum
“A company culture that facilitates employee happiness means lower turnover and better company performance,” according to one expert.

Salaries and benefits are no longer the raison d’être for attracting and retaining the best clinical and support staff. They are looking for more. More what, exactly, is the question? Work/life balance to be sure. What else?

Relief from the burden of student debt would be high on the list; that shadow is an ever-present reality. The American Veterinary Medical Association reports that 2016 veterinary college graduates who carried educational debt owed an average of $167,535.

“When I graduated from veterinary school, I had finally achieved a lifelong dream to be part of the profession I loved so much, but it came at a high cost,” said Banfield Pet Hospital veterinarian Kirk Breuninger, VMD, MPH, DACVPM. “Like most early career veterinarians, my student debt weighed heavily on me and made financial freedom very challenging.”

Newly graduating veterinary students also want opportunities for continuing professional development and to practice in a well-managed, business-like atmosphere with first-class colleagues who share their values. Add compassion fatigue and 24/7 demands to that list and the veterinary community has a higher hurdle to clear than most industries when it comes to attracting and retaining top-notch talent. Ideally, those students would like to work in a vibrant, desirable geographic area that has good jobs available for spouses.

‘Culture Is Our Guide’

Culture can compensate for situations where the ideal is not possible. What can be done when creating a perfect workplace is a goal but is not possible anytime soon? What kind of environment can you create to attract and retain the industry’s best?

According to Frances Frei and Anne Morriss at Harvard Business Review: “Culture guides discretionary behavior and it picks up where the employee handbook leaves off. Culture tells us how to respond to an unprecedented service request. It tells us whether to risk telling our bosses about our new ideas, and whether to surface or hide problems. Employees make hundreds of decisions on their own every day, and culture is our guide.”

How is the North American Veterinary Community, publisher of Today’s Veterinary Business, doing in the quest for an ideal workplace? In 2018, the Orlando Sentinel selected the NAVC one of the top 100 best workplaces in Central Florida.

“This prestigious award is a solid affirmation that we are doing the right things to nurture and retain our employees,” said NAVC CEO Thomas M. Bohn, MBA, CAE. “People often ask how we have achieved such tremendous growth and impact in the industry and, hands down, I would say it’s 100% about our culture. We hire first and foremost to fit our culture.

“While our corporate strategy is strong, as well as our staff implementation, I believe it is our commitment to the team and the overall culture that provides us with the firepower to achieve great things.”

When Bohn came onboard in 2013, he so admired online retailer Zappos’ company culture that he gave a copy of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s book, “Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose,” to all NAVC employees and asked that they read it before his first staff meeting. He wanted to model Hsieh’s philosophy that Zappos is different because it values being fun and a little weird — daily. Hsieh wrote that he wants the company to have a unique and memorable personality. He believes that Zappos’ success is due in large part to its company culture, where diversity and each person’s individuality is celebrated.

A primary tenet of companies legendary for being outstanding places to work is to hire to fit the culture. The clothing company Patagonia is a prime example. In his book “Let My People Go Surfing,” Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard emphasizes that “If you care about having a company where employees treat work as play and regard themselves as ultimate customers for the products they produce, then you have to be careful whom you hire, treat them right, and train them to treat other people right. Otherwise, you may come to work one day and find it isn’t a place you want to be anymore.”

How the NAVC Does It

What else has been proven to work? Here’s an example that’s close to home. At the NAVC, one of the main drivers of its successful culture is diversity. Most prominently, cognitive diversity or diversity of thought. Chief media and sales officer Laura Walker says that “By having team members of different ages, backgrounds, ethnicities and life experiences in general, we have a richer palette to draw from when developing strategies, telling stories and delivering products.” Much of the organization’s ability to achieve continued success comes from combining each of these diverse perspectives.

Another ingredient in the organization’s secret sauce? Empowerment.

“I feel empowered to make decisions and take risks knowing that our CEO has my back,” Walker said. “I strive to have the members of my team feel the same about me. As a non-profit organization working to support the veterinary community, NAVC makes a real difference, and our efforts ultimately help elevate the level of care for all animals. That gives me much more satisfaction than I have had working at for-profit companies in other industries.”

So why does all this matter anyway? Neil Paten, co-founder of Neil Patel Digital, believes that culture is all about the employees and ensuring that they have an enjoyable and productive working environment.

“In some sense, it’s the glue that keeps the company together,” Paten said. “A company culture that facilitates employee happiness means lower turnover and better company performance. Employees are loyal and companies perform better. It’s a win-win.”

What Leaders Can Do

How can a leader enrich the workplace culture? Here are five innovative ways.

  1. Review where you are now. What’s your workplace desirability quotient? Brainstorm with staff to assess your practice’s and your staff’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. Get consensus. Fine-tune what needs attention.
  2. Pay attention to office chatter and requests for help from employees. What do they want more of and less of? Time off for personal appointments? Flex time? Additional training? Acknowledge any legitimate dissatisfaction and let them know that you understand and that you’ll work to change things when you are able to, that it will be a priority. Then do it.
  3. Invest in smart growth to provide stability and increase revenue that you can share with employees. Expand your practice in areas that will add high-value services that bring in additional revenue. New technology and additional areas of clinical expertise will give your employees the chance to learn and grow. When a practice is successful, it diminishes an employee’s fear of being let go. Talk about the financial health of the practice with staff members so that they will understand and rejoice, or so that they will redouble their efforts to help in meaningful ways. When revenue growth allows, consider increasing salaries or benefits or refreshing the workplace. Maybe give one-time, surprise, on-the-spot bonuses to show your appreciation for their part in your success.
  4. Set the standard for professionalism at all levels. Intervene quickly when a poisonous employee disrupts the office or is rude to clients. If you don’t, others will think the behavior is OK and they will lose respect for you. Be clear with employees about expectations for excellence in their work and their professional demeanor. Be fair about pay and increasing workloads. Give instant, constructive feedback about both poor and great performance. If pet owners become aggressively abusive to staff, get involved and help resolve the dispute. Get known for your positive leadership by assuring your actions are admirable and consistently businesslike.
  5. It’s OK and even good to have fun at work. Encourage camaraderie and team building. Hire people who will fit in and contribute to a positive atmosphere. Invigorate staff meetings by sharing good experiences and techniques for dealing with difficult situations. Acknowledge birthdays and work anniversaries. Let them decorate the lunchroom.

Other Ideas

My 40 years of executive-level business experience helped me to develop fundamentals for building a highly satisfying workplace culture. I share these tips with you.

  • Do meaningful work that transforms into satisfaction and success for pets and their owners, for colleagues and for the practice. Doing work that matters fuels initiative, high performance and passion for purpose among employees.
  • Listen more, and listen more carefully to the staff. Earn an employee’s trust by guaranteeing a culture of safety and inclusion.
  • Serve as a role model for generosity of spirit and a thirst for innovation. Empower employees to offer ideas and changes by encouraging their courage in speaking up in a blame-free atmosphere.
  • Be overtly supportive, compassionate and flexible when an employee is going through a tough time personally. That also applies when employees desire opportunities to learn and grow through professional development.
  • Reduce stress by resolving areas of negativity. Remove systemic obstacles that frustrate enthusiastic, productive employees.
  • Ensure your practice is known for doing meaningful work amid a positive work environment. It boosts loyalty, engagement and performance. When the staff is happier, clients benefit from an enriched customer service.
  • Fairly reward employees through market-competitive compensation, including recognition, pay and benefits.
  • Be clear about expectations.
  • Acknowledge when you give “invisible promotions” — more work with the same pay.
  • Treat everyone with respect.

The NAVC’s Bohn likes to quote Andrew Mason, founder of Groupon, to summarize the secret to a satisfying company culture: “Hire great people and give them freedom to be awesome.”

That’s something to be proud of and something to become known for.

Judy Gray is president of CEOonCall in Tallahassee, Florida. She served as interim CEO of the North American Veterinary Community in 2012 and 2013.

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